Issue 6: How Not to Read Poetry
Or, a treatise on loving poems without being an expert
Coming out of my week-long haiku writing binge, I knew that I needed a rest from writing. I wanted to explore new ways to read more poetry and read it more often in my daily life.
If you aren’t a heavy reader of poetry, that’s okay. I consider myself a poet, but don’t consider myself an expert at keeping up with the “Poetry World”. I’m sure plenty of poets feel this way, too; the literary world can feel academic and downright exclusive, especially if you’re unpublished, un-agented, and without a significant online following.
So how then, can we expose ourselves to new and challenging poetry if we don’t feel like experts in poetry? How do we dip our toes into the poetry world and not feel bogged down by how others say we should be reading poems?
Today, I’m offering you my treatise on the matter, or:
How Not to Read Poetry
There are plenty of articles, books, and advice on the subject of reading poetry, and most assume you have a working knowledge of literary terms, forms, and devices. But, I don’t agree that you need a degree, knowledge of poetic form, or any particular background in writing to appreciate poetry.
Poetry existed before the written word as a form of art, usually recited or sung as a way to retell oral history, share stories, and perform music. It has existed before academia and will persist for as long as we have words.
Why are we drawn to verse and to rhythm and to rhyme? It mesmerizes. It moves us to tears, it enrages us, and it can change how we perceive our world and ourselves. Poetry is a powerful tool, and belongs to all of us, regardless of class, gender, or background. It transcends the imaginary boundaries that we place between ourselves and those that are unlike us.
So how do we even begin to read it, especially if we don’t feel like a “poetry expert”? Shake off those worries; here is my guide to approaching and loving poetry.
Don’t analyze. Feel and visualize instead.
Forget the classroom. Forget the anthologies of literature and your teacher postulating about metaphors. When you’re reading a new poem, don’t tear it apart at the seams by finding each simile and end rhyme and pun.
Yes, of course, poets agonize about punctuation and which word to put in what order, while spending hours deciding if they should use “moon” or “enormous bright orb”. That doesn’t mean you, as a reader, need to break a poem apart to give it meaning.
Approach every poem you read with the idea that it is meant to be felt. After finishing a poem, sit with yourself for a moment and ask:
How did this poem make me feel?
If you have the time, close your eyes and visualize the images from the poem you just read. What scenes come to your mind’s eye after reading? Did the poem remind you of any memories or experiences that you’ve had in the past?
Don’t read a poem just once.
Take your time and return to a poem again and again, especially if you hated it at first read. Come back to the poem in a day or two and see if you feel anything different.
Are there any lines or phrases you missed the first time that hit you differently now?
Don’t just read inside your head: read out loud!
If you’re having trouble “figuring it out”, try searching to see if there is a video of that poem being read aloud, or read the poem out loud to yourself. This works better if you are in a quiet place where you won’t disturb your family or strangers with your poetic musings.
If you decide to read aloud, try reading it in different ways. First, read slowly, pausing at the end of each break where the line stops and a new one starts. Then try reading it like one long sentence, only breaking to take a breath or when you see punctuation.
You might find you experience the poem in an entirely new way by hearing it instead of reading it. Did the meaning of the words change for you? How about the images that came to your mind? Are you feeling any new emotions that you didn’t feel during your first read?
Don’t try to “get” it. You don’t have to.
Still having trouble deciphering what a poem is trying to convey? That’s okay. You have my full permission to read a poem and say, “I don’t understand this. That poem is not for me.”
Just like when a die-hard science fiction fan attempts to read a pulp romance novel, you might find that you are not the audience for every poem you read. Like with books, there are so many different genres of poetry that exist, and it sometimes takes time to find the kind of poems that speak to you.
Try stepping outside of the poetry box by exploring other genres, like spoken word or song lyrics. You’re bound to find a poem meant for you.
Don’t assume poets are writing the truth.
Poets, like many writers of fiction, are not always writing poems from personal experience (with some notable exceptions, like confessional poetry and lyrical memoirs). If there is ever an I, me, or my in a poem you’re reading, don’t assume those refer to the writer themselves. Generally, those pronouns refer to “the speaker” of the poem.
Anyone and anything can be the speaker in a poem— a dog, a building, a worn and weathered cardigan, or even you as the reader. The poet writes a poem with a particular speaker in mind, like a person who has been through a terrible disaster or a tree losing its leaves in the fall. But as you read a poem, that “speaker” can morph into whoever you want it to be. That is the magic of poetry, and an example of that transcendence I mentioned earlier.
After you read a poem, reflect on “the speaker”. Did your poem have a speaker, and if so, who did you visualize in your head? Could this poem work with a different speaker? Read it again, this time changing the speaker in your mind. Does this change the meaning of the poem for you?
Don’t keep poetry to yourself.
Poetry means more when it is shared, so if you find a poem that speaks to you, send it to a friend or a loved one.
If you are struggling to share your own experiences or emotions, try finding a poem that expresses how you’re feeling instead. Poetry can be an incredible way to connect with others, so begin saving your favorites for special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and for whenever you need to put your feelings into words.
They’re perfect for scribbling onto torn pieces of paper and sticking into a pocket for a friend to find, or inside of a card you picked out for someone you love.
Whatever you do, don’t keep a good poem to yourself.
Don’t hide from poetry. Go hunting for it.
Now that you have this handy guide, I hope you’re ready to hunt for new poems to read. Here are a few places you can start:
Listen to a poetry podcast. I suggest checking out VS with Franny Choi and Danez Smith, Poem-a-Day by the Academy of American Poets, and exploring the poets that have been interviewed for NPR’s On Being. If those aren’t your style, there are plenty more podcasts on poetry.
Listen or watch poetry recordings online. Delve into the extensive repository of audio recordings on The Poetry Foundation’s website. Or if you’re interested in spoken word or slam poetry, you can start with YouTube accounts like Button Poetry and Poetry Slam Inc.
Find a poetry event going on locally and attend. If this pandemic ever ends, attending a local poetry open-mic or spoken word reading can expose you to poetry from members of your local community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many poets have gone digital, hosting “virtual” poetry readings, and you can find events near you at Poets.org.
Check out the poetry sections at your local bookstore or library. One of my favorite ways to discover new poetry is to check out the stacks at my local bookstore. Chatting up a librarian or asking an employee for a recommendation might lead you to a new poet, or you can explore the shelves on your own until a book calls to you. Don’t forget you can browse for poetry books on sites like Bookshop or even your local library’s website.
Subscribe to this newsletter, if you haven’t already! Every week, I share a poetic form or topic, write a poem based on that topic using suggestions from friends, and share prompts for writing your own.
This week I deviated a bit from my typical form, but I hope this guide can be a valuable resource for you as a reader and lover of poetry. I’ll be returning next week with my regularly scheduled poems—so stay tuned!
Interested in all the haikus I wrote last week? They’re all on Instagram for you to browse. As always, I’m sharing my thoughts on social justice, capitalism, and the literary world on Twitter, so come hang out with me there, too. Stay warm, my winter-worn friends!