Reading Poetry and the Development of Your True Superpower

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

We’ve all been asked what superpower we would choose, if some magical being would grant us such a gift. Most people would wish for speed or strength or flight or x-ray vision or invisibility or telepathy. Some people are more inventive and ask for teleportation or time-travel. The rare man asks for an ability to freeze time.

All these skills, save one, are available in one form or another to humans today. We have machines to give us speed, strength, flight, x-ray vision, even some that make us near invisible. Instant teleportation is more challenging of course but we’re getting there. Time-travel can be achieved, but not in the way people would like it. There is no wand you can wave to transport you to the time of the dinosaurs (where you’d be dead in five minutes). Rather, to achieve time-travel requires that most difficult of tasks, the reading of history books. But what about freezing the world around you?

The ability to freeze the world, or, more commonly, to slow it down so much as to appear frozen, is a real power open to anyone with the desire to develop it.

There is a discipline which trains one in the art of slowing down. That is the reading of poetry. (I must quickly add the adjective “classic” to the word poetry, as what has been dubbed poetry over the past half century bears about as much resemblance to poetry as a pile of cigar ash resembles the Pieta.)

Nothing else teaches one to examine with severe scrutiny every word, phrase, clause, connotation, denotation, and idiom in language as does poetry. To bring order to a complex poem, one must trod every path that every idea, metaphor, analogy, simile, image and idea may take one. Reading poetry trains one in the art of subtleties and hyperboles, of tone and voice and sound as meaning. There is no understanding of a complex poem without dozens of careful readings. This last fact — slowly re-reading — is the critical training ground most relevant to our ability to become super-heroes. Since our every thought and expression is conjured in language, to master this discipline is to master the nuances of human existence.

To master poetry — or even dabble in it — is to step up a rung toward heaven. It elevates one’s daily life, where trees are no longer mere trees but a bower for lovers, where romance is an object that nods and sings, where literature is a realm of gold and frogs actually do turn into princes; to read poetry provides one a looking glass through which one can see every human experience tabulated by those most excellent above average livers of life, the great poets; to scrutinize the words of John Donne makes scrutinizing the words of Bob the Butcher as easy as slicing into a perfectly tender steak; to spend time with Homer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Blake and company is like training in bodybuilding with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is a discipline which trains one in the art of slowing down. That is the reading of poetry.

The average defender of poetry will point to the usefulness of the themes in poetry to the living of our daily lives. When inevitably someone close to you dies, you can turn to poetry for salvation. It is no coincidence that the sacred books of all major religions are written more in a poetic verse than a straightforward prose. Thus, the great poets are not great due to an occasional cute turn of phrase or an ability to make meaningless rhymes (we’ll leave that to the modern and spoken word “poets”); the great poets communicate the experiences of life by calling forth all the forces of language available to man. A great poet not only communicates these experiences, but transforms ordinary life into something eternal.

Here is an example. On April 15th, 1802, a young woman and a fine writer named Dorothy Wordsworth, wrote of an experience seeing a bunch of daffodils in a park. She wrote:

When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that flew upon them over the Lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing. This wind blew directly over the Lake to them. There was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway.

This is a fine piece of journaling. Despite some unoriginality, the prose conjures a quaint image of a bunch of daffodils seen while walking along a country park hand-in-hand with loved ones. From Dorothy’s perspective, by the way, the inclusion of “we” is very important here. She is writing as an individual who is representative of a group; she doesn’t say that “I went along,” but that “we went along.” She is part of a group who all shared an experience. Or, so she thinks. More likely, one individual was completely disinterested in the daffodils, another was more interested in the bit of flesh below her throat, another dreaded the extra few hours with a group he probably never should have associated with, and yet another was mildly enjoying the experience. Nevertheless, Dorothy conjured an ordinary slice of life, and she imbued it with some meaning, though not too much.The passage suggests something of the raw beauty of untamed nature. “We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore.” She gives nature a purpose. A colony sprang up in the same way humans built the city of London. There is even some good imagery in her prose: “some rested their heads upon stones… stones as a pillow.” And “the rest tossed and reeled and danced.”

Yet in the hands of a great poet, this same exact ordinary and random life experience is transformed into a profound piece of artwork on the universal human experience of aloneness and the power of introspection.

I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud

By William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed — and gazed — but little thought What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive