Want to improve your communication, empathy and understanding? Read poetry.
18 October, 2021 - 9 min read
Want to improve your communication, empathy and understanding? Read poetry.
We all might remember having to briefly read some poetry in junior high, or pour over some bleeding rhymes in high-school, and if you're from the states, you are likely to have read Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.
Of the many critiques I have with the education system, the biggest one is the way that concepts, forms and individuals are presented. Shakespeare mostly being read in a dry way from his Julius Cesar play, not really cutting deep into the complexities of the history, how Billy plays around with it, or that the infamous line "et tu Brute?" was said by the real Cesar in Greek, not Latin, to Brutus who was very likely his real son.
Through to Romeo and Juliet, that's written in the tempo, form and setup as a comedy, and fluidly changes mid dialogue between prose and poetry depending on who's talking.
Both being examples of what could have been captivating, but is better left to the machinist form of our schooling, preparing us for a test and not a deeper truth who's payoff is likely never to come, or never to come to mind when it does.
Which brings me to a broader point, and one I must admit comes through a spark of inspiration and insight during an episode of In Our Time on 'Shakespeare's Work', about said 1600 playwright. move to the 7min mark if the link doesn't do it for ya.
"..listen to the way we speak in real life. We don't speak prose in real life, we speak in intensely suggestive and extraordinarily mysterious language, which has got to be interpreted with a great deal of other assistance." - Germaine Greer
I'm going to do my best to translate that rather plainly. I'll even stick to the example used in the episode.
Two acquaintances are walking down the street. They nod to one another, and as they pass merrily and smiling, say, "howdy!" to which the other responds, "howdy!" before quickening their pace and continuing on.
Forgiving my cowboy dialogue, a lot was just packed into that interchange and none of it was explicitly said. What was communicated, was, "Hello, nice to see you, I haven't the time to stop and chat as I'm quite in a hurry, but it's pleasant seeing you I hope you're doing well."
If you think I'm stretching a scenario too far I ask you to recollect to the times you would spend in an office, and as you're late for a meeting or wishing to get to a conference room in time to steal a good spot on the round, had a similar exchange.
Or at another time, how frustrating it can be when an individual isn't picking up on your subtle hints of how badly you want to get out of the conversation.
enter the work of understanding
Us Sapiens are highly complicated, contradictory and symbolic beings. We rarely think of ourselves that way because of how quantifiable our daily lives have become.
Costs for this and that, time it takes to do or get here or there, when will I get this, 2 day shipping, $3.50 gas and how long until Christmas?
In this mad scramble to quantify all that surrounds us, we have lost how little in our day to day conversations is actually easily understood. For a moment, pause and recall how many times in conversation with a friend, partner or colleague, time was spent wondering what another person was actually saying, meaning or trying to get across when they spoke.
There's a lot of them huh?
All of this speaking, interpreting, understanding takes a massive amount of effort that we passively do, and like fish swimming in water, we forget the medium in the motion of life.
good 'ole Walt
If I haven't lost you by now dear reader, here's the meat of this idea. Poetry can be defined by many things and truly is a medium that has many meanings depending on who's responding. But within all of them is this truth, I believe.
Poetry is an abstract expression of someone's reality, for a moment suspended in time.
Now not to get to into what is reality or the quantum nature of it all, I'm going to plainly say that reality exists in many conflicting and complicated ideas occurring at once. One can be happy with a promotion, while sad to leave their current team and fearful if they can preform up to the new level.
Back to that interpretation of an individual in a meeting, that person could have outwardly been expressing approval, while truly expressing displeasure and disappointment with the work product.
Or, to quote Walt Whitman who's put it far better than I ever could;
"You say I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself, for I exist in multitudes."
Suspended in time
Think of a fond memory that you have, nothing too gleeful or painful, just something that's fond. To give you some fodder, I'm presently thinking of a weekend I spent in the Plateau Mountains in San Diego, and more specifically, when I took my dog out for her morning walk.
The two of us saw the sun rise up over the mountain top that was but the next ridge from our path. The sun's rays crested up before the glowing ball popped up over them, and for a moment, all of time was suspended.
I'll never forget the bulging eyes my dog had, fixated on the mountain top as the light changed more colors and got brighter still. It would've been a hell of a moment if I was alone, but somehow seeing it with my dog, and seeing how she was experiencing it, made it all the more...poetic.
Thinking about that moment, or yours, surely arises all kinds of emotions within, and interpretations therein. It's in those moments that words truly fail as symbols, but can rise to the challenge if they're constructed with just the right amount of subtle conflict.
What also helps describing those moments, or even how to better express oneself when giving a presentation or trying to persuade another on a course of action, is a proper vocabulary quiver. When you can pull out just the right symbolic phrase.
If one, such as this dear reader, merely picked up a single poem a week, I can guarantee you this result.
your vocabulary will grow
your understanding of the human condition will deepen
from that confusing dance with the author to interpret their meaning, interpreting others will improve
you will start to understand how others feel more intensely
an ability to express yourself, your ideas, concepts and persuasion will increase
you just might start seeing reality differently
Poetry isn't some wonder tool, it's a complicated effort in a complicated world. But that's it though! We live in a complicated world that's poorly quantifiable, so why not embrace it and challenge yourself to something new.
I'll provide a list of some poems I enjoy and go back to frequently. Though, I encourage you to join a poetry subreddit, follow a twitter account, medium writer or just buy a compilation of poems, or a book from an author on thriftbooks to casually thumb through. And just perhaps, you'll be able to fully understand the expression on the street, "Howdy!"
poems to get ya started
Still I Rise By Maya Angelou - one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets. Maya Angelou is a wealth of wisdom and I've always found this poem to have a particular way to push through any of life's challenges.
A Dream Within a Dream By Edgar Allan Poe - Some find him dark, but Poe is illuminous nonetheless. America's only real romantic poet, and this poem in particular might have you think twice about what we see when we're awake. If we truly are awake.
Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes-- Thought provoking, honest, historical and an amazing poems by one of the most amazing Americans to live. Written on a train ride back to Ohio, and spoken in a moving performance.
If By Rudyard Kipling- I always preface this one when I send it out to people, that Kipling wrote this as a message to his grandson. If you know that going in, his use of pronouns and the like make more sense. In truth though, it's an amazing shorthand for how to reach for greatness and a measure of what an adult should be.
Rumi- Instead of a poem I just added an essay with a list. Rumi is as confusing as he is thought provoking. Well worth a lap.
To Autumn By John Keats- Keats might just be the greatest poet to have ever died early. To the romantics, he was Hendrix, dying in his prime. But would he ever have achieved such heights without the looming of death? Who knows. This is a great poem, timely to the season this post is published in.
leaves of grass by Walt Whitman, book 10 in particular is great-- Uncle Walt reads incredibly modern, despite being dead well over a century. I linked another essay instead of a single poem because he's worth diving into.
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood By William Wordsworth-- Wordsworth is perhaps one of the few defining poets of an era. I chose this one in particular for the funny turns of phrase he uses and his thoughtful use of meter along with rhyme.
Ode on a Grecian Urn By John Keats-- I couldn't help but add another Keats poem in, this one uses imagery quite well. As a premier, he's describing an urn as it spins on a table in front of him.