How NOT to Read a Poem

Seven Basic Rules for How NOT to Read a Poem

W.B. Yeats reading
W.B. Yeats reading

1. DO NOT try to unpack the meaning of a poem
Poems are not elaborate, literary puzzles. No matter what some English teachers may have  told you over the years, there are no prizes for being able to “decipher” what a poet is really saying. Poems are born in feelings. Poetry uses compressed and loaded language not primarily to convey meaning but to convey feeling. Meaning in poetry is always secondary.

2. DO NOT think you need to be a trained English Major to read a poem
Poems are one of the first literary forms we enjoy. Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss delight because they are fun to hear and fun to say. Language play is one of our first loves. It can also be one of our last.

3. DO NOT read a poem only once
Most poems benefit from being read twice. If one of those times it is read out loud, so much the better.

4. DO NOT read only a single poem
A poem does not exist in isolation. The best way to read a poem is to read it within the context of a volume of poetry. Each poem you read by a poet helps you to read the next poem by the same poet.

5. DO NOT be intimidated by a poem
Poetry cannot be intimidating for the simple reason that poets have issues: depression, anxiety, insecurity…. Poetry like all art is born in suffering. Read just about any poet’s biography and you will quickly realize that the person who wrote even the most dense poem is too anxiety-ridden to be the least bit intimidating. Chances are if you met your favorite poet, the experience would be completely underwhelming. If the creator is not intimidating, how can their creation really be all that intimidating.

6. DO NOT keep a poem to yourself
When you find a poem you like, share it with another. Better yet, buy a volume of poetry with that favorite poem in it and give it to another as a gift. A favorite poem is one of the greatest gifts you can give to another.

7. DO NOT avoid buying books of poems
The more poetry books you buy, the more you will read. The more poetry books you read, the more comfortable and enjoyable poetry will be for you.

(citation:  Seven Basic Rules for How NOT to Read a Poem,
copyright © Mark Hinton)