How To Read Poetry

Most people are not taught how to read poetry. Sure, everyone gets required reading in school, but what is an average 14 year going to make of e. e. cummings’ “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” while waiting for the class to end?

School kids are forced to read poetry selected by adults who they will never interact with, and no one falls in love with something they are forced to do. Added to this problem is it’s the same old white, male authors with the occasional woman or minority thrown in for flavor.

Another problem is applicability. How is “Ode on a Grecian Urn” going to be applicable to someone in their mid-teens in the 21st century? There are many different styles of poetry just as there are many different styles of prose.

Why not start with something more modern instead of running down the required reading list; especially since most classes start with the OLDEST poetry and work their way up?

It’s no wonder most people abandon poetry the first chance they can.

Approaching Poetry

At the very first, I will make you a promise: I am NOT going to bog this down with technical terms. What is assonance? What is prosody? What makes up a stanza? What is the difference between a Petrarchan and Shakespearean sonnet? 

It doesn’t matter. Not to a reader, anyway. There is no need to burden this with technicalities, and a reader doesn’t need to know them to enjoy poetry any more than a person needs to know music theory to enjoy a song. 

Approaching poetry is far different from reading prose.

For instance, when you are reading a short story, you are on a ride on rails. You can’t steer it. You are there for the show, and that show can vary depending on how skilled the writer is. The writer takes you by the hand, says, “come with me,” and leads on.

Poetry doesn’t do that. Poetry stands next to you and says, “let’s be together.” It may amble towards the direction that the writer intended, but you don’t have to follow. Sometimes a writer builds better than they know and the audience may bring more to the poem than the writer intended.

That is how it is supposed to work. So it is a total mistake to read a poem like it is prose. You are nearly guaranteed not to like it that way.

So What’s The Difference?

In prose, it is vital to locate your subject or characters in a place and a time. Not a historical time, but a in a linear sense. Cause follows effect, and it is important to locate that cause in a set area that the reader can understand.

Poetry is timeless. This is not to say that poetry is always applicable no matter how old it is. That is extremely untrue. What it means is that, unlike prose, poetry is not stuck in a linear time frame. A writer can cast past, can write about some eternal now, or speculate. A good poet can mix them all to create an otherworldly feel – something that doesn’t feel contrived or out of place.

Most modern poetry is shorthand. It is a structured (and sometimes unstructured) method of expressing a universal need or condition in as memorable and short a time as possible. Say, the need to be loved or the condition of sadness. It should have a resolution, but a poem that sticks with you invites you to find your own conclusion. It is a vehicle as well as a journey.

I would like to point out some components in poetry to watch for when reading a poem.

Components in Poetry

Part of what creates this feeling of magic or timelessness are the chosen words. Words are used differently in poetry than they are in prose. They are chosen very carefully, not only for meaning but for their surroundings. What are the other words like? How are they placed together and why? What tense are they, and are they the same tense as the surrounding idea?

Words also create beats which emotionally inform a poem. For instance, a series of short, staccato words can simulate a rushing heartbeat or panic. Long, low-sounding words with long “o’s” and “uh’s” can feel like leisurely drifting; rowing to a subject with muffled oars. The deliberate placement of syllables can make or break a poem as well.

But words are not all there are to a poem. The line breaks are deliberate, used to highlight a point or break a chain of thought to keep the reader from taking any line or idea for granted. Lines shape the poem, and knowing where to break a phrase is just as much an art as knowing which word to use.

Furthermore, unlike general prose, poetry is meant to be sensual rather than merely drive a narrative. Not sexy (although it can be), but something that engages all of your senses. Not just sight.

For instance, a key subject in a poem is memory. Sight is not the best trigger for a memory. That distinction belongs to smell. So poets try to include smell, hearing, tactile senses, sense of balance, pretty much the whole package in order to create something worth reading and remembering.

So with this in mind, drop your sense of linearity. Instead, look for beats in the poem, feel for rhymes, sound out words, test out phrases. Taste the word in your mouth. Whisper it if you like.

An Example

I would like to break down this concept by looking at the first octet (eight lines) of one of my favorite poems: “The Earth” by Pablo Neruda (translation by Roy Fisher.) Since this is translated from Spanish, you have the opportunity to not only parse the meaning of the poet but also the choices of the translator.

The green earth has yielded
to everything yellow, gold, harvests,
farms, leaves, grain,
but when autumn rises
with its spacious banner
it is you that I see,
for me it is your hair
that separates the tassels.

This first octave introduces the concept of autumn. Before the word “autumn” is even mentioned, the green earth has yielded its youth to fall colors, and within this yielding arises the subject of the poem. It is growth, then age, then the lover he envisions. He sees in his love the rise of autumn. The lovers are growing older.

Furthermore, look at the words chosen. Or rather, listen to them. Say them. Once autumn rises, there is an increase of sibilants. “S” sounds start to take over. “That separates the tassels” (line 8) is heavy on sibilants. When you voice this, the “s” sound can sound like the shushing of dried autumn leaves scraping against the ground as the wind scatters them.

But…

This is my interpretation. This is what I see. But it is not THE interpretation. Pablo Neruda is dead, so I can’t ask him without a Ouija board. And if he answered, it wouldn’t matter anyway. This vision is what I bring to the poem.

Do you read something different into it? How would you say this poem? Would you pause at every line? Would you try to say it like natural speech? Find the beats in the poem and separate your reading that way? If a new interpretation doesn’t spring to mind, can you think of one?

Wrapping This Up

Play with any poem you read. Break it apart and reassemble it. Before you stampede to a meaning, savor its form. Try to sense what the poem is telling you.

Poems are a breeding ground for new words and concepts. They are meant to inspire you with new thought, or confirm a suspicion that someone else feels the same way that you do. Poems are invitations, invocations, and confirmations that you are not alone.

With this in mind, don’t just read a poem. Enjoy it. Enjoy the words, the form, the ideas. Try to see what the writer saw. Imagine that point of view. Re-read a poem, try to squeeze every drop of information from it. Prose is active. Poetry is interactive.

And if you don’t like a poem? Great! Don’t like it. You are under no obligations to spend any more time with a poem than you have to. Poetry varies like prose varies. You are not obligated to like poetry for poetry’s sake. If you don’t like a poem or a poet, seek something else out. I feel certain that you will eventually find a writer that resonates with you.

Also, give it time. Reading prose is a habit we’ve acquired from our first days of literacy. This is not the case with poetry. Poems are certainly shorter, but they can take more time to digest than prose.

Most of all, please remember: your interpretation is as valid as mine.