Reading poetry

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.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Reading poetry

  • angharadlois

    My reading habits favour poetry and short stories (and myths, legends, folktales) – anything I can dip into for a few minutes’ pure readerly indulgence during lunchbreaks or train journeys. I tend to read out of sequence, flicking through the book until something catches my eye. Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal was a recent favourite.

    Incidentally, have you come across The Reader organisation? They’re based just down the road from us, and they’re fab. 🙂

    • angharadlois

      …I wanted to delete that last reply to write something more considered, but this will have to do! I find that reading poetry requires total immersion for a while, and the pause after reading a poem often feels like coming up for air, while I look around me and let the feel of the poem ground itself in my experience of the world. Reading out loud helps if I feel I am not quite “getting it”.

    • Nimue Brown

      The Reader looks like a fab organisation. I need more hours in the day…

  • Irisa MacKenzie

    For me, reading poetry is an act of savoring and contemplation. So i read some withmy morning coffe, which for me is after feeding kids so it is an act of slowing down and taking time to be me. Usually, it fuels the writing I do at naptime.

  • greenmackenzie

    I think of poems as little breathing spaces. The effect of it on me is as if not more important than the words and form itself. I read a poem in a space in my day to nourish my creative fire. A poem read will tumble around in my mind causing all sorts of wonderful thoughts and if it’s a good one, new connections….a little twist on the world I think I know.
    So I might read one in the morning and another over lunch or at bedtime….but never two in a row without digestion space 🙂

  • Aurora J Stone

    There is an intensity in writing poetry as there is in reading it. The poet doesn’t have all those pages to waffle around and use lots of words to set a scene or make a point or describe an event or emotion. I love to write poetry, though I am usually a fairly wordy person. I love the hard work and immediacy of it, as I do in the reading of poems. Poetry takes a whole different kind of mindset/heartset/soulset to write as well as a kind of mindspace/heartspace/soulspace that is not that used in most regular activities — as least that is the case for me. I am usually swept out of time by an event or experience and must follow where it leads me. Often when I am done I look at what I’ve written and wonder: ‘Who wrote that?’

  • catchersrule

    I tend to look at poetry – both when writing it and when reading it – as therapeutic. When I was younger and suffering abuse, I wrote out my pains. When I was a little older than that, I read it aloud and used it to help me deal with feelings. When I was in my twenties and recovering from my second stroke, I read a translated version of the poetic saga “Kalevala” while in a rehab facility (it helped me much more than all that PT/OT work, I swore at the time, though now I think it supplied an important psychological bit of help as well as assisting me in retraining my eye muscles). I can, therefore, depending on the issue at hand, drink it in sips or “It comes in pints??” gulps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: