On & Off Campus Blog

Finding a foothold in fiction through verse
Finding a foothold in fiction through verse
Jack Haining '22

I have never been able to read the same continuous text for long periods of time. It is not that I don't like to read; I love reading, but I find it endlessly easier to read news articles, or shorter pieces of non-fiction than a lengthy novel or text. At the time in which most other kids were knocking back one Harry Potter book after the next, or devouring The Hunger Games, or plowing through The Lord of the Rings, I was giving up on novels after the first few pages. I lost attention quickly, feeling no attraction to the extensive plots, even feeling, at times, repelled by the story-lines that seemed to never end.

For the past few years, I have tried to understand why I have never been able to willingly sit through an entire novel. It can't just be my attention span; I am able to focus for long periods of time when going between different news or Wikipedia articles, and on many other subjects. I thought, perhaps, that my consumption of fiction was best done through other formats, like videos, or film. I passively accepted my situation, assuming that I was a product of a modern world that puts less emphasis on reading than previous eras.

But when I was in middle school my passive acceptance began to fade. I still wasn't able to focus for long enough to get through a novel on my own accord, but I wanted to have that feeling of losing myself in a piece of fiction, of being immersed in a story. For me, television and film didn't fill this desire to lose myself. Watching shows and films didn't take me out of reality so much as it temporarily distracted me.

It was at that point that I found myself fortunate enough to discover a type of fiction that has able to both hold my attention and immerse me in a story: poetry. The first poem I read, "The Hollow Men" by TS Elliot, grabbed me more than any piece of fiction I had ever encountered. The poem's final lines are, "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper." These lines in particular stood out and stayed with me. Finally, I was drawn into a new world.

What I love about poetry is its ability to capture, as the poet William Wordsworth put it, the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling." One can read a poem and sympathize with the emotions expressed, or marvel at the moments captured. After finishing that poem, the amount of focus I am capable of reset, and I went after the next poem, and the next, as quick as I could find them. From TS Eliot's "The Long Song of J Alfred Prufrock," to John Betjeman's "A Subaltern's Love Song," to Phillip Larkin's "Going Going," I found a foothold in fiction through verse.

I am certain I am not the only one who has searched for a way of being immersed in a story in a different way than from television and film. When reading, one's senses (other than the necessary sight used to read) are largely suspended. This causes one to intensely use their imagination and to be lost in the power of words and the capturing of emotion in the text. To those who also struggle to engage with novels, I whole-heartily recommend trying poetry.

While not every poem will grasp you, searching for a poem that does is worthwhile. Just because Shakespeare's wording didn't appeal to you, or the rhythm of Langston Hughes wasn't your cup of tea, doesn't mean that others won't suit your taste. Find a poem that sweeps you out of reality, and into the story it contains, even if you don't understand it right away. After all, poems have a greater purpose than just being understood. They seek to express more about emotion and human experience than can be conveyed through plainly understandable writing. As my favorite poet, TS Eliot, put it, "It is a test [that] genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood."