How to Read Poetry Properly
Poetry is complicated. It’s often vague and flowery and most of it doesn't even rhyme. You would think you’d need a PhD in grammar to read some of the best poetry out there.
I remember the first poems I read were of the mass-produced sort in a Barnes and Noble edition of Emily Dickinson. I loved them. I’m sure it had something to do with the strange connection I felt with Dickinson. A bookworm like myself can easily relate to a recluse whose sole interests lay in family and literature.
I remember trying to write my own poetry. I was not very good at it. I wrote poems about the very serious unrequited crush I had in middle school. Then I would write one about a puppy in a window. I was all over the map. After that, I kind of lost interest in poetry until high school and college.
In college, I found slam poetry and a handful of poets with a cause. I also found open-mic nights. Now, even though fiction is still my first love, poetry is a close second and I am always searching for rising poets with unique voices and insights.
But I started out thinking poetry had to rhyme and it usually had to be about something extremely depressing like death and ravens. But poems can transport us, touch us and move us to action just as any other form of literature can. You just have to know what to look for.
Unsolicited Press published a collection of poems by Adela Najarro, entitled “Twice Told Over.” Najarro is an accomplished poet influenced by her Hispanic background and her family’s emigration from Nicaragua to San Francisco. “Twice Told Over” will be her first collection of poems.
To enjoy Najarro’s wonderful collection, here are some tips to get you to the next level of poetry analysis and subsequent enjoyment.
Check Your Stereotypes
When you are starting to read poetry seriously, the first step is to check your stereotypes. If you approach a poem thinking that it will be vague and hard to understand, then you won't be able to focus on what the poem is actually saying.
I’ve found that the best way to read poetry is to treat it like a narrative. Each poem is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are characters, plot lines, and twists. Don't get caught up in whether the poem has a nice rhyme sequence. Instead, focus on the imagery and the story.
One of the things that sets poetry apart from other literature is its rhythm. Even if a poem is freestyle, meaning it doesn't have a set rhyme scheme, it still has a rhythm meant to enhance the reader’s experience.
The best way to understand this is to read the poem multiple times and then read it aloud. Read the poem once to get a general idea. Then read it over again to try to get at the heart of what the poem is trying to say.
Then read it aloud.
Not only will this exercise help you get the rhythm down, it can also help you better visualize the ideas expressed there. I firmly believe that one of the reasons slam poetry is so moving, is because of the auditory element, which pulls the listener into the poem. This is essentially what you are doing when you read a poem aloud.
Watch the Grammar
Of course, grammar is important in all writing, even your emails. But grammar and punctuation take on new importance when it comes to poetry. Grammar becomes important in poetry, mostly because many poets beak the rules. This makes for entertaining reading and can be a useful tool for poets. If you know your grammar, you will be able to see how the poets break the rules and what they are trying to say while doing so.
Punctuation is also key. Commas tell you when to pause and periods tell you when to stop. Because poetry has a unique structure, it can often be hard to figure out where one thought ends and another begins. Pay attention to the punctuation for cues on the rhythm and narrative of a poem.
Many poems seem to be about absolutely nothing at all. I remember reading a poem by Gertrude Stein and not having a clue as to what she was trying to say or what I should be getting from the poem. If you feel you are having problems understanding the meaning of a poem, it is always helpful to find some context regarding the poet and his or her background.
For example, I recently read “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” a collection of poems by Natalie Diaz. Diaz grew up on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in Needles, CA. Reservations like these come with their own set of problems and obstacles that can often have negative effects on families. Knowing this gave me some base information to refer to when reading the title poem of her collection, which deals with the consequences of her brother’s addiction.
Context can be a great help in navigating metaphorical language and confusing imagery, without diminishing the experience of reading the poem.
The most important thing to do is to not be afraid of poetry. As I said before, it can be confusing and intimidating. But there is so much to explore within the realm of verses and stanzas that it is such a shame when people dismiss it out of fear.
Don't be afraid to explore all the different types of poetry out there. You may begin with an anthology of love poems or with YouTube videos of slam competitions, or right here at Unsolicited Press. Wherever you start, I guarantee that you will find something that gets under your skin and makes you feel something unique and wonderful.
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