Somewhere recently I read something that suggested that few in our culture ever read poetry anymore. I suspect that’s true. When is the last time you saw a book of poetry on the New York Times Bestseller list? Have you read much poetry lately yourself? I haven’t, and I’m a voracious reader – books, newspapers, magazine articles – all sorts of prose, but not poetry.
Once while pressing a client to derive at an answer to a difficult question that came up during a coaching session, finally after much thoughtful deliberation he stared at me with a perplexed expression and lamented that “thinking is hard work!” It was an insightful response for both of us, for indeed thinking is hard work.
Perhaps that is a consequence of our being such poor readers of poetry because in order to understand it requires us to think. Prose is so much easier. It is directive and conclusive. In a good novel we can expect closure – boy meets girl, good wins over evil, life is happy ever after. Similarly, nonfiction describes methods or ideas that work, or it tells true stories that work out. The writer, in other words, gives us the answers. All we have to do is sit back in our easy chairs and lap it up.
In his book A Whole New Mind Daniel Pink explains that “the left hemisphere [of the brain] specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context.” To interpret poetry demands that we engage the right hemisphere which requires reflection, observation of the world around us, and creative thought. In other words, to read and comprehend poetry requires us to think.
That’s why my client in his lament really hit on something profound, for thinking it seems to me is the hard work of this dynamic age of complex issues. No longer can we depend on pat answers and solutions. Instead they must be created. And for that we would do well to spend more time with Yeats, Byron and Emerson, the Psalms and Ecclesiastes – poetry that stimulates reflection, observation of the world around us, and creative thought, context not just text. But to do that we must think, and thinking is undeniably hard work.