How to start reading poetry

I like poetry. I read it; I write it. Occasionally I end up talking about poetry with someone of my acquaintance, and what I often hear about it is some variation of “Oh, that’s great. I just don’t get poetry. But good for you, though.” And I think that’s sad; most of the time the impression I get is not that people don’t think poetry is worth their time, but that they think they’re not good enough, smart enough, insightful enough to engage with it. Probably their experience with poetry has been predominantly, or entirely, within the confines of a classroom. And so they conclude: I just don’t get poetry.

But really, that statement should sound as strange to us as saying “I just don’t get novels” or “I just don’t get magazine-length personal essays” or “I just don’t get television shows” — because the content, meaning, message, plot, etc. of each of these varies so widely from one to the next. We don’t watch one or two TV shows and then decide TV just isn’t for us; we recognise how broadly we need to sample before drawing that kind of conclusion. I don’t think I’m not good enough to read novels because I hated The Name of the Rose. All of these genre forms — screenplay, novel, essay, poetry, etc. — are vehicles for meaning, not the meaning itself. Poetry as a form is just one way of conveying meaning, often a highly structured way — but within the bounds of that structure, the poet has the freedom to say anything at all. Really anything: deep or shallow or profound or silly or fantastical or realistic or highly allusive or completely straightforward. I once read a lovely sonnet about mowing the lawn. (What’s more, I managed to find it again, and now you can read it too.)

But poetry has a popular reputation of being obscure, difficult, elitist, and arcane. I think a lot of it must have to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools — at least it was taught this way to me — where the emphasis is very heavily slanted towards academic analysis rather than experience or enjoyment. Now, don’t get me wrong; understanding what a poet is doing in a poem, and how they are doing it, can greatly enhance our appreciation of their work. But it still needs to be a secondary consideration. Before understanding we should be looking simply to experience a poem, to feel it out, to let it shape a response in us. Poetry is art; art is an invitation, not a treatise.

What’s the difference between understanding and experiencing? Consider this excerpt from John Ciardi’s wonderful essay, “How Does A Poem Mean?” (which I highly recommend reading in full):

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings towards them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized. It still remains true that the reader who has experienced most fully will finally be the best judge.

When we start in by working to analyze and judge rather than allowing ourselves to simply experience, we get so wrapped up in trying to “figure it out” that we completely miss the point. We forget that it was written to be enjoyed, not dissected. We end up like the students in Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”:

Introduction to Poetry (by Billy Collins)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Do you think you’re not good enough to read poetry? Would you like to start experiencing it instead of beating it to death? Put down your hose. Relax a little. If you’ve found poetry inaccessible in the past — or if you’ve been inadvertently taught to find it inaccessible — let go of the idea that you have to understand everything that’s going on. Don’t worry about identifying or labeling each discrete element or its function within the poem. Don’t label at all. Just read — broadly, widely, with no expectation other than to receive and respond. Here are a few more tips, in no particular order, about how to get started.

1. Read around. There are hundreds of styles of poems on a million different themes out there, and the best way to find what you like is to sample widely. Go to your local library and look in sections 811 or 821 for anthologies. Try something like The Norton Anthology of Poetry or The Best American Poetry or Good Poems (ed. Garrison Keillor) for a nice broad sampling. If you prefer to read online, head over to or or and click on anything that looks interesting. If you find an author you like, try looking for their “Collected Works” or “Collected Poems” to sample their best.

2. Start with contemporary poets. Poetry loses some of its natural oompf when we are removed from it in time, because we don’t intuitively understand the cultural/political backdrop against which it is being written. But lots of poets are writing about things that are happening right now. A great resource for brand-new poetry is Rattle’s “Poets Respond” section, which collates poetry written in response to events in the past week, every week. As an example, here is Devon Balwit’s poem, “Jew”, responding to the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

3. Start with poetry written for children. Poetry written for children is less concerned with Imparting Great Meaning and more concerned with the joy of language, rhythm, word, and sound. Try Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear or a nice big collection of nursery rhymes.

4. If you find a poem you like, read it two or three times. Repetition often clarifies meaning (like when a shift or twist at the end changes our impression of what’s come before). Read slowly. Doing this often will help you read more attentively, to start to see what a poem is doing and how it is doing it, without the burden of formal analysis. You will understand more than you thought you could.

5. If you find a poem you don’t like, move on. Read something else. Don’t dismiss the entire genre because of a few bad reading experiences.

6. Start with more “plainspoken” poets. If you’re just venturing into poetry, jumping straight into something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably not going to be all that helpful. This past year I have discovered some wonderful poets who write with breathtaking clarity. Try Mary Jo Salter or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser or Gwendolyn Brooks.

7. Remember that taste is subjective. You’re not obliged to like any of the poetry “greats”. You’re not even obliged to read them at all. What I like you might think is complete bosh, and vice-versa. All of this is fine. Just as liking novels (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular author, liking poetry (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular poet or poem.

8. Be open to delight. Let poems surprise you. Read with a sense of expectancy. And enjoy!

5 thoughts on “How to start reading poetry

  1. A great read. I find that some people either don’t have time to sit and contemplate a poem or the subject matter is so far removed from their own cultural biases and general knowledge that they miss much of the subtle nuances in a piece. I really like what you’ve done here.


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