This month’s blog is by BPS member Natalie Fraser. She can be found on Instagram @thedeepriverdreamer.
Have you ever struggled to understand a poem?
You read it once. Twice. After the third reading, not understanding what the poet is trying to say, you cast it aside, grumbling that it’s indecipherable – or worse. But then, when you mention the poem to poetry-loving friends, their faces light up and they immediately extol its virtues, elaborating on how it moved them to tears. WTF?, you think, nodding your head, not wanting to admit the poem completely baffled you.
How much you appreciate a poem depends, in part, on how you relate to its opacity – its accessibility – how easy it is to grasp its theme. The appreciation of opacity in poetry varies from person to person, culture to culture and even era to era.
Once upon a time schools required pupils to memorize poems. Forced to stand in front of the class and recite poems such as Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, or Paul Revere’s Ride, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, students trembled in fear and stumbled through the lines. Some pupils appreciated the poems for the rest of their lives. But it remains debatable as to whether memorization helped the average student to penetrate the opacity of the poem.
The works of the master poet-playwright, Shakespeare, are classically opaque, with fresh meanings and interpretations to be discovered with every reading. People experiencing his language for the first time often begin with a fear of its opacity that diminishes, and then disappears as their delight in the story takes over. Many high school students roll their eyes in dismay when told they must study Shakespeare’s work, but then discover that they actually like it. His compelling universal themes continue to reflect the angst of life today, hundreds of years after he wrote about them, but first readers must pierce the veil of opacity – or even just their fear of opacity – before finding the treasures within.
Instapoetry lies on the other side of the spectrum. Its low opacity makes it instantly accessible. It showcases very short, personal, uplifting poems, often with illustrations or photography. Superstar Instapoet Rupi Kaur, a Canadian born in India, rose to fame in 2013 by sharing her illustrated poems on Instagram and Tumblr. Her debut book, “Milk and Honey” appeared on bestseller lists for over a year and sold over three million copies. Her very short, easy to understand poems and winsome illustrations appeal to people trying to make sense of a confusing and complicated world. Her popularity continues, along with many other Instapoets.
Some may deride the simplistic nature of Instagram poetry. But its low opacity level and easy accessiblity work to capture the imagination of young people today, who must struggle with love in the age of Tinder and jobs in a time of outsourcing – and a pandemic – as well as finding their way in a world ruled by social media. The constant, exhausting connection to social media and its accompanying pressures leads many to yearn for simplicity; and they may find that an easy, short, and uplifting poem restores their souls faster than more complex poetry.
While the appreciation of poetry’s opacity varies from person to person and age to age – from Shakespeare and Longfellow to Kaur and Instagram – poetry continues to move us and to help us make sense of our world.