How to read poetry

Poetry, especially when offered in the first person, can seem profoundly intimate. I think it’s the most intense form of word expression available if you choose to use it that way. That intensity can help fuel the impression that the poetry is an exposing of self.

I suspect the whole business is further complicated by what we might end up reading and hearing – professional contemporary poetry is rare. The industry believes that people no longer buy poetry. As a consequence, what any of us are most likely to encounter at slams or online or in poetry groups, is people who do very much seem to be writing from the heart. Poetry as catharsis, as healing process, cheaper than therapy.

When I posted ‘my facebookfriend has unfriended me’ a bit back, there were sounds of condolence, ‘sorry you’ve had this experience’. There wasn’t a specific experience underlying it, and the emotional energy came from a different set of recent experiences that had annoyed me, but which I couldn’t write about in a way I found useful or amusing. Alchemical transformations in the writing process turn original experience into something that makes sense.

The ‘I’ of the poet can be as much a device as a story author speaking in first person. The ‘voice’ of a poet can be as much a construction as any other form of art. How much do we read the poet in the poem? I know I do it, encountering the poetry of friends, sometimes knowing about some bits they’ve drawn from experience, inferring something of the heart and soul where perhaps what I’ve seen is craft and inspiration.

A poem can be true, without being any kind of literal truth.

A poet can be honest and authentic, without revealing anything of their own story.

But to what extent do we, as readers and audience, need to feel that the poet is indeed hefting up a bit of their heart, or putting a slice of their soul in front of us?


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

7 responses to “How to read poetry

  • John Davis

    It might sound trite…but if you are being creative and putting something in the public domain, I, for one, make the assumption that a slice of your soul IS being revealed. John /l\

    • Nimue Brown

      It’s a good point – I don’t think its possible to create anything without having a bit of yourself in it, one way or another, but what gets read as literal truth – that can be interesting (I used to write smut, there were people who should have known better who assumed it was purely autobiography… )

      • John Davis

        Yes, certainly when I was a parish priest with liberal (some would say heretical) opinions, it was difficult to convince people that something could be both fictional and true at the same time! Yet I guess we would both agree that mythic story is able to carry so much more profound interpretation than literal/historical facts alone. The latter is tied to a time, place, and authorship in a way that myth transcends. Asking “did this happen?” is far less interesting than asking “what does this mean?” John /l\

      • Nimue Brown

        I can get excited about the history connecting to myths and to religious books, but totally agree from a spiritual perspective, what you can do with it is always more important than where it came from.

  • Moonstruck Moxxi

    I generally try to write from the heart in all things, but poetry most of all. You’re dead on that a lot of folks do tend to write poetry as a form of augmentation of the healing process, regardless of the injury. I also feel like that perception might be part of the problem in marketing poetry; you also observed that the industry has noticed, or at least very much believes, that poetry doesn’t sell well.

    Some of the best poetry that I have read, particularly of the classical variety, has been by authors who impart relatively little of themselves into the work, preferring instead to use their words and perception as a lens for others to examine something in a more “spiritual” manner (I hope that makes sense). Poetry might sell better if poets can start to sell the idea that it isn’t just “free therapy”, and convince the industry that it’s more like paintings or sculpture — two fields poetry once stood shoulder to shoulder with, long ago.

  • The people who sneak into your home | Druid Life

    […] Poetry itself is a delivery method which suggests the personal – something I’ve blogged about before. […]

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