When you think of poetry, do your palms immediately start sweating? Does your mind go back to high school, when teachers asked you to write essays on the meanings of seemingly inscrutable poems? Does reading a poem leave you confused, or feeling like you’re just not enough of an “expert” to understand?
These were just a few of the concerns I encountered when I told a class of undergraduates that we were going to be reading a book of poetry as a component of a college writing course. At the time, I was getting my master’s degree in creative writing, and poetry was my genre. Though poetry brings me joy, I realize it fills some of us with dread. Both the way some of us have been taught to interact with poetry and the rapid pace of modern life can make reading poetry more of a chore than a delight.
If you’re someone seeking to make poetry a greater part of your reading routine, below are a few ways that I hope will make approaching poetry a more enjoyable experience.
01. Change your reading stance.
Did you know that reading a poem is different than the typical reading we do for something like a class? The concept of “stance” is discussed in educator and researcher Louise M. Rosenblatt’s book The Reader, the Poem, the Text. Rosenblatt differentiates between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading stances, which are distinguished “primarily from the difference in the reader’s focus of attention” while reading. In efferent reading, Rosenblatt says, the goal is to glean information: “The reader’s attention is focused primarily on what will remain as the residue after the reading—the information to be acquired, the logical solution to a problem, the actions to be carried out.” This differs from aesthetic reading, which deals more with the reader’s interior response to the poem: “In aesthetic reading, the reader’s attention is centered directly on what he is living through during his relationship with that particular text.”
So while I might use the efferent reading stance in most of the reading I do—to read an email, to study for an exam, and even to gain knowledge of the plot in a story—poetry is more like watching a sunset. While I may not be aware of all the physical and chemical processes happening in the atmosphere to make this sunset possible, I am aware of how I feel watching the remnants of the golden hour, the way the clouds go from orange to pink to dusky lavender. And I may be moved by the beauty of this moment because it reminds me of a particular person or memory. This is what it means to occupy the aesthetic stance.
A person does not need to be an “expert” in poetry to appreciate a poem. (I might be so bold as to argue that there are no experts when it comes to poetry.) Instead of approaching a poem with a question like “what is this poem about?” I’ve taken to reading poems with the question, “What do I enjoy in this poem?” Even if there’s only one particular word or line that sticks out in a poem, that’s enough to make my reading feel worthwhile.
02. If you haven’t found poetry that appeals to you yet, keep looking.
Another concept that I’ve found helpful for cultivating an appreciation for poetry is that of thresholds. Poet Gregory Orr describes thresholds in his book Poetry as Survival as “that place just beyond which chaos and randomness reign,” a place informed by our life experience and our individual temperament. Orr uses the metaphor of a door frame to talk about our threshold, which is really just a fancy word for our individual comfort zone when it comes to reading. If we imagine our comfort zone as a house, a good poem, Orr says, should invite us into the unknown places beyond our front door.
Practically speaking, this means that the poem best suited to us should take us just past our comfort zone, but not so far that we have no idea what is happening in the poem. It may be that a poem will need a few readings or a discussion with a friend before it starts making sense, but the poem best fitted for me will also provide me with something familiar. For example, I’m often moved by poems that play with language, or include attentiveness to natural scenes. A poem that emphasizes either of these themes often provides me with enough familiar information to approach it with a sense of comfort.
03. Poems are like dark chocolate. Savor them.
Though our culture promotes efficiency and completing tasks quickly, poems ask us to slow down. Whenever I’m reading a book of poetry, I have to remember to read the poems a few at a time, so I have enough time to enjoy each of them.
I have found that reading poetry makes me more attentive to the details of the everyday—a smile on a person’s face, the unexpected joy found in conversation over tea with friends, the gentle way in which one of my friends speaks to other people. I find that I see the world a little differently too. Something as simple as a rose on a restaurant table or an autumn leaf is significant enough to notice and celebrate. As a result, I’m more grateful for the little things.
I’ve also found that some poems improve upon reading them again. Just as a connoisseur of wine or chocolate can appreciate the subtler notes in taste and texture from multiple tasting experiences, so too can appreciation for poetry deepen with repeated encounters.
Over time, I’ve collected favorite poems whose lines come to me in times of joy and sorrow. I’ve listed a couple of these poems below, but one that’s been on my mind lately is a prose poem (a poem that looks more like paragraphs than a traditional poem) by Naomi Shihab Nye called “Mint Snowball.” I love it because, through Nye’s words, I can see the old-fashioned ice cream store and taste the minty concoction the speaker’s great grandfather created. The world Nye creates in this poem is inviting, and I leave the poem happier, fuller somehow. And I think that’s what good poems do—they say things in ways I’ve never thought to say them, and they stick with me like a good memory I keep wanting to revisit.
Wondering about where to begin poem-wise? Here are a few personal favorites:
- “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins I delight in the word-play and amazing rhythm, and recommend that you read this poem aloud.
- “[may my heart always be open to little / birds]” by e.e. cummings I love his quirky style and his ability to make the details of ordinary life extraordinary. I also recommend his “[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in].”
- “Supernatural Love” by Gjertrud Schnackenberg The poem blends a personal experience and an awesome word origin story in lovely rhymed tercets.
- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot Warning, this is a long one, and a bit mysterious. It took me quite a few encounters before I came to love the speaker, the shy and self-deprecating Prufrock. So many good lines in here, like “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” Prufrock is incredibly dramatic.