Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Effort Required?
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” ― William Styron, Conversations with William Styron
Reading poetry can be especially exhausting. It isn’t a passive activity. To be appreciated it demands your undivided attention, and paying attention requires effort. It isn’t like the music from some ‘Easy Listening’ radio station playing in the background as you go about your business.
The language of poetry is demanding.
When students are introduced to the great poetry of the past, the language puts them off. I’ve had many students tell me they had to read Shakespeare in high school, and just don’t see what’s the big deal with him. The English language has changed a lot since the 17th century, and it requires substantial and sustained effort to read something in what seems like a foreign language. I tell them that it’s worth the effort, like most things with substantial rewards. You don’t win a sports competition by taking it easy.
Much contemporary poetry may seem just as foreign as archaic English, for many readers are not accustomed to the use of language that often is without a readily discernable logic. The reaction is similar to the only too common reaction to contemporary non-representational visual art. Accustomed to an immediately recognizable external referent (e.g., a person or a landscape), they are quick to dismiss it as not really art and not worth their attention.
And, finally, poetry is exhausting even when it is appreciated, because the experience of it is emotionally exhausting. Anything that successfully taps into our deepest emotions is bound to be. But, then, who regrets feeling emotionally drained after falling—or making—love?