Acquired Taste and Poetry

There are relatively few times in life when we discover that we enjoy something that we never used to. Most frequently it's a particular food: we "acquire a taste" for – as was the case for me – olives, beer, or spicy food. This happens on its own terms and timeframe, but once it happens, we feel richer, more complete, happier.

It's incredibly rare to discover a liking for an entire category of things, rather than a specific instance. Usually, this comes with some insight or a shift in perspective, and usually requires a trigger. I was incredibly fortunate to have experienced such a thing.

I never enjoyed poetry. At school I was forced to read poems and had to explain – for a grade! – what the poem meant. There was always one thing that a poem was about, and as years went by, that thing seemed more and more elusive. It may have been, I reasoned, just the "school factor": after all, when forced to do something, we rarely like it, but when given the freedom to explore it by ourselves, we find a passion and excitement that we never thought possible. As I had thus discovered the enjoyment of swimming and reading, I thought poetry might come next. But it didn't – I still didn't know what those damn poems were about. There seemed something fundamentally different about poetry.

And then I watched Billy Collins at TED, which led me to a TED Radio Hour that featured Collins. And that's where the insight came from: Billy Collins complained that we put too much emphasis on interpreting poetry and not enough on simply appreciating the poem's aesthetic.

This remark seems fairly straightforward and, whether you agree or disagree with Collins, you wouldn't argue the existence of these two dimensions. But for me, that was the moment when I internalized such existence. I always focused on interpretation; I felt like a failed in some way if the "take-away" of the poem was not a SparkNotes-like synthesis that mandatorily mentioned abstract thoughts and states of mind. If there are those two dimensions – I said to myself – why not focus on the other for a change.

As soon as I stopped worrying about the interpretation and dropped the guilt, and instead just enjoyed the poems for their beauty, for the inner melody, rhythm, and composition, I fell in love with poetry.

The saddest part is that I could have loved poetry sooner, much sooner. If some teacher in grade school didn't choose to focus on what the poem meant and grade her students on that metric. If I had come across a truly beautiful poem that clearly meant nothing (or clearly meant something). If somebody had introduced me to beautiful poems and pointed out their aesthetic. What about all the other treasures we deliberately reject because don't know how to approach them?