At one time or another, when face-to-face with a poem, most everyone has been perplexed. The experience of reading a poem itself is as likely to turn us off, intellectually or emotionally, as it is to move us. Unless patronized by celebrities, set to music, accompanied by visuals, or penned by our own children, poems do a terrible job of marketing themselves. All those ragged lines and affected white spaces make them appear as though they should be treated only as pieces of solemn art. Look but don't get too close, and definitely don't touch.
But what if the fine art of reading poetry isn't so fine after all? What if the predicament about poems is precisely our well-intentioned but ill-fitting dispositions toward reading them?
Dispel the notion that reading poetry is going to dramatically change your life. Your life is continually changing; most of the time you're simply too busy to pay enough attention to it. Poems ask you to pay attention—that's all.
When you read a poem, especially a poem not meant to be a "spoken word" poem, always read it out loud. (Never mind what they said in grammar school—to subvocalize so that you won't bother your peers.) Your ear will pick up more than your head will allow. That is, the ear will tell the mind what to think.
There are two ways to read a poem out loud: by minding the line breaks, adding brief pauses at the end of each line; or, by following the punctuation, whether or not it matches up with the end of the line. Neither way is better than the other in any essential way. But reading as though the line break is punctuation (a pause) will sound more affected (possibly pretentious) than reading as though the lines are all prose. As a matter of examination or composition, read by overemphasizing the end-of-the-line pause. As a matter of performance (as at a poetry reading), read to the punctuation.
Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to "relate" to a poem in order to understand it, you aren't reading it sufficiently. In other words, don't try to fit the poem into your life.
Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.
Marianne Moore said that poems are "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." Translation: (a) a poem gives you a sense of the world but in a world of its own sense; and (b) all life is an imaginary garden, and we are the toads.
Is a poem real or artificial? One answer: a poem is all real while you are reading it and it is all artificial because it was written down for you to read.
Whether or not you are conscious of it, you are always looking for an excuse to stop reading a poem and move on to another poem or to do something else entirely. Resist this urge as much as possible. Think of it as a Buddhist regards a pesky gnat. The gnat, like the poem, may be irritating, but it's not going to kill you to brave it for a little while longer.
"Reading for pleasure" implies there's "reading for displeasure" or "reading for pain." All reading should be pleasurable: Like sex, it pleases to a greater or lesser degree, but pleasure ultimately isn't the only point.
When you come across something that appears "ironic," make sure it's not simply the speaker's sarcasm or your own disbelief.
Reading a poem will probably at first create a picture in your mind. A set of objects, a character, a scene. But it need not do this. Sometimes a poem will create a frame for a picture or the outline of a puzzle but not provide a single piece. Sometimes all you get is the piece—what some call a lyric.
Perform marginalia. Reading without writing in the margins is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach your destination, but it'll always feel like you're missing something essential about the activity.
The idea that a poem can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways is patently false. There may be a handful of ways, but that doesn't mean that examining a poem is a free-for-all. Reading poems is a practice. And it helps to practice reading all kinds of poems, especially those you've never seen before—new or old.
The very best way to read a poem is perhaps to be young, intelligent, and slightly drunk. There is no doubt, however, that reading poems in old age cultivates a desire to have read more poems in youth.
The trick to reading poetry is to find poems you like! It can be hard going. You can take the simple step of subscribing to one of the free "poem-a-day" services offered by the Poetry Foundation, Academy of American Poets, etc. They'll send you a poem (variously new and old) each morning. Some will be to your liking, some won't. Just don't worry about those that don't stay with you, and keep going. Or, you can take a larger leap and seek out the poetry section of a university library. At random pick a book off the shelf, thumb its pages. When you find poems you like, put the book in a stack until you have about ten books. This may take you an hour or a few hours. Check out the books, take them home, and put them on the kitchen table. Pore over them at meals instead of poring over a screen. Make it a practice: checking out books and returning them on their due dates. Do this for a year and you'll be better read in poetry than the vast majority of English PhDs.
There is nothing really lost in reading a poem. If you don't understand the poem, you lose little time or energy. On the contrary, there is potentially much to gain—a new thought, an old thought seen anew, or simply a moment separated from all the other highly structured moments of your time.
Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value. They are rooms that take up such little room. A memorized poem, or a line or two, becomes part internal jewelry and part life-saving skill, like knowing how to put a mugger in an arm-lock or the best way to cut open a mango without slicing your hand.
We don't remember poems; we remember aphoristic lines from poems. Or we misremember them and are still pleased.
Horace was right when he said that poetry should "inform and delight." Though not all poems do both. And some do neither.
Some poems teach a moral or spin a yarn. Others reflect, ruminate, or meditate.
Some prophesize or warn. Others offer catharsis, shock, or gibberish. Some lament and protest. Others document or memorialize. Still others transform the page or screen into a canvas for mark-making, or into a map for syntactic exploration.
Poems can do many of these things at the same time. Be aware, however, that other arts and disciplines may be better suited to accomplish these aims. Novels have their complex narratives. Movies: their combinations of picture, sound, and story. Video games: their mesmerization. Plastic arts: their displays of creators' hands. Photographs: their frozen moments of time. Philosophy: its speculation. Neuropsychology: its probing of cognition and behavior. Social work: its social justice. And dance: its sublime destruction of the knees.
Emily Dickinson articulated the purpose of poetry like this: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Why slant? So that we can re-see what we so often take for granted. In a good poem something familiar is made unfamiliar, perhaps even strange. Freud called this phenomenon Das Unheimliehe ("the uncanny"). The critic Viktor Shklovsky termed it ostranenie ("defamiliarization"). And T. S. Eliot, in one of his Four Quartets, put the entire project of poems (and life) like this: "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."
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About the Author
Mark Yakich is Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, editor of the New Orleans Review, and a poet and novelist. His next two poetry collections, Poetry for Planes and Spiritual Exercises, are forthcoming with Eyewear and Penguin, respectively.
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