Does that word make you feel queasy?
Does it make you feel happy?
I honestly never liked reading poetry much. I thought it was hard and weird, so as I did with most everything that was hard, when I was a kid, I ignored it.
I had the surprise of my life during my first year of teaching when I found out that most of my kids, and by most I mean my mostly low income 8th graders (schools have statistics on these things) were very excited about the poetry unit.
For me, as a reader, it was all about all of those lovely word on the page, so I liked prose, but you know what the kids said? “We like it because there are hardly any words on the page.”
Now you may interpret that anyway you wish, but as I understood it, since there was less for them to negotiate, in terms of text, there was more time for them to think. Ok, so apparently poetry is a great thing for doing exactly what we want kids to do: read more.
But then we get out of school and hardly ever look at a poem again, unless it’s on a Facebook post, or maybe a card.
Most of us don’t think of it as something we sit down and read, and if we do, a lot of us don’t talk about it.
Wouldn’t you be afraid people would think you were stuck up?
“What are you reading, Game of Thrones?”
“No, I’m reading Emily Dickinson.”
Can you imagine?
Or even worse, you would get the type who would try to slam you will all kinds of literary jargon, and you would be embarrassed.
You know what I mean.
But you know, poetry is not really that big a deal…it’s really just sort of random thoughts and allusions and dreams. Really, if you think about it, poetry is what we have in our heads before we are even verbal.
The next time you have a dream, try to write it down. I bet what comes out looks a lot like poetry. And when you are a baby, or don’t have language yet, that’s all you have.
Now, I can go through and tell you exactly how to go through a poem line by line and pull out the poet’s intentions and then come up with a lot of examples of literary techniques to support your idea. I can do that because I taught English, and I’m also kind of competitive, so I was good at coaching my students to do well on their external exams.
And yes, I admit it: not only was I competitive, but I also thought it was kind of fun. Some people play sports, some people try to see what they can get out of a poem.
But it you’re reading this, you probably read for fun, and either want to try something new or get more out of the reading you do. So you probably don’t need to know about competitive poetry analysis.
Although exams and grades are important for students, the main reason we make all students read “literature” in high school and university to expose them to an important aspect of culture and to give them a basic appreciation for it that they will use throughout life. In short, you are supposed to get the skills to be an “informed reader”.
It’s kind of the same thing we do in art and music, but literature and reading is considered important enough to require it of everyone, every year, because without this skill, you can’t be an informed contributor to a democracy. Make sense?
There’s a reason that Hitler burned books and also why was AGAINST THE LAW to teach a slave to read in antebellum US.
That’s the “liberal arts” part of a liberal arts education. But when it comes to poetry, I actually think educators, including myself, do a pretty poor job. You know why? Because probably most teachers do not read poetry outside of school, even high school English teachers, so they don’t really think that anyone is going to either.
How to figure out what poetry to read:
1. Expose yourself to poetry by finding some good general collections and poetry websites. It’s usually good to find collections that have several poems by the same author and perhaps a little background. You can’t really tell what you like from a single, isolated poem. Also skip the collections that give you an explanation of the poem; the idea is for you to make your own meaning. See below for some ideas.
2. Visit some bookstores and libraries to browse.
3. Once you have an idea of the poets you like, try to find individual collections of the poet’s work.
Poetry collections have smaller press runs than other category of book do, and they go out of print more quickly. The small press runs make them more expensive than larger books (novels), so the might seem like poor value. Just keep in mind that you will probably only read a novel once, whereas you will dip into a good poetry collection that you love often.
Note: “press run” means the number of books published. The smaller the press run, the more expensive the book because of economy of scale. “In print” means if new copies of the book are still being published. If you can only find used copies for sale online, the book is “out of print”, meaning at the present it isn’t being published. Books do go “back in print” if their is enough interest in them. The “backlist” or “back catalogue” is the term for books that have been out for a while but are still being printed/published.
So which makes sense to get from the library, and which makes sense to buy?
Of course, you can’t buy everything, so I’ve explained how to acquire books that you want and like below.
Finding and buying poetry books
Often deceased poet’s work is only available in a large “compendium” collection. This collection may seem like a good value, but actually reading one can be overwhelming. If you get one of these collections, make sure that the groupings of individual collections have been preserved as the poet planned them, otherwise a collection that seems like “good value” will actually be too overwhelming to bother with.
I have a collection on my shelf right now from an author I like that is unread because there is no organizing principle, and I don’t know where to start.
Note: “Uncollected” poems were previously published, most likely in a magazine or in a collection of many poets. “Unpublished” or “lost” poems have never been published before: sometimes additional work is found after a poet’s death; sometimes the work wasn’t considered worthy of publication until the poet became famous.
The work of established living poets is published in collections. The order and number of the poems is important, so pay attention to that!
Poetry is also a good thing to buy from an independent author. Independent authors pay to have their work published rather than getting paid to publish, and they have to market their books themselves. They might also have small booklets or “chapbooks” for sale. Think of buying from an indie author as the same thing as buying something at art festival: you are paying more to get something cool, different, and individualized.
Go to “nonfiction”, the 800 section. American Poetry in English is in 811, British Poetry is in 821. For poetry in other countries, wander around a bit if the library is not too large, or ask the librarian (go to information, not the check out desk).
A big city library is likely to have more contemporary poetry than areas that are mainly suburban or rural. You might want to check around; often you can get a free library card from a locality even if you don’t live there. You also might be able to get a card from your local university libraries, especially if it is a state institution. Many universities offer this privilege to locals as a public service.
The Brooklyn Public Library offers a card to anyone with a U.S. address to use for e-books for $50 a year.
Check around; you might be surprised.
Bookstores usually have separate sections for for poetry.
Chain stores (such as Barnes & Noble) have an ok, but general collection that tends to lean toward large collections or poets studied in school. A store in an “artsy” area or near a university might have a better selection; the stock in individual stores is somewhat tailored to the location. Don’t expect the staff to know too much though. You can special order anything, and you can review before you buy.
Also remember that you can return a book to Amazon within a month if the book is in unread condition. Amazon book returns have gotten really easy: all you have to do is drop the book at a UPS store and let the store scan the code on your phone. Just be careful with the book until you are sure you want to keep it.
Independent Bookstores usually have more interesting poetry sections that cater to the store’s particular clientele. They also tend to have the work of local authors and locally-connected work. You can also special order with no obligation to buy, but do seek the clerk’s advice and ask for help. Keep in mind that “indies” have smaller profit margins that chains, but the person at the counter is usually more knowledgable and also probably has more to do with purchasing for the store.
Websites and Blogs
Family Friend Poems (Note: publishing decisions on this site are made by crowdsourcing! Fun!)
10 Wonderful Children’s Poets You Should Know from LitHub. I know and like all of these poets, FYI.
Note: the best children’s poets don’t generally write just for children. Often the best children’s poems are poems that children will like rather than those written especially for them.
Poetry spans the generations better than any other genre.
I have a book of poetry in front of me.
I think of books as objects that are meant to be read from front to back, from beginning to end, with every page placed in the book so that you are meant to come to it at a certain time, and that includes poetry collections. I wasn’t sure though, so I went to the professionals: I joined a poetry group on Facebook, and asked them.
Of course, what was really hard is that there don’t seem to be any groups dedicated to reading poetry even though there are a lot dedicated to reading “books” (i.e. mostly novels).
But the poets and I mostly agree: they are meant to be read from front to back, but they can also be “dipped” into, or what I call “puddle jumping”. That’s why it’s nice to have poetry books around: when you sit down, you can pick it up and read a little and then do what you have to do.
I don’t like drawings or art in my poetry book unless they are the work of the poet or specifically included by the poet for a reason. Because it’s getting easier and cheaper to publish color art, and probably because I suspect that the object “the book” is getting more important than the “text” due to e-publishing, more books are being published in which the graphics (art, drawings, photographs, sometimes even internet video links) are an intentional part of the book. But otherwise, white space is good. The idea if for you to put your thoughts there (I mean that both metaphorically and literally). Certainly draw or make notes if you’ve a mind to. Otherwise, the white space is meant to be like a silence so you can think rather than having a random drawing tell you.
The idea is that you are sort of having a conversation with the poet.
Going social with poetry
You can attend “Poetry Slams” or poetry readings. A Poetry Slam is sort of an open-mike event in which different authors read or recite their work. A Reading probably has on author or maybe a prescheduled group.
But it’s easy to make poetry a do-it-yourself social event, especially if you already have a book club.
Use a single copy of a book that you pass around to different people, who leave notes and sketches for future readers. This was actually an early form of social media; read about it in What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, below. Doing this also offsets the high cost of the books. You can always hold drawings to see who “wins” the book.
Poetry is meant to be heard as much, or more than, it is meant to be read silently. You probably know that minstrels used to go around telling stories as entertainers; their stories were often in verse as a memory aid for the minstrel and a listening aid for the audience.
Read or recite with your friends or club, but practice first!
Remember these quick oral reading/ reciting guidelines:
You don’t stop at the end of each line: follow the punctuation. If there isn’t any, you aren’t supposed to pause on purpose although you will do so slightly while your eyes track back to the beginning of the next line.
If the words are hard to pronounce, the author probably wants you to slow down; just do what comes naturally and take is easy. Softer sounds are meant to sound smooth and be slow, harder sounds are meant to be quicker and sound more harsh.
Don’t use that weird, sanctimonious tone. You don’t sound smart. You sound like something else.
If you are unsure, it’s easy to find recordings online for guidance, but try to listen to more than one of the same poem, then do your own thing. Don’t just imitate. You can find a lot of options here.
Most importantly, you don’t have to understand everything when you read poetry. You aren’t supposed to. Going back to the dream analogy, usually why get fascinated in our own dreams is because we can see where all the different bits and pieces come from, but we can’t figure out why. Of course, if we’re adults, we know better than to discuss them with anyone but our very closest friends, and then only briefly. Poems work the same way: there are different images, ideas, and experiences…all kinds of things jammed up against each other. Although a poem is written in words, the feelings are pre-verbal: you have to feel them because you might not have the words, if that makes sense.
Since most poems are pretty short, you have more opportunities to reread. Your response will change according to the way you’ve changed, and you will probably see different things.
How to Read a Poem: Practical Guidance
My baseline rule for responding to poetry is this: make sure you take the last line and THE TITLE WRITTEN BY THE AUTHOR into account.
Sometimes, if the author is not into titling poems, the editor just makes the first line of the poem the title to keep English teachers from losing their minds. That’s fine, English teachers need their minds, but it doesn’t count for meaning. Emily Dickinson is an example of this practice: she didn’t title any of hers.
If the poem doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the title, think about why that is.
Whatever you do, if the poet wrote the title, think about it. If they didn’t, think about that.
The last line is really important. A lot of people think Emily Dickinson’s poetry is soft and sweet, but actually she likes to put a killer zinger in the last line. She does her best to make you see it because she usually messes with the rhythm too, and makes it shorter than the other lines, but I guess people tire out by then and don’t pay attention. Pay attention. It’s the middle part that you can kind of gloss over if you don’t get it right away, but pay attention to the end to understand the poem. Often, all the random threads are brought together with the bit the author wants you to remember.
You will see the wit of these people and enjoy poetry more.
Click here for a blog post from the National Endowment for the Arts with more poetry-reading advice. Note that I wrote my post before I found this, so take any similarities as proof that the technique will work, not as plagiarism. I was going for the big picture…I’m adding this post because it does a nice job of explaining some of the same ideas in more detail and adds more points that I didn’t think of!
More from The Lois Level
Dorothy Parker is known for her short stories more than her poetry, but I love her snark. Some of her short stories make me sad.
If you like this explanation of poetry, see what you think of my take on short stories
Cover photo credit https://images.app.goo.gl/oYQh4qGzZ4eDnNdV9, Jeremy Segrott, Swansea, South Wales, April 3 2018