I was so pleased last month when the book group I'm in voted to read its first collection of poems, The Mansion of Happiness by Robin Ekiss. I promised them I'd put together a few tips on how to read poetry, even though the idea of telling someone how to read poetry is a dangerous thing. So, I decided to write simply about how I approach the reading of poetry. And this is what I came up with:
Here are a few thoughts on reading poetry, which come from personal experience. I can't promise these comments will make reading poetry any better for you, but if you're feeling like you don't know where to begin, they might help you find a jumping off point.
1. I like to flip through the book without reading to see the shape of the poems ahead of me. Seeing whether the poems are long or short, dense or spare, evenly structured or scattered across the page helps me to mentally prepare for reading.
2. I also scan the table of contents, looking at how the book is structured (in parts, chapters, if there is a conceptual element to the structure). This also gives me a chance to see if there are any titles that attract me.
3. Poets put thought into what order their poems appear, but it doesn't mean that one has to read the collection as if it were a story - from beginning to end. It can be pleasurable, especially at first, to read at random.
4. I try not to get too hung up on understanding every poem. I know there will be poems that reward me right away and others that seem inaccessible, even troublesome, to deal with. It's okay to move on from the more difficult ones. I know I can always go back to them later when I have a better grasp of the work.
5. I've had the experience many times of reading a poem and not registering a thing. Then, on the second or third read or the next day or the next year, the meaning of the poem makes itself known to me. Our experience as readers is mysterious. For whatever reason (mood, fatigue, ADD), some poems won't open right away. It can take our subconscious mind time to make sense of all the elements. This is one of the keys of reading poetry - to take your time.
6. I have found pleasure in the slowness of reading poetry. Others might find the level of concentration and focus needed to get through a book of poems a drag, but to me the space of a poem is a respite from the mad swirl of everyday life. Each poem is like a spell or a sacrament. Spells work magic, and a sacrament is a means of divine grace.
7. In poetry, feeling, emotion, action and meaning are condensed into precise images, words, sounds, shapes and rhythms. When reading a collection, I let the poems and images pile up in my mind. It's only after a time that they begin to make sense in relation to one another, like constellations in the sky.
8. "...poems are endlessly interpretable. There is always something about them that evades the understanding, and I have tried to remain aware of that, as Paul Valéry has put it, 'The power of verse is derived from an indefinable harmony between what it says and what it is. Indefinable is essential to the definition.'" - Edward Hirsch, from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry