Preface: I really, really suck at reading poetry. And I mean REALLY. As in, 90% of the time, I can’t understand a word I read. Several years ago, I started a project to try to improve my poetry-reading skills, and to finally find some poetry I actually enjoyed. While I managed to do the latter (Sonnets from the Portuguese and If Not, Winter), I never did get any better at comprehension. Since then, I haven’t tried much to read more poetry, and as of Queen Mab, my post-blogging poetry count remains pitifully under twenty. Ah well.
A few years back, right around my same poetry-attempting era, Jason mentioned that he wanted to read Queen Mab, and I bought him a collection of Shelley’s poetry that included it. In mid-January, we decided to read through it together over the course of several weeks, with Jason reading aloud, and stopping periodically to explain to me what was going on. (Again, I only understand about 10% of the time!) Queen Mab is relatively short – just under 60 pages – and is broken into nine cantos. We read 1-2 cantos per week.
Sadly, I cannot say that my comprehension improved much over time. There were certainly areas where I understood more/better, but mostly, Jason was explaining things to me pretty consistently as we went along. This means that I understood the general gist of things, but none of the finer intricacies of the poem. For example: At one point, Jason mentioned the significance of a particular repetition and rhyme, and Shelley’s use of repetition or rhyme to emphasize something important. I hadn’t even realized there’d been a rhyme or a repetition. Yeah.
So I didn’t pick up much in the way of subtlety, sadly. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting to, and I did understand a certain amount of Shelley’s messages in Queen Mab, most likely because he was extremely heavy-handed with them. Shelley was militantly anti-religion, anti-money, anti-law, pro-vegetarianism, pro-anarchy, and pro-free-sexual-expression. Throughout this philosophical poem, Queen Mab takes a pure and virtuous spirit through a journey of man’s past, present, and future, decrying all the things Shelley believed caused corruption of the soul, and then promising a future where mankind breaks free of everything that corrupts him and becomes immortal perfection, in harmony with the world around him.
I…didn’t agree with most of what Shelley put forth, and I had a few Disney Princess moments when he described how all the animals would flock without fear to be man’s friend in paradise, but honestly, I didn’t go into this poem in order to learn/debate philosophy. I knew upfront that Shelley and I disagreed on many points, and I’d heard that he claimed Queen Mab to be an uneven, heavy-handed poem that he thought was one of the lesser of his works. I didn’t go in trying to read something great – I went in trying to read something at all. Did I enjoy Queen Mab? Not particularly. I rarely enjoy poetry. On the other hand, I enjoyed the experience of reading it, the experience of Jason reading to me and helping me to understand, even if at the end I’m still a poetry-dummy. I’m also glad to have finally read something by Shelley. Despite our very different viewpoints, I’ve wanted to experience his poetry ever since reading a lot by/about Lord Byron back in 2011. I feel I’m a (slightly) less ignorant person now for having done so.
I learned to appreciate poetry somewhat in one of my undergraduate courses. Note that this happened even though the professor made me cry when she essentially told me my interpretation of something we read in class was dead wrong.
I definitely like the *concept* of poetry—lofty ideas squeezed into small spaces!—but I find myself having the same problem of going, “Huh?” every few verses. Maybe we’re both missing some fundamental comprehension gene. 😀
I’m glad you were able to take away something positive from your reading! Do you think you’ll give more poetry a shot?
Jason tells me that I just need to try a lot more. I just think I’m so much of a grammar nerd that the awkward phrasing in poetry kills me every time, and I lose track of what the poet is trying to say.
I’m sure I’ll read more poetry in the future, but I imagine I’ll continue to be very picky about it, and that mostly it’ll be academic exercises rather than for pleasure.
Some poetry I absolutely love and could read repeatedly. Other poetry I’m like WTF is even the point of that? I think you might like more straightforward poetry with out a lot of flourishes. Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes. You might try Concrete Poetry or Found Poetry. It really might be the type of poems more than poetry itself.
I don’t know. I’ve tried some of that kind, too, and mostly it sounds silly to me. I think I just don’t get it…