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Tips for Reading Poetry

Even the most accomplished readers and gifted writers have their respective blind spots. It may be a classic book they just can’t get into. A renowned writer who goes right over their head. We all have weaknesses. We try to keep an open mind, but one of the unassailable truths of the universe is that not everybody can like everything. Disparities in taste are inevitable, but it seems to me like the reading world has officially cast their votes re: a certain style of the written word. The verdict is: I just don’t get poetry. Fear not! I used to struggle with this as well. I mean, I still do. Most of the time. But I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Here are some tips for cracking the poetry code.  

1) Don’t pause after each line

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Seem counter intuitive? Yeah- that’s what I thought too the first time my professor issued this directive. It actually makes perfect sense, specifically when reading iambic pentameter or anything with a very traditional rhyme scheme. Before I internalized this commandment, every thing I read sounded like “hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock!” If there’s one thing to take away from this rule, it’s that the rhyme scheme is never as important as you think it is. Pausing at line breaks throws off your momentum, and you end up emphasizing the wrong parts of the poem. 

2) First read is a quick read

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Trying to digest a decently long poem in one go is like expecting to finish a four course meal in one bite. Or trying to take in Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment at a glance. No matter how you go at it, you’re gonna have to read the thing at least three times to get even a surface level understanding. However, you shouldn’t put so much pressure on yourself on the first go around. Just plunge into that cold water and get reading. Try to tap into the rhythm if you can. Poetry is inherently more conversational than fiction, so imagine someone might actually be saying the things written. Also, remember, half of poetry is just mood and tone, so your unconscious mind might be doing more work than you realize. I had a professor once tell me that anyone would understand ‘The Wasteland‘ if they just heard TS Eliot read it one time in a pitch black room.

 3) Take notes

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Yep. That’s right. Notes. As in writing in the margins. Juuuust like school. I know reading for leisure should be fun and relaxing, and that’s fine to think like that. But good literature wants you to stretch your mental muscles and it knows you’ll thank it for the extra push. Taking notes on poems is especially helpful when you’re absolutely positive the author is speaking Klingon. After a few reads and some brief notes, it’ll start to look more like your native tongue- I promise. Think of it like plowing through small talk while getting to know a good friend. 

4) Read in the morning

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Now this one is purely a personal preference, but I know lots of people who can vouch for this method. Many authors prefer to write in the morning, because they feel as if they are closer to their unconscious. That’s a bit of a clinical buzzword at this point, but in the heyday of Psychoanalysis, poetry, dreams, and the unconscious mind were three amigos. Freud himself said that, “The poets and philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.” Without invoking any spooky pseudoscience, I think it’s fair to say that something about one’s raw state upon waking renders the mind especially receptive to poetry. Before your mind feels any of the coming day’s pressures, try to slip a few poems in there for your health. Think of it like taking word vitamins.  

5) Read it out loud

 

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Well, you probably knew this one was coming. Granted it requires you read in the privacy of your home, this is probably the one-size-fits-all best advice to give anyone struggling to get into poetry. Poetry is the most conversational literary form. It’s practically inextricably linked to the spoken word (hence the term). Whilst in the process of writing his epic ‘Howl‘, Allen Ginsberg apparently transcribed the conversations of friends and strangers, in order to capture what he dubbed ‘frank talk’: the unique language of the beat era. Ezra Pound once famously stated that he never wrote anything he wouldn’t say in conversation. Reading poetry aloud is the sure-fire best way to gain access to the life-force of the poem that so often evades us. 

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