April’s National Poetry Month (hashtag #NaPoMo on Twitter). That means I get to tell you everything I know about reading poetry. I only know 20 things, though, so don’t be overwhelmed.
1. Poetry is best read quickly and with total immersion. Also, read poems slowly. Is that a contradiction? Good. Ask Walt Whitman about contradictions. Read his Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass.
2. A good place to start to study how to read poetry is Mark Van Doren’s Introduction to Poetry. I hear it is out of print, though, so it may be harder to find. If anyone has a good reliable source, leave it in the comments! I won’t sell my copy.
3. T.S. Eliot tells us one of the main functions of poetry is to give names, however, complexly metaphorical the names might be, to emotions that have abided for a long time unspoken in the heart. Can you see that as being true in the poems you read?
4. Be prepared to read poems multiple times. Good poems sustain many close readings without losing their impact.
5. Memorize poems! Read them so many times that you have them fully committed to memory. Don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to memorize this today.” Instead, just read them daily and gradually you will be one with the poem. Zen, right?
6. Read John Stuart Mill’s What is Poetry. I think it is available free from several places online.
7. Try to find and catalog poems for all situations. Find a poem for heartache, a poem for grief, a poem for love, a poem for inspiration, and so forth. That way you can look to them when you need them, for strength.
8. Why did Plato ban poetry in the ideal state? Think about that.
9. Look at the poem as a whole, sometimes, even though the parts are so beautiful.
10. Expect to see some intentional ambiguity. Poets love that trick! They use it to make you think.
11. Take the time to really dwell in any “aha!” moments that poems inspire. These can stick with you for life.
12. Read poetry out loud to hear how it sounds. It was written to be read in this way.
13. Read Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?
14. Here are some fancy terms you can play with on your own time, if you want: (1) paraphrasable content (2) rational structure (3) image structure (4) metrical structure (5) sound structure (6) syntactical structure.
15. Here are some more: (7) pyrrhic (8) spondee (9) trochee.
16. Structure doesn’t mean rhyme and poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. Even if it doesn’t rhyme there may be some beautiful repetition of similar sounds to look out for.
17. More terms: (10) alliteration, (11) cacophony, (12) assonance? When you see these in a poem, ask what these things add to what a poem means? Do they emphasize anything?
18. How many sentences appear in a line? Are there any grammatical patterns repeated? How does that add to the meaning? The poet did this for a reason, why?
19. Poetry can be read in one sitting. For that reason, it’s not a bad place to start to exercise your reading muscles!
20. Goethe: “Every day one should at least hear one little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and- if at all possible-speak a few sensible words.”
Good online resources for free poems:
a. Poem Hunter
b. All Poetry
My favorite poem: T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
Here is a good poem to read, as an Introduction to Poetry.