How Do You Read Poetry?

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I suspect nearly everyone has at some time suffered through an English class where the teacher taught a section on poetry. I would also take liberty to say that they taught it by emphasizing symbolism, metaphor, analogy, simile, and hidden meanings (!) as if all “good” poetry contained all of those. One of the main poems they use in this teaching is T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.”

I have totally lost track of the number of people who have told me “I don’t get poetry.” I asked them if they have experienced all of the above, and they invariably say yes to all of it.

At this point I always tell them that their teacher got it wrong. I tell them that the first and most important way to read a poem is to take it at face value; just read it for what it says and don’t worry about all the stuff that might be hidden within it. Most important of all is what you get from the poem. If you read Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” and all you get is a great story about a hometown hero who fails, then for goodness sakes let it go at that.

Let me take another poem and tell you how I look at it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43” begins with the line “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Dozens, if not hundreds, of comics down through the years have gone on from that with “One, two, three…” If you have ever heard it, I suspect it’s impossible for you to read that line without at least thinking about someone counting. The next line and a half reads “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach”. Here, I get a mental image of a little girl flinging her hands wide apart and exclaiming “I love you THIS much!” The rest of the poem is the grown-up little girl explaining her love in more adult terms ending with “and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” If there are hidden meanings, or any of that other stuff, here I don’t see them and I don’t look for them. It’s a beautiful expression of love, and I simply leave it at that.

If you have any leftover angst from the way you were taught poetry in school, I hope this has given you some relief. I always tell anyone who reads one of my poems that if they find any hidden meanings, symbolism, analogies, metaphors, or similes within my poems, the chances are very good I did not put them there. When I was being taught poetry in that manner, I suspected that a good many of the poets involved would’ve been equally surprised to find all of that “extra stuff” within their poems as well. Well, maybe not T.S. Eliot in that infamous “Love Poem”; but even there, I can’t help thinking he had many a good laugh about it.

Now, if you enjoy reading poems for what may be contained within them, don’t let me dissuade you. But if you secretly avoid reading or leaving comments about certain poems because you feel you haven’t adequately understood the “real meaning”, let me put you at ease. Sometimes, a flower is just a flower, a walk in the park is just a walk in the park, and a poem is just a poem.

12 comments

  1. Hi, Michael!

    I enjoyed reading your writing on this rainy June evening. Now I’m off to my kitchen to make strawberry jam on Day One of our summer break. This 8-jar batch will most likely be the last this year as strawberry season is fading. Thanks for sharing personal insights about poetry reading & writing. I may be inspired to write a bit later. Wait! I’m reading books on this rainy day, and the next chapter is calling me.

    Take care.
    Jan

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  2. Thank you Sarah. It seems to be the closest thing to a universally shared experience, at least in the USA, that I’ve ever seen.

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  3. Well expressed. I agree that what the reader reads is valid and real, and it is a shame if they feel they would be judged in some way. And I agree about flowers, walks in the park, rain, and other things. PS: Personally, I steal lyrics from pop songs regularly. 😸

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  4. Thank you Steve. Yes, I’m surprised how many who say they don’t “get” poetry say it as though they expect me to make something of it; not ashamed, but almost defiant: “Well, I don’t, so there!”

    PS: I have been known to “adapt” lines from other sources, putting them in my own words. By the way, if you listen to popular songs, you will find most of them are poetry set to music.

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  5. Hi Michael

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your take on “reading poetry”. Sometimes, indeed, a poem literally means what it says. I heard once from a reliable source that when Robert Frost wrote “stopping by the woods on a snowy evening”, “he simply repeated the line

    And miles to go before I sleep
    and miles to go before I sleep

    because he liked the sound of it, it gave the poem a sense of pleasure.” And of course scholars over the years have read something deep and philosophical into the repetition. As a poet, I am drawn to metaphor and other tools used in poetry but that is me. I am first and foremost, an imagist. I like something that is not always meant to be explained but leaves the reader haunted, something that is tangible but yet illusive. Anyway, thank you for sharing this very keen and observant perspective on poetry.

    My Best
    Wendy

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  6. Thank you Wendy. If I had to sum up my commentary in one sentence, it would be: “First, read the poem for pleasure; then whether to look deeper is your choice, but at least you will have enjoyed the poet’s tale first. I use “that other stuff” occasionally. Look at “Taking Over” as an example; at the start I tried to make the violets sounds like a group of immigrants.

    I always liked that ending of Robert Frost’s poem. It always made me feel that the poet/narrator would gladly curl up and sleep right there, but was pushing himself onward. Some years back I wrote a parody of that poem as part of a challenge. I used the double line there too, and like Frost I liked the feel of it.

    In the Woodtop Ballroom on a Snowy Evening
    (Based on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost)

    Whose shoes these are, I think I know,
    which have new scuffs upon the toe.
    I stepped on them a moment ago,
    as we were out here dancing slow.

    The ballroom band must think it odd
    to see you only laugh and smile
    when twice upon your feet I’ve trod
    in such a very little while.

    They don’t know when you were sick
    I promised you that we would dance
    in any public place you’d pick
    if we could ever have the chance.

    So I’ll trip the Klutz Fantastic,
    you’ll wear your steel-tipped shoe,
    and we’ll dance again before we’re through.
    We’ll dance again before we’re through.

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  7. Hi Michael

    This is humorous and delightful! I really like your take on the original and how you have integrated Frost’s cadence and theme into “Stepping on those toes” on the dance floor. Also like the term “Klutz Fantastic”. Very effective and of course, strophe 3

    They don’t know when you were sick
    I promised you that we would dance
    in any public place you’d pick
    if we could ever have the chance.

    which underscores the poem with a sense of wistfulness — and how true, when recovering from an illness or other condition, we look forward to something as simple as a dance and the natural circumstances surrounding the event often have a random humor happening. A sense of humor sustains us through many experiences and situations that can be challenging.

    Thanks so much for sharing,
    my best
    Wendy

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you Wendy. When doing a parody, I always try to match the cadence of the original. I like to think I have a fairly good ear for it. Just for clarity, the situation as described is a complete fabrication. Fortunately, my wife is never been that ill – though I like to think I would have made her such a promise and would have carried through on it.

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