Why hating poetry is the best way to love it

BY DUR-E MAKNOON AHMED '20 

My relationship with poetry has always been strange. I grew up reading my mom’s copies of Shakespeare and Robert Browning. As a child, I would watch my parents listen to nationalist poems set to music and debate with each other about meanings and significance of powerful couplets by the eminent Urdu poet Iqbal. In this environment, I subconsciously assumed that I had to love poetry. I would look on at my parents’ debates with each other and would be unable to relate to their passion, the need they felt to discuss poetry and the strengths of their opinions that turned intellectual conversations into quarrels. 

I was too snobbish to express that I was puzzled when I first read Plato’s criticism of poetry in eighth grade. In Book X of “The Republic,” Plato firmly banished poetry from the state, asserting that poets have too much power in influencing people’s emotions. Plato expressed the concern that poetry appeals only to the parts of the human soul that are self-indulgent, prone to self-pity, lamentation and irrational pursuits of desires. According to Plato, a force like poetry that could impress young minds, was too large and harmful to be allowed to freely exist in a sensible republic. I did not understand this. I had never been emotionally moved by a poem, surely never enough to feel like it influenced my character.

Poetry always fell just a little bit short of having a profound impact. There was an irritatingly narrow, but unbridgeable, abyss between what I knew the poem wanted me to feel, and what I actually felt. This was why I hated poetry, instead of settling for feelings like dismissal or weak dislike. I could see the intensity of what I should be feeling, but failing to reach it was frustrating. I did not have the courage to say that poets were overrated failures. Instead, I blamed myself for being too shallow or dim-witted to be able to understand poetry. Every poem I read was a reminder of my lack of sensitivity and perception, and I hated being reminded of that. I never admitted this to anyone and pretended, for the sake of my own sanity, that I loved poetry. Not loving poetry seemed so cold-hearted. I thought, instead of blaming the poets’ lack of skill, that there was something wrong with me because poems did not make me feel strong rushes of emotion. I pretended to love poetry in the hopes that I would be able to really love it one day, because I wanted to reach the passion my parents had, the way my mom would say a poem broke her heart. 

I kept pretending until last year when my literature teacher said she hated poetry. One of the most shocking moments in my life was in her office in high school, after I expressed that I couldn’t wait to start working on poems. “I hate poetry,” she said, simply and flippantly. I had perfected this show of loving poetry so much that all I could do was laugh and ask “Really?” However, she had validated my feelings, and I started accepting my hatred. This was a huge change and I will always be grateful to Mrs. A.

When I started admitting that I thought poets were failing, I stopped blaming myself. Poetry is imperfect, not the reader. My inability to feel all the emotion was not due to my lack of sensitivity or intellect, but the poets’ insistence upon using a restrictive, limited form to express things that are above language. I stopped feeling small when I read poetry and started to enjoy it. 

Admitting the restrictions of poetry also leads to another question, why not move on to novels then, and stop reading poetry? I don’t know. It is useless. When everyone is stressed out and plans each second of their day to be as functional and successful as possible, I like to be a rebel. I do an utterly useless thing, and defy the system that instills the value of functionality in us to keep the cogs of capitalism running. In its useless failure, poetry perseveres because it is always a refreshing rejection of the norm. 

On my journey of hating poetry, I found Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry,” and this book made me realize one more thing. My parents defined love for poetry in the same way that I defined to be hatred. According to Lerner, loving and hating poetry is a full realization that poems have their shortcomings, and poets are just people trying the best they can. The more you realize this, the better you appreciate the strange art that poetry requires, with its silly determination to express powerful things like emotions and dreams in the very limiting restrictions of form, rhyme and language. Loving poetry is not the opposite of hating it, but rather a transcendence of the hatred.

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