The Arrogance of the Philistine

I'm a philistine. I'm not necessarily proud of this, but I'm a philistine all the same.

I simply find it difficult to connect to, say, the visual arts or poetry in the same way that I connect to prose or music - especially music.

My wonderful boyfriend is planning on entering the National Poetry Competition, which is a really huge fucking deal, and asked me for critiques on the poems (I think this is a bad idea because I don't consider myself a particularly great judge of poetry; more on this later). I browsed about fifty poems, from first prize winners to commendations. I pored through fifty poems by some of the most promising poets worldwide.

Precisely one touched me. Out of fifty poems by the cream of our literary crop, I would have come back to only one of them - Hill Speak by Zaffar Kunial, if you must know. This is because for all that I'm coarse and unappreciative of the fine art of poetry, wrought by pointed hand, I really love all the little details of a language.

Now, I don't know if I simply have difficulty connecting to poetry or if it's down to the judges' choices, but either way there is a significant disconnect between me and the poetic arts.

I suppose it comes down to this: poetry has a reputation. Not just any reputation, but a reputation stretching back to the days when few people knew how to read and words held power. A reputation stretching back to the days when history was transmitted through song and poets were prophets too. A reputation which has held fast and true through millennia. As such, poetry is treated as something almost mystical, the end product of turning meaningless strings of syllables into something meaningful in many places. People who can do this are special.

...As you can probably tell, I'm not one of the people who can do this. Hell, I can't even use words properly - I spoonerise, I forget words (sometimes for days at a time), and my brain operates on mathematics before it operates on any other language.

So to me, with my weird brain, poetry doesn't look mystical. It looks like a jumble of words thrown together. From my perspective, I want to evaluate the jumble of words for meaning, sound and colour (I'm a synaesthete - letters have colours in my head). To make this clear: to me, poetry is not necessarily a deep reflection on the human condition. To me, poetry is an elaborate game played with words. (I also completely disregard the author's interpretation when forming my own. Relax, it's fine - this has been around since New Criticism, if not long before.) It's up to me to decide if the game board and pieces look nice, sound nice, or indeed have any actual meaning. (I'm very much a rugged individualist at heart. Sorry, everyone.)

This is why I'm terrible at reading poetry: most of the time, I just don't get it. Instead of looking like a work of verbal art or a journey into the depths of the soul, it looks like a string of words carelessly jammed together. It doesn't inherently have any meaning to me - only what I decide it might have.

Neither do I think that poets uniquely understand their subject matter. In fact, when writing about specialist subjects the poet will often be at a disadvantage and might have to consult with someone. (I'm doing a physics degree. For me, reading a phrase used wrongly is not academic - it feels like somebody using bad grammar or spelling to sound more intelligent, or like somebody trying to play a violin solo by pushing their instrument through a steamroller. It's completely dissonant.) More than that, I really am an arrogant brat - I consider every human on earth equal. And while I might not have a poet's talent with words, I think we understand the world about as well. If I see no understanding there but obscurantism.

I'd like to be able to turn this part of my brain off and appreciate poetry and poets like a normal person, but so far I haven't found the kill switch. Sometimes your unicorn is just a horse.