How to read poetry

May 26, 2009

Want to know how to read poetry? Treat it like you’re sampling perfume, says my friend Molly Cantrell-Kraig:

“It’s like an expensive fragrance: the high notes are what registers first, but as the fragrance adapts to the person’s chemistry and with time, the fragrance develops dimension and a fuller sense of itself.”

In other words, try first letting the poem envelope you with its sounds and its images. Sit with it. Come back to the poem and read it again, this time paying attention to how the poem makes you feel. Pay attention to the nuances in your reading, the patterns that emerge, the sense that emerges. And, finally, how does the poem change the way you look at the world?

In How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Edward Hirsch writes, “We activate the poem inside us by engaging it as deeply as possible, by bringing our lives to it, our associational memories, our past histories, our vocabularies, by letting its verbal music infiltrate our bodies, its ideas seep into our minds, by discovering its pattern emerging, by entering the echo chamber which is the history of poetry, and most of all, by listening and paying attention. Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”

C.S. Lewis suggested that “the true reader reads every work seriously, in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.”

A poet dreams of such readers.

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