For years, I hated poetry. I didn’t understand it and didn’t like things I didn’t understand. Poems were nothing like the books I was accustomed to reading; they had no story I could clearly see nor any characters I related to. I enjoyed mysteries, but poems weren’t just mysterious, they were incomprehensible and therefore uninteresting. My father would mention a poet I should learn about or a poem I should read, but I would cover my ears and roll my eyes and say that poetry is stupid, that he should talk about something I could actually understand, something I actually cared about. I’d rather think about absolutely anything else. He would say that one day I’d understand, that one day I’d love it, and of course, I’d never believe it. I thought it would never be important to me, and eventually, my father gave up.
My seventh grade English teacher Mr. Jantzen was a charismatic bear of a man with a deep voice and a strong British accent. He was young, went on hour-long tangents on Russian war politics and the life of Lord Byron, and took the time to make sure we understood what he was saying. He was unlike any teacher I’d had before; he opened my eyes to literature. My vocabulary grew along with my brain. I grasped English at an entirely new depth; I understood the subtext and the meaning and the importance of all the little details hidden in each phrase. I began to relate authors’ lives and histories to the purpose of their writing.
In eighth grade, Mr. Jantzen was still my teacher, and I listened to what he said like the law—even when he began to teach us poetry. I was so enthralled by the way he wove his words—how he explained his thoughts so perfectly, how his analyses adhered in my brain—that I didn’t even think to hate the poems placed in front of me. Tony Harrison, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Maya Angelou—I swallowed it all, and found that I actually liked their taste. In fact, I was hungry for more.
I had read words about pain and misery before, but the writing Mr. Janzten introduced me to was something else entirely. “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen stuck with me and broke my heart. It was strange that this was the poem that lived in my mind: it was not a work I could relate to, nor one whose words offered me joy—grief and hopelessness coat Owen’s lines. What the poem invoked in me was more than pity; the narrator dragged me through the war-torn man’s longing for his past, his youth, his happiness. He was not the same: he could no longer feel “how slim / Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands”; he’d “lost his colour very far from here, / Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry.” Physically and socially disabled from war’s devastation, the man’s desires are just out of reach, like grapes hanging in front of Tantalus. He had been destroyed by something displayed to him as glorious—told he’d be “carried shoulder-high” and that he’d return with the same “drums and cheers” he was “drafted out with”—only to be rewarded with loss, a “ghastly suit of grey, / Legless, sewn short at the elbow,” and the sole wish of “waiting for dark.”
I could not get enough of the anguish and melancholic darkness in Owen’s words nor the disparity between the joy of his past and the sorrow of his present—how his “giddy jilts” and thoughts of “jewelled hilts” contrasted to how “the women’s eyes / Passed from him to the strong men that were whole” and how “half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race” despite only being gone one year. They seeped into my bones like no words had ever done before and remained with me even after our essays were completed. I recall Owen’s writing whenever I am reminded of grief, loss, pain, or desolation. It is comforting, in a way, to see such beauty in such darkness.
That is what impacted me: the realization that I could so distinctly feel the agony of someone whose experiences were as far from my own as possible. That mere words could reach through the page and tear my heart with despairing fingers. That those words were beautiful even though the things they described weren’t.
I don’t hate poetry anymore. Whether I can understand it or not, I crave the emotion embedded in poetry’s phrases and metaphors. I still cannot always understand them—at least, not without the help of a Mr. Jantzen-level-teacher—but acknowledging poetry’s uniqueness allowed me to appreciate even its incomprehensibility. Maybe I should have listened to my father when he first urged me to fall in love with poetry, but maybe I needed the time to grow first. Either way, my father would tell me he told me so.