Poetry is hard for us all.

Nearly every class, I read a poem to my English composition students to start off the day’s work.  There’s no real logic to what I pick out—just whatever I find in the last twenty minutes before class starts.  My students are so great about it: I read a short poem, they offer snaps (really, I’m a total beatnik), and then we move on.  I love this little classroom ritual because it lets me show my students how easy it is to be enthusiastic about beautiful things.

But when you spend so many hours of your week trying to make sense of poetry in your own research, you forget how long it took you yourself to learn how to listen to poetry in the first place.  I remember moments in high school English where the teacher read aloud a poem (like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” for instance) and as soon as the words became jumbled, when the images no longer made sense, the frustration settled in and the listening came to a painful halt.

It’s so easy to quit a poem when the poem doesn’t resonate.

I know that this happens all too often, so I tried to give my students a little poetry pep talk toward the middle of this semester:  Just listen for the images, I said.  Don’t worry about understanding every word or reference.  Focus on the full effect, whether you “get it” all or not.

That “pep talk” makes me sound like a really lazy English teacher, doesn’t it?  In fact, the heart of this advice leans a little too heavily on an extreme “a poem can mean anything to anyone” philosophy, but you have to start somewhere.  When you affirm a listener embracing what they do understand, you make them so much less likely to quit poetry all together.  It also reminds them that poetry is hard for us all.

From "Saint Peter's Church and the Vatican," a photograph by Bert Underwood (1862-1943).  J. Paul Getty Museum.

From “Saint Peter’s Church and the Vatican,” a photograph by Bert Underwood (1862-1943). J. Paul Getty Museum.  This is Lord Byron’s final stop on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  (I mostly love this picture because shouts, “Yes, we do laundry in St. Peter’s Square, too!”)

For a long time, I held a deep prejudice against the romantic poet Lord Byron.  His personal life, his cavalier attitude towards women, and the wandering self-indulgence of some of his poetry made me avoid him in the anthologies and groan when he was assigned in seminars.  I just couldn’t get behind him as a man, and it blurred any love I might have for his poetry.  And his poetry was hard for me—I struggled to “get it.”  I still do.

But this semester, I spent an unwieldy amount of time with Byron on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, one of his poems I’ve worked hard to avoid.  If you’re not a bookish person, Byron probably doesn’t sound familiar to you, but I promise he is.  Does “Byronic hero” ring a bell?  The dark, brooding gentleman that you just can’t get a read on, who seems to have this constant battle between darkness and light bubbling beneath his skin (think Heathcliff, Edward Rochester, Harry Potter, maybe a little Gale from The Hunger Games)—that’s the Byronic hero.  That’s Childe Harold.

The funny thing about Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is that it’s sort of a mess of a story.  There’s not exactly a “narrative” aside from Byron’s European travels.  You can’t always tell who is speaking, who is being spoken about, or where we are on the continent.  When I read this long poem (a kind of “mock romance epic”), I rely heavily on the notes in the back of my “critical edition.”  It’s a hard, confusing, frustrating poem and I was kicking myself back in November for choosing to even attempt to write a seminar paper about it.

On a cold morning a few days ago, though, I struggled to write through my thesis and make my point about Childe Harold.  I found myself at the end of the pilgrimage, where Byron’s speaker stands beneath the dome of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and tells the reader how to embrace beauty:

Enter: its grandeur overwhelms thee not;

And why?  it is not lessened; but thy mind,

Expanded by the genius of the spot,

Has grown colossal…

Here Byron says that when we look on grandeur, our minds expand to fill “the genius of the spot.”  When we look on beauty, our hearts grow large enough to see more of the beauty of creation, of God.  I don’t understand everything that’s happening in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, but I understand this moment because it’s the very same thing I tell my students to wait for: a moment of clarity in the midst of pretty poetic confusion.

Byron goes on to say that “Our outward sense / Is but of gradual grasp.”  Like all beautiful things that warrant contemplation, you contemplate a poem piece-by-piece, by “gradual grasp,” not always understanding the whole.  This is how I want to teach my students to listen to poetry.

This, too, is how I want my students (and myself) to embrace beauty: “of gradual grasp.”  It may sound a little silly—maybe it’s a bit heavy on the poetic sentimentality, but I’m an English teacher; grant me grace, y’all.

You’re just so much less likely to quit beautiful things when “of gradual grasp” is your standard.   This Advent season, I’m trying not to quit the beautiful things when they become too much to handle.  “Of gradual grasp” is my new standard, because Christmas is coming and I’ve got to grasp something before it passes and Epiphany fills the world’s stage with all new beauty that’s just coming on too, too fast.