For our penultimate meeting of the poetry club, I’m posting not a poem but something about poetry by that oh so wise bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.
“When you are reciting poetry, which is a thing we never do, you find sometimes, just as you are beginning, that Uncle John is still telling Aunt Rose that if he can’t find his spectacles he won’t be able to hear properly, and does she know where they are; and by the time everybody has stopped looking for them, you are at the last verse, and in another minute they will be saying, ‘Thank-you, thank-you,’ without really knowing what it was all about.”
~ from the introduction to Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne
Isn’t that the standard reaction to poetry (if you can get anyone to listen at all) — “Thank-you, thank-you,” with absolutely no comprehension. Perhaps, like dear Uncle John, we need spectacles to hear properly.
Yes, that’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s also true. We can’t read poetry the same way we read a novel. Poetry is like wine. You don’t chug wine, do you? Do you? I hope not.
Poetry is more like tea. You need time to sip and savor, to smell as well as taste. You need the sort of spectacles that allow you to not only read the words but hear them too. Poetry has rhythm and sometimes rhyme. Don’t chug it. Grab your reading glasses and turn up the volume.
If you’re going to love poetry, you might as well start with A.A. Milne. I did. Now We Are Six is the first book of poetry I ever read by myself — a gift from my mother on my sixth birthday. Milne’s other children’s poetry book is When We Were Very Young.
In fact, if you are looking for some spectacles to hear properly, it’s best to start with Pooh, someone who spent a great deal of time writing poetry and hums. Pooh’s hums are actually songs, but since Milne didn’t include musical notes, let’s just call them what they are: poems.
Turn with me to The House at Pooh Corner, to the story “In Which Eeyore Finds the Wolery and Owl Moves Into It.” It contains some of the best poetry advice ever. The story includes Pooh’s longest hum — with seven verses — to commemorate Piglet’s brave deed in the previous story. It took Pooh a while to create this hum because poetry, as he admits, “it isn’t easy.”
“Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”
True, Pooh. You can’t rush poetry.
“Well,” said Pooh after a long wait, “I shall begin ‘Here lies a tree’ because it does, and then I’ll see what happens.”
A very good place to start. Then he composes.
“So there it is,” said Pooh, when he had sung this to himself three times. “It’s come different from what I thought it would, but it’s come.”
Poems often come differently from what you thought, and those are usually the best poems. A good poem often surprises the reader. In this case, the reader is Piglet.
So Pooh hummed it to him, all the seven verses and Piglet said nothing, but just stood and glowed.
Never before had anyone sung ho for Piglet (PIGLET) ho all by himself. When it was over, he wanted to ask for one of the verses over again, but didn’t quite like to. It was the verse beginning “O gallant Piglet,” and it seemed to him a very thoughtful way of beginning a piece of poetry.
Yes, it was thoughtful, wasn’t it? That line is actually the beginning of verse 5, so you see, sometimes you have to work your way up to something as grand as “O gallant Piglet (PIGLET)! Ho!”
But gallant Piglet soon spies a problem in this seven-verse hum. He was there, after all, and it didn’t all happen exactly like Pooh said. Piglet asks the eternal question: Should poems tell the truth? Or, as he puts it,
“Did I really do all that?” he said at last.
Pooh has the best answer on truth in poetry that I’ve ever heard.
“Well,” said Pooh, “in poetry — in a piece of poetry — well, you did it, Piglet, because the poetry says you did. And that’s how people know.”
There you have it. It’s true because the poetry says so.