Genre Feature

On Reading Poetry

Hello everyone and welcome to week three of poetry month! We’re just past the half-way point of April, and a week closer to working our way through these trying times! This week for poetry month, I wanted to discuss a few of the different approaches one can have when going to read poetry. I know for both myself and some of my peers, reading poetry can be one of the most daunting parts of approaching the genre due to there be a stigma to read poetry “correctly”. Below are my thoughts on the matter, and feel free to comment as well with your own thoughts and opinions!

Reading Poetry Casually

One of the largest obstacles that I’ve noticed that prevents some of my peers from reading and enjoying poetry is that they believe that poetry is not a genre that can be enjoyed casually. Many times, I find that they were taught in school that there is also something to investigate and study within a poem – that there is a need to dissect a every word and line until the inner heart of the work has been fully uncovered. This is incorrect. Poetry can absolutely be experienced in a more casual manner, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is fully possible to draw meaning and significance from a poem without having to study it.

I think that within recent history, the most significant success story of a campaign for more casual poetry is the insta-poetry movement. To be clear, me labeling insta-poetry as “casual poetry” is not a way of me saying their work is without any culture importance or craft, but rather that the format of shorter, illustrated poems acts as a strong gateway for those looking for an easier to digest experience. While I myself am not a huge fan of insta-poetry itself, the movement has made significant waves within the poetry community and must be respected for its achievements. If you’re looking to take a more casual experience with poetry, insta-poetry may be for you. The most famous collection is Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, but there a plethora of different poets and styles to explore.

As for reading poetry casually, I have a few pieces of advice. First, don’t get caught up on words or phrases that don’t seem to fully understand. Sometime in a poem, the poet is prioritizing portraying a specific feeling through diction rather than planting detail in every single word. If you feel you have the general idea of the poem, then just roll with it! What you take away from a poet can never be wrong. The Reader Response literary theory argues what the reader takes away from a work is 50% of that work anyway (what the author wrote being the other 50%). Thus, never discredit what you personally take away from a work! Your feelings towards a piece are always valid. In addition, don’t feel you need to like every poem. Poems are often derived from some element of the poet’s personal experience in one manner or another. If you find yourself unable to connect with a work or even a whole collection, that is okay. Find one you like; don’t force yourself to read anything you don’t want to.

Reading Poetry Critically

While I do enjoy reading poetry casually, often times I find myself reading poetry critically: searching the diction, syntax, and form for clues about the work’s full context and hypothesizing about the grand purpose of the poem itself. In order to find these clues, I will write reactions, notes, and reminders in the margins, underline significant words or phrases, and list events and objects I connotate with certain parts of the work. So why read critically? In short, it’s enjoyable in the same way a logic puzzle is. While there’s no math and order of events to work through, the study of a poem’s anatomy can help one discover a level of depth that may not have been apparent at a first glance.

If you want to begin reading poetry critically, I highly suggest you take notes. You don’t have to be a monster and write in your books like I do either, even just keeping a small journal, notepad, or sticky notes off to the side can serve the same purpose. This will allow you to keep a log of all your thoughts and questions in a more organized fashion rather than just trying to remember everything. Next, don’t be afraid to get creative! You don’t have to use only the clues presented on the page itself to form conclusions. Sometimes poets will organize their collections so that poems are presented in an order. Or sometimes a poet’s previous works or personal history not detailed in the work are relevant factors into deciphering a work’s full significance. Get creative and use those pieces of information in investigating! Something a subtle as capitalization and punctuation can hold vital clues to a poet’s true intentions! Finally, don’t overthink it. Not every single poem has a deeper meaning and that’s okay. Not every poet constructs their work to be solved. Simple poems and not worse than complex poems. Acknowledge that fact and embrace it. Dig for clue where appropriate.

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I hope this week’s article has made you think about how you read poetry and maybe has encouraged you to try reading some poetry in the alternate style! Next week’s article will be the final entry for our poetry month blog special! If you’d like us to continue this series of articles in some fashion or another post-April, please let us know!

Thanks for reading! Ciao!

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