Reading is a skill that goes far beyond assembling symbols into sounds and letter clusters into words. Being able to infer and read between the lines, and also knowing when to take the words at face value. Placing historical context from language, assessing characters from speech – I think we learn how to be better humans by learning how to be better readers. But then, I’m an author so I’m probably biased.
In the last few months I’ve been trying to become a reader of poetry. That’s brought up a number of challenges. I’ve got plenty of great poetry – that bit was easy. How to approach a book of poetry? If I sit down and read page after page, as I might with fiction, or non-fiction, it doesn’t quite work. I need to pause more often, at the very least. There’s usually no continuity between poems, so there’s no momentum to move one to the next, none of the ‘page turning’ effect so popular in genre fiction. A lot of poems I end up reading two or three times – something I seldom do with sections of prose writing. Sometimes, having read them silently, I feel the need to read them out loud.
I find it isn’t possible to consume poetry in the same way that I would other writing. It requires me to slow down, to think, to sip rather than gulping. I have to think differently as well. There is no scope to lose myself in a plot or an alternative reality for any length of time. I don’t read much epic poetry, and I find shorter work draws me back to the moment and requires me to think a bit more about how what I’ve read relates to everything else.
We expect fiction to make narrative sense and provide us with recognisable characters who are doing things. Non-fiction is equally required to offer coherence and also clear meanings. Poetry is not obliged to do any of this. There may be meanings to discover, obfuscated by layers of symbolism, and metaphor. Sometimes those aren’t apparent. Sometimes it is the experience of the sounds and words that seems to matter most, the emotional impact of the moment, not an intellectual unravelling of clues. In this way, poetry is a lot more like life than other forms of writing. Life seldom announces its meanings or intended direction.
How to do it? How to set aside the right amount of time to read a poem or two well, and not fall into the trap of trying to read a poetry book like any other kind of book. How to make that part of life? How to engage with these words without trying to gobble them up? How to slow down enough. A life with poetry in it is clearly very different from a life without poetry, and learning to be a reader may be going to take me a while.