8 Tips for Reading Poetry

Recommendations of poems and lists of poets are easy to find (Mischa Willett offers some excellent suggestions). But I suspect these often fall on deaf ears for many Christian readers who—even if they like the idea of poetry as a way to deepen their devotional life or communion with God—simply don’t know how to enjoy a poem. 

This article is my attempt to help readers overcome what can seem like a daunting task of approaching and appreciating poetry. Here are eight tips for engaging a poem as a beginner.

1. You’re Not Crazy, But You Must Be

Poetry is demanding. It is a nexus of perception and thought like the desert is a site of extreme heat and cold, except both occur in a poem simultaneously. Some people are more naturally inclined to seek these places out. Most people must learn how to appreciate and handle them. Curiosity and patience are essential to surviving the page. But faith fuels exploration; you must approach poetry believing it’s capable of rare and exquisite visions and sounds, full of realities you felt but couldn’t name.

2. Adjust Your Expectations

A person who requires full comprehension of God in order to seek God will not survive a bad day in the faith, and one who expects the deepest secrets of a poem on the first date will never give it a real chance. Poetry camouflages meaning from greedy treasure hunters ready to excavate its “idea” and leave the poem behind like a casing. Enter a poem like you enter the zoo. Your sole agenda is to observe, to experience. You may return with nothing but wonder and lots to talk about. You may return to the poem’s wildness as often as you like.

3. Let Imagination and Emotion Guide

Disparagement of emotion and imagination will maim your spiritual life—as well as your ability to enjoy poems. These faculties are neither trivial nor useless. Like a metal detector, emotions often connect with buried realities even before our reason can excavate and rationally grasp them. A mother holds and beholds her newborn child before she ever puts that experience into language, if she can at all. You can bet that poetic language will suit her best if she does. Savor what you read slowly. Visualize the images and try to surrender your emotions to the feeling of the language. Imagination and emotion must lead reason through a poem’s dense vegetation.

4. Identify the Attraction

Maybe it was her cacao complexion. Maybe it was his honied laugh. Love needs a contact point for its tendrils, and so does a poem. Pay attention. Find something interesting or pleasant—a sound, rhythm, word, image, anything. Reading aloud is imperative for this reason. A poem animates in the ear. If you slowly read a poem twice and it’s as lifeless as your third-grade recorder, ditch it and find another one. There’s no shortage of them. 

5. Read Again, Read Differently

Siege a poem from all sides, but with a paleontologist’s scrupulous tenderness. For example, read according to punctuation (if there is any), then maybe read with pauses after each space or line break. If you stumble upon an unknown word, look up the meaning after the first read-through. But don’t ensnare the word. Observe how it’s relating to the others. Does it set up a bigger bone or stick out like a tooth? Then reread. Google is a fine last—at least later—resort to identify any unknown references. But resist the immediate urge to look something up. A reference or word often does not need to be understood in order to sense how the poem is working as a whole.

6. Form Isn’t Mean, It’s Meaningful

Poetry contains forms as diverse, deceptively simple, or disturbingly strange as fishes in the deep sea. Space, line, rhythm, sound, and shape all work together to create a kind of logic that’s nerved with sensible meaning. Similarly, ambiguity is one of poetry’s unique strengths. The identification of ambiguities inherent in a poem, and what potential interpretations they hold, is as meaningful as anything else. Be patient as you learn to recognize kinds of meaning that require more of your ear and eye than your ability to syllogize. Poetic form is formative power.

7. Don’t Go Solo

I’m convinced the number of individuals who read poetry would skyrocket if fewer individuals read poetry alone. Of course some individual comments backfire or can inhibit a discussion; in general, though, a range of impressions or interpretations clarifies, confirms, or contributes to each individual’s understanding. Perhaps most helpfully, a group can quickly identify what a poem is unclear about and probe layered spheres of meaning. Have a spontaneous discussion about a poem with a friend over lunch break, or set up regular group meetings to work through a specific poet, collection, or theme. However it happens, the likely result will be a deeper appreciation for poetry.

8. There’s a Poem for Your Palette

Poetry exists for every palette, even bad ones. It is diverse in style, form, language, tone, and subject. Google poetry with your desired descriptors. That said, if all the poetry you’ve ever read is repugnant, then your palette needs to develop, maybe widen. Work your way through Norton’s Anthology or one of the anthologies of poems related to Christianity listed near the bottom here. Seek recommendations from a more avid poetry reader. Keep exploring. Don’t get hung up on your last gag reflex.  

8 Tips for Reading Poetry

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