By Kim Addonizio on 4.20.09
When I first read Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” I didn’t understand it. I was blown away, and I didn’t know why. “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?”—those are the last lines of the poem. After reading them, I felt as though an electric current was running through me. I didn’t know what certain words in the poem meant, like “Hippocrene.” I didn’t know exactly what Keats was saying about hearing this bird singing, or why, at one point, he wrote about wanting to die. Later, I memorized that poem because I loved it so much. As I memorized and reread it, more of its meanings unfolded.
I understood the desire of the speaker to move out of himself and join the nightingale, to die into its seemingly timeless aria. Yet the poem still holds mystery for me—the mystery of what it was saying has become the mysterious nature of life itself, something I am brought back to each time I read the poem. (Related: Robert Pinsky reads “Ode to a Nightingale”)
You don’t have to understand something to be affected by it.
If you’re new to reading poetry, don’t worry if you don’t get it. You’ll get parts of the poem, and not others. Reading a poem several times helps. So does reading it aloud. Memorizing is even better. And once you know a few poems by heart, there will be occasions to say them. I have recited poems to bartenders and cabdrivers, to lovers and partygoers and bookstore audiences, to mourners at funerals. When I play tennis with a poet friend, we shout lines back and forth across the court. By taking poems into your body, you will get closer to them.
Books of poetry will teach you more than your mentor or professor of the well-known poet you have traveled to a conference to work with. Reading is like food to a writer; without it, the writer part of you will die—or become spindly and stunted. If you’re afraid that reading will make you less original, don’t be. Falling under the spell of—or reacting against—other writers is part of what will lead you to your own work. Reading in the long tradition of poetry shows you what has lasted, and those poems are there to learn from. Reading your contemporaries shows you what everyone else is up to in your own time, so you can map the different directions of the art. There’s never one route to poetry, one style. Reading widely will help you see this.
Here is a sobering statistic: Poetry, which has been for many years one of the premier poetry journals in America, has about ten thousand subscribers. Every year, it receives ten times that many submissions from writers hoping to land a poem in its pages. That’s a hundred thousand people, writing!
Are they reading? Possibly. Maybe they’re not subscribing to Poetry because they’re spending their money on books by Neruda and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser and Derek Walcott. But in fact, a large number of people who want to write poetry don’t seem to like to read it. Many journals have a circulation of a few hundred copies, and poetry books sell dismally compared to fiction or memoir: the first print run is usually one or two thousand copies.
Maybe you’re one of those people who writes poems, but rarely reads them. Let me put this as delicately as I can: If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.
I can’t stress this point enough: You need to soak up as many books as you can. Even the ones you don’t like can teach you something. If you were a painter, you’d spend time looking at works of art from every period in history. A chef I know, whenever he travels, eats enough for three people—he wants to sample all the dishes. Boxers study the great fights of the past, like the Ali-Forman “Thrilla in Manila.” Marketers look at the successes of past products to try to duplicate those successes. Poetry isn’t a product in that way, but you can see what I mean. Read. Imitate shamelessly. Steal when you can get away with it. T. S. Eliot said, “Good poets imitate. Great poets steal.”
So read. Let other writers teach and inspire you. Unless you really want your writing to suck.
Editor’s Note: This essay is an abridged excerpt from the first chapter of Kim Addonizio’s new book, Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. Here is a video with more on the book from Kim: