On Reading Poetry
“I don’t really get poetry.”
“Poetry is hard to understand.”
“Poetry doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Why can’t they just say what they mean?”
I get it. I really do.
I remember reading a poem at the beginning of each English class during my senior year of high school. The teacher would ask the whole class questions about the selected poem, and we would discuss our interpretations and perspectives on the poems. Somehow mine was always off or different than others. I didn’t have the “right” interpretation, so for a while, I kind of gave up trying to understand poetry all together.
A few years post-high school I realized that I had been listening to and reading poetry all throughout high school in a much less tradition form—rap music. While rap isn’t exactly known for its eloquence in the arts nor for clean, classy language, I found poetry in rhythms, beats, and lyrics of rap. Although I didn’t become a rapper (I still got time), I came back around to reading and writing poetry in college and grew to deeply love and appreciate this form of creative writing.
What is Poetry?
Poetry is a writing form that captures many layers of the human experience, diving in to the mystery, spirituality, and emotions of life in a way that direct explanation and logic cannot. Much like song and music, poetry is able to invoke emotion without telling us “this is what you should feel” or “this is what I felt.” Many life experiences go beyond explanation, and poetry wades the waters of mystery and swims in the tensions that exist in our fragmented world.
I think one of the reasons why poetry bothers people or they give up trying to “get it” is because we can’t always figure it out. Poetry paints pictures with words, letting us see and feel our experiences in a whole different dimension. Although not straightforward, every type of person from the most logical minds to the mystic monks, can appreciate and benefit from the life-giving nature of a good poem. Consider this poem titled “An Introduction to Poetry” by one of the most famous American poets, Billy Collins:
by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive. I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch. I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore. But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.
Why Do We Need Poetry?
Contrary to our instapot culture, poetry requires waiting, silence, listening, and submission. I own instapot and use it frequently, but unlike my Texas chili, we can’t pressure cook poetry. We must approach poetry the old-fashioned way—slow cooking. We need two basic, timeless ingredients: the communication skill of listening and the virtue of patience. We need spaces to slow down. We need to re-learn the art of listening and waiting. Poetry doesn’t give us instant gratification, but the more we sit with it, the more we let it simmer within us, it adds an unmatchable richness of flavor to our lives.
How Do We Read Poetry?
Remember when I said earlier that my senior year of high school, I never felt like I had the “right” interpretation? I later learned that many perspectives are needed as a part of the process of interpreting poetry. Poetry is meant to be experienced in community with the artist, context, culture, and audience all in conversation with each other. What the poet intended to portray with her poetry and the context behind the poem is a part of the conversation, but it doesn’t end the conversation. A scary and exciting part of poetry (for the poet) is that once shared with others, poetry begins to generate life and thoughts beyond what the artist may have intended.
The next time you sit down with a poem (and I hope it is soon!) consider these poetry-reading practices:
Slowly and intentionally, read or listen to a poem about three times. Ask yourself what resonated me? Take a little time to dwell on those parts of the poem. Why did it resonate with me? Ask someone else what stood out to them. What feelings did I feel as I read or listened to this poem? Anger? Sadness? Frustration? Joy? Pain? Nostalgia? Hope? Why did I feel these emotions? What connected with me in the poem and what experiences does this bring up for me? Ask someone else what it made them think of or feel.
I hope this is helpful as you navigate the wonderful world of poetry, and may your life be ever-enriched by the soul-touching words of poems new and old.
*Rights & Access:
Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright
1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (University of Arkansas Press, 1996)
On Poetry by Billy Collins