Anyone that gets a rudimentary education in the Western world, or at least in the places I know anything about, is taught that poetry is like vitamins – it’s good for you. It’ll enlighten your mind, make you more aware of your emotions, your sensibilities, the entire scope of your inner life. It is the “highest of art forms” – so sublime that it can hardly be viewed with human eyes, read with human brains. It’s extremely difficult to understand and just to grasp the littlest bits of it requires a life-long commitment.
While none of this is necessarily untrue, the same argument could as easily be applied to rock’n’roll, to movies – to the whole boatload of “popular culture” that we (as a society) simultaneously love and loathe. Many of the so-called simple songs of the Eurovision Song Contest are in fact complex constructions that meld super-produced pop-genres with ethnic music, the history of which reaches thousands of years into the past of participating countries. And yet you’ll never hear anyone say they didn’t quite “understand” the Armenian song – that its use of musical intricacies simply left you baffled. Very few people ask of pop-music that it should be simpler, or that movies should not have so many jump-cuts, should not be shot from weird angles or with unnatural camera movements. Quite the contrary, we’ve completely embraced all of popular-culture’s complexities, so much so that they’ve become utterly mundane – we don’t even notice them without a conscious effort to do so.
And yet, when it comes to literature in general, and poetry in particular, most people’s first reaction is to not “understand” it – giving up before you’ve tried is the name of the game – no matter how often poets and writers try to emphasise that you are in fact not meant to “understand” it. This is one of the problems of making art with and through language, a medium we first and foremost see as a vehicle for information – it’s what we use to communicate our thoughts. It’s how I tell you that I’m hungry, how you give me directions, and so forth. But poetry doesn’t work like that. Ludwig Wittgenstein (a practitioner of that other “difficult” art: philosophy) once said: “Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information.”
This misunderstanding is also why so many poems of poets that don’t read much poetry have more to do with anecdote or lineated prose, than they have to do with poetry – I feel like this [insert metaphor-cliché] and then I feel like that [insert metaphor-cliché] – and even more experienced poets often don’t seem able (or willing) to ever stray from the realm of the metaphor, the most basic of poetic tools (metaphor is to poetry, as 4/4 is to rock’n’roll).
In this manner, a lot of the poetry that people find “difficult” can seem to be very simple ditties to anyone who spends time reading it. The juxtaposition of one pretty image with the next, jumping between the lilies of the ponds – it’s not rocket science, and it’s not cross-word puzzles (i.e. you’re NOT supposed to “solve” it – it doesn’t “mean”, it is “mean”). It’s Layla, A Hard Day’s Night – but it’s also Das Wohltemperierte Clavier, Atari Teenage Riot, African tribal music and Mack the Knife. You can have your pick of the litter.
Imagine for a minute that your experience of poetry was the same as your experience with music, that it was everywhere – that there was no way of escaping it. Literacy of poetry, like literacy of pop-music, movies etc. is an acquired skill and “complex” is a very relative term. It’s of note that the more anyone listens to music, the more complex their taste becomes; the less anyone listens to music, the more mainstream their taste. The same goes for poetry.
The bottom-line is this: poetry is not vitamins, and you’re not going to shrivel up and die if you don’t get regular doses of it. It’s not (necessarily) any more difficult than pop-music. And you don’t need it. You can, I’m sure, live a very decent life without it. I’ve seen it done. And although you’ll miss out on the fun, and that never killed anyone.