In January I started a series called “Back to Basics” where I broke down some common reading issues we all face. The series started with a post on finding time to read, and then I also wrote about reading comprehension and making connections with other texts. Today, in honor of National Poetry Month and this month’s 12 Months of Books theme, I thought I’d share some basics on reading poetry.
Whenever I introduce poetry in my English classes, I always get a lot of groans from students. They just don’t like poetry. When I ask them why they don’t like it, the main response I get from students is “I don’t get it,” or “It doesn’t make sense.” I also often hear that poets make too much of silly things, or that English teachers “read too much” into poetry.
These are all valid complaints. Poetry can be confusing because it is different from the things we normally read. We’re used to prose–sentences and paragraphs–and poetry doesn’t follow the rules we’re used to. There are a lot of ways to explain poetry, but I tend to use an example almost everyone these days is familiar with: Instagram. On Instagram, we filter our photos to make them look just right. At it’s core, that’s all poetry does–Poets are just working with words instead of digital filters. Poets take their thoughts, their experiences, their memories, their hopes, dreams, and stories, and they filter those things through their language.
According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prose is “words in their best order” and poetry is “the best words in the best order.” I love that subtle difference. In poetry, every word counts. That’s why English teachers have so much fun reading into poems; we like the idea that every word could have a hidden meaning. Sometimes we let our love for poetry turn every reading into a treasure hunt. Do we get carried away? Maybe, but it sure is fun!
So there–I’ve admitted my bias towards poetry as an English teacher. But even as an English teacher who loves poetry, I know that most of my students aren’t going to grow up to be scholars of Romantic poetry or masters of the villanelle. That’s why I approach teaching poetry with a somewhat different view. I want my students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem and hopefully glean a little meaning from it as well. We do analyze poetry in my class, and we do look for sound devices and imagery and all that good stuff, but the first thing we do is read to enjoy. Then we read to analyze.
Which brings us to the heart of today’s post. I believe that there are two ways to read a poem. The first, as I just mentioned, is for enjoyment. The second is for analysis. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do have different purposes and strategies behind them. Today we’re only going to talk about the first one–enjoyment. If you’d like to know more about reading a poem for analysis, leave a comment below, and I’ll write a follow-up post to this one. For now, here are four steps to reading a poem for enjoyment.
Always read a poem slowly from start to finish. Truth be told, you should read poems out loud to get their full effect, but that might not always be possible. If you aren’t in a place to read the poem out loud, at least move your lips while you read. That way you get a feel for how the words sound when spoken. Just like plays are meant to be performed, poems are meant to be read aloud.
On the first reading, don’t try to “understand” a poem, just listen to it. It’s supposed to be different from prose–there are intentional rhythms, pauses, and stops. Get a feel for the poem before you try to break it down into its constituent parts.
The pause is important. Before you launch right back in to reading a poem again, just take a breath. I always stop and look back at specific lines that caught my interest during the first read through. Go back and look at the places that seemed confusing to you or the lines that seemed especially beautiful. Chances are those are places where the meaning is hiding.
This time, read the poem and think as you read about how it’s working. What is the poet saying? What’s the plot or movement of the poem? Are there any metaphors or similes? You don’t have to annotate them (unless you want to!), but knowing they’re there might help you understand the poem. Do you hear any strange sounds in the poem? Does your heart beat faster when you get to certain lines? All of these are important parts of reading a poem!
Before you walk away from a poem, pause again to think about it. Here’s where you might think it’s your job to FIGURE IT OUT or UNDERSTAND IT ALL. That’s not the case. I think even poets don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening in a poem. Sometimes the best we can hope for is to think about the lines, dwell on the images, and maybe return to something thought-provoking the poet mentioned. For me, that’s the joy of poetry–encountering something that can be understood in the heart, even if it’s not understood in the head. Really good poetry, I think, speaks to our hearts more than it speaks to our brains. It’s magic.
This strategy also takes all the pressure out of reading a poem. No one’s asking you to write an essay or even talk out loud about what you think of a poem. All you have to do is open your mind to a new experience and try to let some meaning sink into your heart.
See? Poetry doesn’t have to be scary!
BUT, if you thought I’d let you go that easy, you don’t know me. Simply because I am an English teacher at heart, here’s a chance for you to practice these strategies!
I read Billy Collins’ book “Sailing Alone Around the Room” recently, and this was my favorite selection. In fact, it might be one of my favorite poems ever. I can’t get enough of it. Give it a shot–read, pause, read, pause, and let me know what you think of it in the comments below!
THE NIGHT HOUSE
by Billy Collins
Every day the body works in the fields of the world
mending a stone wall
or swinging a sickle through the tall grass-
the grass of civics, the grass of money-
and every night the body curls around itself
and listens for the soft bells of sleep.
But the heart is restless and rises
from the body in the middle of the night,
leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
with its thick, pictureless walls
to sit by herself at the kitchen table
And heat some milk in a pan.
And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
and goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
and opens a book on engineering.
even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark,
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.
And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
the way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,
resuming their daily colloquy,
talking to each other or themselves
even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body-the house of voices-
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,
to listen to all its names being called
before bending again to its labor.