TIPS ON READING POETRY
It is a modern myth that poetry is “difficult.” Poetry was never supposed to be reserved for grumpy professors and dusty intellectuals. Not so long ago poetry was a major form of public entertainment, and poets read regularly to packed salons and concert halls. It is true that unlike more popular art forms like painting, music, and movies, poetry requires a little extra effort to harvest its full effects. But, by following the tips below, anyone can have the deeply rewarding experience of connecting to a great poem. So, come along! Let’s start waxing poetical!
1.) SOUND ABOUNDS: POETRY IS MADE TO BE HEARD. You’re probably familiar with rhyming poems: roses are red, violets are blue… but there are many audial elements that poets use to not only make the poem sound beautiful, but to enhance the meaning or intention of a poem. Once you find a poem that interests you, read it out loud several times at a slow pace. What do you notice about how it sounds? How does the sound enhance an overall theme, mood, or message?
For a good example of a poem that makes good use of sound read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells.
2.) CURIOSITY KILLS THE CONFUSION: Poetry requires an active and persistent curiosity to be fully experienced. Many poems may use words or reference places or times in history that may be unfamiliar to you. Be curious enough to look up all words and references that you’re unfamiliar. A quick Google search is often enough. Once you’ve scanned the poem and made notes about all unfamiliar words and references, read the poem again. A great poem will show you more and more of itself as you dig.
PRO TIP: Look up the history surrounding the poet themselves, when they wrote this poem, what was happening in their lives, what was happening in the world around them. All of these can offer essential context to bring the poem to life.
For a great example of a poem that offers a huge payoff when your curiosity is engaged, read Timothy Donnelly’s Hymn To Life.
3.) USE YOUR IMAGINATION—LITERALLY: Imagery is a vital component in poetry. Unlike movies or photography, where images are given to you, images in poetry must be actively made by the reader using imagination. By “creating” the image yourself in the mind’s eye, your brain is actively stimulated and this can offer a deeper and richer experience than simply looking at an image alone. So, as you read through a poem, make sure to take your time in conjuring every description as it’s written. Every color and tone matters. Sit with it and let it build in your mind. Ask yourself how the images contribute to the text, the poem’s overall mood, theme or message.
For a classic image-focused poem check out William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheel Barrow.
4.) ENGAGE YOUR EMPATHY: One definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another…(www.merriam-webster.com) In order to fully tap into a poems potential, it’s essential to be empathetic. Often, this means imagining the life and concepts that may be directly out of your own human experience. The more vulnerable and empathetic you are to the text, the deeper, richer, and better experience with poetry you will have.
For a potential exercise in empathy, check out Lucille Clifton’s Sisters.
5.) YOU DON’T NEED TO UNDERSTAND IT TO ENJOY IT: Have you ever listened to a song and not understood the lyrics, but found yourself singing along anyway? It meant something to you, so it didn’t matter. Have you ever looked at a painting, a Jackson Pollock or Salvador Dali for instance, that didn’t “make sense” to you, but you liked it anyway? Or maybe it made sense in a way that you couldn’t necessarily articulate? The great thing about art is that it can have lots of different meanings or seemingly no meaning at all and can still be enjoyed. The same goes for poetry. You don’t have to understand it to engage with it and enjoy it. If you like the way a poem sounds when you read it aloud, but don’t know what it “means,” that’s ok! You can still like that poem. There is no poetry police. And if a poem means something to you, anything at all to you, then that is enough. Because you probably learned written language is supposed to work in a linear, clear functional way your mind wants to make poetry do the same thing that directions to put together furniture are supposed to do, accomplish something. But many poems don’t work that way. Poetry just wants you to feel something, anything at all. And that is perfectly OK. Once again, if you don’t “understand” a poem – you are not dumb and the poem is not confusing. Rather, think of the poem like that Pollock painting you like. It can do whatever it wants. If it makes you feel anything, if you like it for any reason, then it is working, and you are working, and that is enough.
For a poem that isn’t meant to be “understood” check out e e cummings “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r”