“A poet cannot read another poet, nor a novelist another novelist, without comparing their work to his own. His judgements as he reads are of this kind: My God! My Great Grandfather! My Uncle! My Enemy! My Brother! My imbecile Brother!” ~W.H. Auden
Over the years at ClimbingSky and MontanaWriter, I have written about a number of books and scores of poems. I have called them “book reviews”and “poetry reviews” but in most cases they are not really reviews at all in the classic sense. They are really just notes and impressions about books and poems and writers. Reader’s Notes if you will.
One of my new goals for ClimbingSky is to include more such notes here. For the few books that I actually read to the very end AND for the many, many more that I only read for awhile and then abandon.
Seven Basic Rules on How NOT to Read a Poem
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 © 2010, Mark Hinton)