How does a reader of poetry develop a taste?
In college, the exposure to new poets was immaculate. Unreal.
I used to descend into the basement of my college’s library and pick off books of poetry at random. Or if I was in class and a professor mentioned a writer, the library helped fill in the gaps.
Opening to a new page of an old book and thinking to myself, suddenly, I’ve just understood something for the first time. And there is the feeling, leaving the library, that the people around me are a massive stirring of discovery and unknowing, and that I had a private something to share.
Literacy is always shared, and I’ve got a little somethin’-somethin’ to share. The other night, a good thing happened.
It was as if I had walked to the back of a restaurant in a neighborhood I knew well and had a meal with someone new whose demeanor and charm and excellence both allured me and challenged me, made me wonder how I had been brought to this square table, with these forks and plates and napkins with a person who for so long I didn’t know existed. For all these years.
And then an old lover walks in.
And I had to explain not just to the old love, but to myself, that I had met someone.
In this analogy, I was out to lunch with Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Rewinding the story a little, I found myself at the website poet.tips. Poet Tips compares poets and gets user feedback to make better suggestions in the future, functioning like Pandora to discover tastes. Like Pandora, you start with an artist you like and other artists are recommended based on your tastes. If something sounds right to you, you say thumbs up. If not, not. But also like Pandora, the artists you expect to see on poet.tips excite you nowhere near as much as the ones you’ve never heard of.
I had just written an article about Anthony Hecht’s book, Flight Among the Tombs. I’m selective about the books I review, but I was needing something new and had a late night appetite for randomness.
So I started with Anthony Hecht. And there was Richard Wilbur with his big glasses. And there was WH Auden puffing on a cigarette, eyeing Achilles and an almanac. I recommended AE Stallings, as users can add in new poets they think other readers would enjoy.
But I wanted to go deeper. Hecht’s poem about Matthew Arnold came to mind, “The Dover Bitch”. So, hey, I looked up Arnold.
I browsed the list and just beneath Robert Browning was Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Poet Tips has grown to over 30,000 poets and tips. See more stats.
Users can click the information icon, and follow a link to the poet’s work. It may be The Poetry Foundation, and sometimes it’s just Google. I got sent to the Poetry Foundation, and chose “The Rights of Women”:
Thy rights are empire, urge no meaner claim,–
Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost;
Like sacred mysteries, which withheld from fame,
Shunning discussion, are revered the more.
Barbauld was an English Romantic poet. Felt, not defined, and if debated, lost. How magical a sentence.
Poet Tips also creates webs of writers to help show connections.
Arnold would have followed the Romantics and shows a more boyish oration. Here he gets going in “Dover Beach”:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
In college, I never heard Barbauld mentioned once, and not from lack of trying. I think I strived to make feminist literature, culture and theory a part of my lifestyle and collegiate itinerary. I didn’t know her as a poet once praised by Mary Wollstonecraft, nor had I heard about the cruel criticism spit out by male writers, like Arnold, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. She didn’t vanish, she was only very far away.
These distances from the past are the early steps to forgetfulness. The goal of poet.tips, as I’ve experienced it, is to help close these gaps. In these two excerpts, I wonder if there is anything similar about these poets at all. The rhetoric is different, the drama and ironies of the poets, their respective wildness.
It circles back to the original question of, how do we form our tastes as poets and readers?
- Is it from ideas, or poets joined by time periods and similar syntax?
- Is it the fall of a line break?
- Are we just expressing gratitude for how much there is to read?
Have you had an experience where you very unexpectedly fell in love with a poet? Please share it in the comments. I’m also curious to know who else has spent some time reading Anna Laetitia Barbauld. I’d love to know how you came to first read her.