On Reading and Writing Poetry

This is a blog post on my love for poetry and my fear of writing it.

When it comes to writing, there is nothing I am more afraid of than poetry. I write essays and reportings and academic papers, proposals and pitches. I write blog posts and morning pages (What’s that, you wonder? Unpaid link). I write birthday speeches, postcards, letters, emails and workshop concepts. Newspaper articles, thesis and lines for the radio, shopping lists, guided meditation scripts and facebook messages. I keep countless notebooks for the different compartments of my life, I write short stories and even longer ones. But I have never dared to write poetry.

Yet I love reading it. Poetry came naturally to me as a child. Like many children, I learned all sorts of poems, songs, riddles and prayers. Before I could read I fell in love with spoken language, memorising lyrics and lines and learning them by heart. One of my favourite word games was to say a word many times aloud, until it sounded weird and magical in my ears.

Then came poetry-absent years, full of arrogance and teenage misery, in which I was high on world news and pitied everyone who wrote verse.

I found my way back to poetry eventually, discovering that it simultaneously could serve as a band-aid and a deep time refuge. Poetry has softened my belly and made my heart tender. Tender towards other people, tender towards the natural world, and a little more sensitive towards myself. Poems often radically change my perspective and allow me to experience someone else’s world, they alert me to my own imagination, how vast it is, how beautiful, how dark at times. On the other hand, poetry has made me more resilient and ready to act. To be moved and to move: two waves, rolling onto the same shore. In poetry, everything and everybody is alive, thus cutting through binary oppositions of how we perceive the world. I love this quality of animacy in language, and even animacy in grammar, in the very way that we hear voices and see people through reading letters on a page.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote The lost glove is happy, and instantly his abandoned, lost glove becomes alive. It is not only alive but happy, it has a life of its own, freed of its obligation to warm a hand. I see the lost glove dancing down the street, I see it becoming a shelter for bugs and meeting other interesting folks, like lost beanies and scarves.

Art as immediate communication

Art, says the Finnish art educator Meri-Helga Mantere, has a way of enabling us to perceive the world through the heart. She speaks about art in general, but I experience this particularly by reading poetry. The myriad of observations, meditations, pledges, requiems or declarations, written in verse, by other people and across the centuries, never fails to move me. Somehow, poetry has the power to sidestep the cognitive highways of my brain. These, I must declare, are places of constant synapse jam and entanglement, they are overcrowded and loud and genuinely unpleasant to spend time in. Like a Los Angeles 14-lane freeway, pre-Corona times. Poetry knows better and cuts its way through the underwood.

By the way, poetry loves metaphor, and so do I. Apologies to Susan Sontag.

Having said all this, it would seem only natural to turn to writing poetry as well, especially if you think you have something to say. Poetry is an interesting point of departure, if you seek to change the way you think and move through the world. “I rhyme in order to know what I do not already know“, writes the Swedish scholar and poet Fredrik Nyberg.

The words of others

But this is exactly where the problem starts, and it is three-fold. First, I was trained to be a critic of culture and literature, and as such I am supposed to know, not dwell in the not-knowing. Poetry, on the other hand, often starts from a place of not-knowing, or not-yet-knowing. Poems are allowed to be everything and everyone or no one, they are allowed to raise more questions than to provide answers. They are not fixed to a narrative arc, to sense-making and conventional meaning. Essentially, they do what they please.

Second, as a critic, I am expected to have sophisticated opinions on books and films, or on the state of the world. It is my job to write about the beauty of other people’s work, sometimes about the awfulness of it too. In order to do that, one has to stick to a certain language that doesn’t interfere. The journalist is not the artist, and neither is the scholar. To mistake the two spheres is to be unprofessional or worse, vain.

And third, even if I know how to separate those spheres and keep different notebooks for my compartmentalised writing (imaginative writing in the blue one, academic writing in the green, everything else in computer files or on the back of my hand), my inner critic is always alert. She is sleep deprived, high on caffeine and in a terrible mood. Her name is Miss Miriam, and her sadism puts every censor to shame. She constantly shakes her head and cries out „My goodness!“, while sipping champaign out of a flower vase. Sometimes there’s another voice in my head that goes by Vladimir (not related to the other Vladimir of this text). Vladimir wears a white scarf and looks at me with the expression of an artist whose taste has been handcuffed, stuffed in a garbage bag and overrun by a truck.

How can I ever have the courage and determination to write anything against the backdrop of this three-folded predicament? No word can ever be good enough, no stance stands a chance. It’s all garbage, it’s good to wrap a fish in and to start a fire.

To find room for some “spacious contemplation“

And then I realised: I am judging my own wobbly first attempts of writing poetry against other people’s award-winning work. If I was an aspiring filmmaker I would judge my first short movie, that I hoped would get me into film academy, against an Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg. When all along, I should have gone back to the archives and unearth Stevie’s first short movie (I spent some time looking but couldn’t find anything, which probably says it all).

Most people’s creative spirit requires a certain milieu to flourish, a compost pile to thrive on.
But academia and journalism need a different environment. It took me some time to understand that these environments are counterproductive or outright deadly to the tender poet.

The lovely UK-based poet Linda France writes that her poetry requires a form of spacious contemplation in order to emerge. To create room for this spacious contemplation is a task I have assigned myself to these days. I hope to report back from the compost pile in a little while.

The image in this post was shot by my friend, the talented Flora Kofler. You can see her profile on IG: floora.u

4 Replies to “On Reading and Writing Poetry”

  1. Mit dem Google-Translater komme ich einigermaßen durch 🙂 … danke für die Tiefe, die sich am Telefon so nicht einstellen kann. Andreas


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.