By Jermaine Lee (24A01A)
I’ll readily admit: my love for poetry makes me a walking Literature student stereotype. In my free time, I enjoy scrolling through poetry websites (because poetry books are really expensive) and reading poems that I feel suit my mood.
You’re probably thinking: another crazy Arts student trying to convince me of the merits of her pretentious and niche hobby—what a waste of my time. But wait, before you click away from this article, please hear me out for just a minute more.
Poetry, for many of us, is associated with the memory of frustrating, stressful school work and exams. I have friends who can still recite lines verbatim from Ann Ang’s “Let Me Buy You An HDB Flat” from their Secondary 2 Literature lessons. A friend shared how she still shudders when she recalls freezing in a literature exam upon reading the unseen poem—Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying” (you’ll know why upon reading it).
Like many of my peers, my first experience reading poetry was in secondary school literature lessons. I hated it. I associated poetry with stressing over picking out poets’ exact intentions from their incomprehensible words, memorising the definitions and functions of literary devices and fussing over how my analysis kept being “inadequate” no matter how hard I tried.
Poetry was, at that time, a purely academic exercise to me—one that I not only had to trudge through but brought me a lot of anxiety too. I think a lot of us have similar sentiments. When we try to appreciate art only for exams, we can only see the words and not their beauty. We decipher the poem’s meaning but we don’t understand or feel it.
However, I got to know poetry outside of an academic medium when a friend sent me a poem a few years ago with a message: “I know it’s tough right now, but I hope this makes you feel better.” I don’t remember what it was anymore, but I remember the warmth I felt from reading the poem.
We exchanged poems afterward as a way of cheering each other on, especially during difficult exam periods. In the process of finding poems that I felt would resonate with my friend, I delved into various poetry websites, discovering the work of authors I would never have heard of otherwise.
It was empowering to be able to read poetry and think about what it meant to me, rather than about what the correct answer would be for an essay. I started reading more and more of my own volition and discovered a whole new world I never knew about.
Since then, poetry has become my love language. Poetry is a way for me to convey what I feel my own words cannot adequately express to the people around me. The abstractness of poetry—how we as readers probably don’t exactly know what the poet actually wanted to convey—makes it personal to every reader.
How we interpret a poem is through how we feel it. The same poem can make different people laugh or cry (or both), but the core message remains: I care about you, I’m thinking about you, I want to comfort you.
Poetry is also my safe space. There is so much I have learned and am still learning from it. Reading sad poetry when I’m down helps me feel like I’m not alone in my feelings. Reading happy poetry gives me the motivation to face a new day with a smile. Reading funny poetry reminds me that life isn’t always as serious as it feels—it’s okay to loosen up and laugh. It’s me and the poet’s words, and for a while, that’s just all it is.
Daily life as it is is extremely stressful, especially in Singapore—63% of people our age report feeling more stressed and anxious in the past year than before. Reading poetry can help us to take a step back from the hecticness of schoolwork and escape into the words (and worlds) of others. Furthermore, its generally shorter length is convenient for those of us with limited free time and/or short attention spans.
Regardless of your fluency level in English (or other languages), there is no pressure for you to analyse the poet’s language and get the poem’s meaning exactly right. Feel the words of the poems and make them yours—don’t worry about what the poet may or may not have meant.
If you don’t feel like you fully understand a poem, there are likely plenty of analyses online that you can search for to supplement your understanding if you wish. You could even ask your friends who take Literature for their interpretations (please don’t send us Renaissance poems though—we study enough of those).
So, what are you feeling today? Take a look at some poetry websites, like Poetry Foundation, poets.org, our local poetry.sg or QLRS. You can even check out this interactive MRT map with a poem for every station. Would you like to read about durians and how they’re (possibly) extra-terrestrial? How about poems to get you through science class? What about a poem about the passive-aggressive metaphors Singaporean mothers like to use?
The possibilities are truly endless. There’s a poem about everything and anything if you look hard enough. If you can’t find it, you can even write it yourself!
“There is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it”Gustave Flaubert
Ultimately, the beauty of poetry lies in how it means different things to different people. Read a new poem today! Explore this art form outside of what you studied in the school curriculum—maybe it’ll start speaking to you in a way it hadn’t before.