Friday, April 19, 2013

Understanding Poetry

      Actually, the title is not accurate. It would be, had I written "Reading to Understand the Meaning of Words in Contemporary Poetry." In fact, the fuller title is really what this Post is about.

     I've been immersed in reading a waist-high stack of modern poets––poets alive, poets young (some not), poets of laureate fame, and poets approaching the dawn of their fame.
     I pride myself on my vocabulary, and delight in discovering a good, challenging word. I keep a book for those words. I take pride that Latin was a core subject in twelve years of my early education, and still know to break down the prefix/root/suffix to move closer to a word's meaning. I enjoy stringing infinite word possibilities into my own writing. I love words, which is why Word P'rade is a tab in this Blog.
     However, I am confused by some contemporary poetry. Most often it's a word(s) that trips me. Once that happens, I falter with the imagery and remainder of the poem as I sort out the problem of word meaning(s). I value the malleability of the English language. Ditto for the artistic liberties that poetry brings to the table. But I'm left to wonder how some words I encounter are strange or are little used. It's become a handicap for me in reading the works of some poets.
     My reasoning is: if the purpose of language, written or spoken, is to make oneself understood, why use a word, for example appetence, in a poem. If the poet insists on its use, perhaps a footnote might offer insight (appetence n: 1. strong desire or instinct; 2. craving), but that's an impossibility. Still, with that example, what impact could the poet hope to achieve, if the reader has to stop reading to distill meaning from a word(s) before fetching the dictionary, and then shrugs with a muttered, "Okay, now where was I." It's this poetic factor that makes poetry hard to recommend.
     It could be argued that writers/poets are artists, and as such are tired of using easy-to-intermediate, even stale, words. It could also be argued that uncommon words keep poetry vibrant.
     Imagery, form, simile, metaphor, tone, content and personification are artistic tools of a poet. One joy for reading or writing poetry is the "work" involved in stretching the horizons of mind and soul. A poet can chose to use words that most people use every day as they experience life through work, love, play, celebration, grief, and entertainment thereby leaving more time and mental acuity to explore a poem's meaningful content.
     In the end, a poet is defined by his or her chosen words just as a poem itself is defined by its chosen words.
I've read some people feel that poetry has to be endured. They, as readers, feel limited. Artistic complications aside, I wondered if arcane words might be a contributing factor to this alienation. Do you have any thoughts on this? I would really love to know.