When I was in college, I tentatively toyed with being an English major. It’s no secret that I love reading, and I thought fewer things sounded more ideal than spending college indulging in my passion for literature. However, for a lot of reasons, I went in the Poli Sci/Econ field instead, and I really have no regrets.
For a couple of quarters, though, I took some really outstanding English classes. The exposure to books I may not have initially picked up, as well as some great professors guiding me and pushing me to read more intentionally, was a great experience. I know a lot of people (read: family members and close friends) have expressed a hesitancy to reading poetry. There’s kind of an angsty stigma about reading poetry, like it makes you too emo or something, as well as a mystery about how to read it “correctly”. I feel like poetry enthusiasts often sound like wine enthusiasts–they take a lot of pleasure out of over-complicating the process and alienating anyone who doesn’t speak their secret language. There’s really no need, though, and I had a professor share these really great five steps with which you can approach poetry without feeling overwhelmed.
Step One: Pick a Book, and a Poem.
Unless you’re already familiar with a poet, or know what type you like, I’d suggest an anthology to start. Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems is one of my favorite go-to poetry books. I’ve had it for years and love flipping through it. There’s a wide enough variety that you can eventually land on a style that resonates with you, and then go from there!
Step Two: Read the Poem
I promise, my tip is better than it sounds. Trust me on this, though. Just read it, like you would read anything else. Don’t worry about counting cadences or match up rhyming or decoding the metaphors. Just read it for the words, and don’t start “translating” it just yet. Please.
Step Three: Read it Out Loud
This is the most important step, and it’s really the key. Read the poem out loud! The first reading was really just so you don’t stumble when you do this part. Read it out loud, and enjoy the sounds.
Step Four: Walk Away from the Poem.
Just leave it alone for like ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Go do the dishes, get a refill on your coffee, scroll through NPR’s headlines. Then, of course, sit back down with the poem.
Step Five: Read It Again
Go ahead and read it again, after you’ve had a little bit of a brain break. When you’re reading it this time, read it slowly and think about the impressions it’s making. Does it make you think of a color? An emotion? A long lost memory of your childhood you thought you had buried deep down? Go with it! Write a little note next to a line that makes you think of the color chartreuse, even if there’s really no logic behind why. Because here’s my last, top-secret tip: There are no wrong answers. Sure, the poet probably had a metaphor in mind. But maybe he didn’t! In the end, you’re the one reading the poem, and you’re the one who gets to experience it. So pay attention to your experience without getting bogged down in the “correct” experience!
So, readers, your homework for the night? Carve out some “you” time, read a poem, and let me know what you thought! I’d love to hear if this was even remotely helpful for you (because I know it was for me, when my professor walked me through it!)
Bonus: Some of my favorites