My favorite poem in the world is “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I won’t go into all the reasons I think this poem is so perfect, because that would be a whole separate post. Suffice it to say, I think “Ozymandias” is the bee’s knees, and bees have six legs, so that is a lot of knees.
But the first time I read it, I didn’t even like it. It just didn’t grab me. The poem took years, and multiple re-readings, to grow into what it is today (for me).
Pachelbel’s Canon in D was the same way. (Music, not poetry. We’re shifting gears. Keep up.) First time I heard it, yawn, boring. Now it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. I had to listen to it more than once to fall in love.
This goes the other way, too. I can think of poems and songs that seemed heartbreakingly gorgeous the first go-around that got shallower with repetition.
“Yeah, Brian,” says you, “and some stuff you hate at first and keep hating, and some stuff you love at first and keep loving. What’s your point?”
Well (says I), the point is this: first impressions are tricky things. They’re subjective. They depend on mood. They don’t always represent the true quality of the work.
This matters for readers. It’s a warning not to give up too easily, especially on poems and stories that are considered to be Great Works of Genius™. I’m not saying you should waste hours reading stuff you hate – I’m just saying the road to love isn’t always apparent your first time through.
This matters for writers, too. If I had been BFFs with Percy Bysshe Shelley back when he first wrote “Ozymandias,” I might have said, “Percy, you’re a good guy, and this sonnet’s all right, but it needs a little extra oomph. Try again.” And Percy, if he were an impressionable sort of man, might get discouraged, and start doubting his own skill in creating one of literature’s great masterpieces.
“But Brian,” you interrupt again (you jerk), “most of the time when readers don’t like something, it’s because it isn’t good. How do you tell the difference?”
That is a damn good question, hypothetical reader. Years and years of experience is one part of the answer, and artistic instincts are another part. I don’t know exactly know.
What I know is this: it’s a long, long road to love, and not only for the reader.