How to read a poem

For many people it is true to say that poetry is a daunting prospect at best and an alien form at worst. Many would never contemplate reading one, let alone listening to a poetry reading.

Yet, if you think about it, poetry is everywhere. It is in the song lyrics of musicians and in the stories we read to our children. Many of the classics of poetry come to mind from our school days. I believe poetry cuts to the chase in terms of exploring what and who we are as human beings, and the many issues, feelings and dilemmas  we face in strutting and fretting our hour upon life’s enigmatic stage.

In this short essay I am going to discuss how to read a poem so that it is not only understood but enjoyed.

First of all, when you read a poem enter into its world of image and emotion and there you will find a little bit of yourself.

Take William Blake’s poem, “The little girl found”, for instance. Remember Blake wrote in a time of Britain’s industrial revolution where there was opulent wealth on the one hand and the black finger of neglect and death on the other. So many children died of diseases that had no cure. So much pain and heartache for those left behind. So much searching for meaning in the face of loss. For those who had no words, Blake offered some verse to express their  sorrow.

Here is his poem:

All the night in woe,
Lyca’s parents go:
Over vallies deep.
While the desarts weep.

Tired and woe-begone.
Hoarse with making moan:
Arm in arm seven days.
They trac’d the desert ways.

Seven nights they sleep.
Among shadows deep:
And dream they see their child
Starvdd in desart wild.

Pale thro’ pathless ways
The fancied image strays.
Famish’d, weeping, weak
With hollow piteous shriek

Rising from unrest,
The trembling woman prest,
With feet of weary woe;
She could no further go.

In his arms he bore.
Her arm’d with sorrow sore:
Till before their way
A couching lion lay.

Turning back was vain,
Soon his heavy mane.
Bore them to the ground;
Then he stalk’d around.

Smelling to his prey,
But their fears allay,
When he licks their hands:
And silent by them stands.

They look upon his eyes
Fill’d with deep surprise:
And wondering behold.
A spirit arm’d in gold.

On his head a crown
On his shoulders down,
Flow’d his golden hair.
Gone was all their care.

Follow me he said,
Weep not for the maid;
In my palace deep.
Lyca lies asleep.

Then they followed,
Where the vision led;
And saw their sleeping child,
Among tygers wild.

To this day they dwell
In a lonely dell
Nor fear the wolvish howl,
Nor the lion’s growl.

 

 

In this beautiful poem of loss, with a simple rhyming structure, searching for meaning and finding consolation links broadly to our fragility as humans and specifically to parents who have lost a child. It is a timeless exploration of the power of death and the place of hope in human existence. In the desperation and journey of meaning that Blake unfolds we can all share because we have all been there.

The poem, if you allow it too, can take you to that realm of loss, imaginative meaning-making and spirituality that we all experience as human beings.

Or the poem might cause you to disagree with its sentiments. Perhaps you could feel that it offers false hope and is too tied to religious ideas. Personally, I look for what I can gain from a poem, as well as adopt a critical eye and argue back against it.

Second, visualise and experience the poem.

Try to see it, try to hear its sound and fully experience it. One of the mistakes that people make in reading poetry is to try to work it out or intellectualise it. Yes, we have to decode the language for sure, but primarily reading poetry is experiential: to see, to feel, to touch and to sense the poetry. One of my favourite poems is Australian poet, Gwen Harwood’s ,”In the park”. When I first read it, I was amazed by its profound empathy built from acute observation.

Let me share it with you:

She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late

to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…”but for the grace of God…”

They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.” 

Gwen Harwood

 

In visualising and experiencing this poem and imagining yourself in the park and watching this women and her existential plight, your own observational skills and empathetic engagement can be activated. You need to go there with the poem and with the poet to fully experience it. She is calling on you, as reader, to shed the scales of disinterest from your eyes and see into the lives of people that you would normally walk by without a glance.

Finally, contemplate a poem in terms of your life and its meanings for you and your world.

Poetry will live and breathe and be enjoyable for you if you open yourself to what it is saying about your life. Remember that poetry is about the human condition, about ideas that help us understand our humanity and about a sharing of common experiences. It is a touchstone for contemplation and self-examination.

Shakespeare’s sonnets explore many of these common experiences and thoughts about the nature of being human. You may not have thought about reading his sonnets but they are indeed wonderful to contemplate and to think about in terms of your own life and the experiences that Shakespeare observed so long ago.

Below is Shakespeare’s twelfth sonnet:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
  And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
  Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. 

I love to explore and imagine this poem visually, then experience it and then contemplate its meaning for my life. He writes about growing old and how quickly beauty fades. He observes this state of humanity, this condition of being young and growing old, through the metaphor of the seasons, and especially autumn.

For me, it explores the brief nature of our lives and the importance of making the most of it and enjoying every moment. I find the poem sobering, and perhaps a little too pessimistic, but, at the same time, motivating. How should I then live my life in the face of mortality? Indeed, how “do I count the clock that tells the time”? Or, maybe, Shakespeare wants to take life all too seriously.

Poetry has the ability, in few words, to convey emotions, to help imagine scenes and to provoke thought, critique and contemplation. In the three poems shared in this essay, all from different historical times and from a range of social contexts, the same common humanity is evident.

How should I read a poem? Let it speak to your humanity; let it live for you. But never let it have authority over you.

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