Dispatches | May 09, 2014
How to Succeed at Reading Poems Without Really Trying
By Bradley Babendir
During my senior year of high school, I happened upon The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010, a collection edited by Dave Eggers. The anthology opened with an introduction by David Sedaris, a writer with whom I was currently (and still am) infatuated. He wrote about finding old poems that he’d written in elementary school and growing annoyed with his younger self. When he begins talking about the views he formerly held of poetry, he summarizes it with this sentence: “Why not make things easier and just say what you mean? Why be all, well, poetical about it?”
At the time, I read this statement as a little bit funny and a little bit true. It felt validating to have a writer I admired share in my confusion on the subject. I had English teachers who either disliked poetry or liked it in a passive way. Infrequently did the work of poets enter my classrooms, and when it did, it was equally frustrating and brief. My personal deviations towards the poetic consisted of buying a book by Mary Oliver and a book by Li-Young Lee on a recommendation from a friend I considered both smarter and more cultured.
I read the books or attempted to read them. One was stacked on top of the other next to my bed for quite some time. Each time I opened them, I felt as though I was missing something fundamental, like I couldn’t crack the code. In a lot of ways, I felt like Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, except without the triumphant ending.
The common metaphor is that most people view poetry like I did —a s a puzzle to be solved. Instead of a work of art to be taken in and interpreted, it’s a set of pieces that can only go together in one specific way.
Despite its inherent subjectivity, people bookend their opinions on poetry with undermining qualifiers. When those who consider themselves ill-qualified to discuss the subject are called upon to do so, the knee-jerk reaction is to treat it as if they are being asked about a geopolitical issue they know nothing about. “I don’t really know much about poetry,” they’ll say. “But if you really want my opinion, I guess I think…”
It’s not a problem that other types of art have.
With music or film or fiction, there are layers of analysis that can be applied to any given piece. An average moviegoer doesn’t have to understand or interpret Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb the same way that a film student or scholar would. The film is perfectly open to being enjoyed without a deeper discussion of the psychosexual coding that director Stanley Kubrick litters throughout the film. It’s possible to enjoy the film because it’s, you know, funny.
Poetry, though, rarely gets that type of lenience. Instead, it has a bit of an image problem. It’s as though readers feel it’s not good enough to have read a poem and laughed or felt sadness. It’s not good enough to read poetry; you have to read poetry.
Yet in the same way that someone can appreciate an exceptional meal just because it tastes really good, someone can appreciate a poem. It’s not necessary to recognize and ruminate on all the different spices and textures.
If you’re still struggling to find satisfaction within the lines of a poem, try to think about the whole thing less. In other words, the best way to read a poem is to read it. Poetry is better without the preconception. Reading a poem with an open mind, allowing the language and images to wash over you as they are written, can do wonders for enjoyment.
If it suits your fancy, there are levels of depth that can be tapped into without much prior knowledge. Think about the tone of the poem and the way the images connect. Scan the poem for motifs or other forms of repetition. Most importantly, don’t stand in your own way. Believe in your own ability to understand what’s in front of you, and you will.
Very recently, I dusted off my copy of The Best Nonrequired Reading 2010 and reread the introduction. The lines that had stuck with me for the last three years weren’t near the end, as I had imagined them, but tucked in the middle. Instead, Sedaris closes with a thought that’s much more in line with what I’ve learned since: “Why don’t poets just come out with it? Uh, actually, I think they do.”
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