When I talk to people about poetry, I often get apologetic reactions about them not understanding it. When I invite people to my poetry events I hear a lot “I’d love to, but I really don’t know anything about poetry!” Somehow, some people seem to think that an understanding of poetry is something you’re born with, something you either have or have not.
When I moved to Leiden six years ago to study at the university there, I knew virtually nothing about poetry. I knew a few poems by heart because they were printed on posters in my high school, I knew a little bit about metaphors and meter, but not much more than that. When I joined my student association, I heard that their poetry club was on the verge of disappearance, because the last leader of the club didn’t have time for it anymore and nobody else wanted to take on the job. Being an enthusiastic first-year student, I volunteered to take on this club. Poetry was something I really wanted to learn more about, and just diving into the subject seemed like the best way to do this.
So there I was, nineteen years old and the head of a poetry club without any knowledge of poetry. I owned maybe three books of poetry and half of it I did not understand at all. So how was I supposed to lead this group? Out of this kind of desperation, I thought up my first poetry night. I invited the rest of the group at my house, and asked everybody to bring one poem. The plan was to have everybody recite their poem and then we’d discuss it a little bit. This way, I didn’t have to know anything about poetry, I just had to provide the room and the tea, and the members of the group would bring most of the input.
The night turned out great, and since then I organise these kinds of evenings almost every month. Sometimes with a certain theme, like national poetry when we’re planning a trip to that country, but most evenings the members are free to come up with whatever poem they like. We’ve had people recite long verses of Milton. We’ve had a student of French literature talk to us about Baudelaire. We’ve had young students being enthusiastic about the poems by Rupi Kaur and we’ve even had people recite their own work. Every time the group is confronted with new kinds of poetry, and although not everything will resonate, there will always be something that you like. Because of the diversity of the group (mostly students of humanities, but not all, and older students as well as younger ones) we learn a lot from each other. The older members are always happy to explain the more difficult figures of speech to the younger ones who might not know that much about poetry already, and the younger students have such a fresh look on poetry and they come up with poets a lot of the more traditional older members would not have found.
Six years later, and what have I learned? I have read so many more poets, and I’ve heard about even more of them. I’ve gotten to know Amaral, Gerhardt, Cavafy, Neruda and Pessoa. I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t like. I’ve learned what I think is good poetry and what is not. I’ve learned how I want my own writing to be. And even though I’m a student of literary studies, I didn’t learn any of these things at the university. I’ve learned this by just reading something, talking about it, listening to what other people thought. To me, understanding poetry is not about seeing through all the metaphors and difficult writing. It’s much more about experience, making poetic miles by just reading and learning what works for you.