Yes You Can!
Helpful Hints On Reading and Discussing Poetry
Contest Information Below!
Hi! Welcome to projecteducate’s week on poetry forms. I’m here to talk about poetry in more general terms, which might help you with the rest of the week. As a great lover of poetry, it makes me incredibly sad when I see a comment on dA that says
I just don’t get poetry
I like this poem, but I don’t know why
If you can see yourself in any of those comments, this article is for you! By the end of it, you’ll have some idea of what to think about when reading and later commenting on a poem, as well as the opportunity to win some points in a contest. Obviously no article is going to teach you “everything about poetry”, but I’m sure that some of the tips below will help make poetry more accessible to anyone who currently finds it scary, awkward, or both. A group of our fellow deviants—poets, readers of poetry, and people who also sometimes find themselves at a loss when dealing with a new poem—assisted in the creation of this article.
In the introduction to an amazing anthology of poetry, The Poets’ Corner, actor John Lithgow says, “I grew up with poems. All of us did, whether we realize it or not. Poetry is in our bloodstream: nursery rhymes, schoolyard chants, song lyrics, limericks, jingles, rap. But not many of us think of ourselves as poetry lovers. The very question ‘Do you love poetry?’ makes most of us nervous. It shouldn’t.”
I couldn’t agree more! Let’s get started.
Reading Poetry: Yes You Can!
First off, it’s important to quickly dispel any misconceptions you might have about what poetry is or isn’t. PinkyMcCoversong notes that one of the biggest problems “comes from people drilling it into kids’ heads that poetry is DEEP and MEANINGFUL and FULL OF LAYERS.” Looking for a ‘true meaning’ that isn’t present is a surefire way to turn the joy of reading poetry into a chore.
Poets Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell, in the introduction to their excellent anthology Sleeping on the Wind, put it so well: “A good poem means just what it says, and it suggests what it suggests. The search for deep meanings behind what is said is usually painful and unrewarding…It’s like looking for the real meaning behind a sailboat race on the bay. You’d probably miss the beauty and excitement of the boats, the water, the sky, the day.”
Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, it doesn’t have to be about something deep and profound, it doesn’t have to have linebreaks or look a certain way on the page, and it doesn’t have to be in some set form like a sonnet or haiku. Different types of poetry are like different types of music—country music sounds nothing like industrial techno. Reading new types of poetry is like listening to new types of music—you might like it, you might hate it, but if you don’t give it a chance with an open mind, you might miss out on something you otherwise would have come to love.
Reading A New Poem: Yes You Can!
Everybody reads a new poem differently. I personally pay most attention to the literal meaning of the words on my first read, but that’s certainly not the only way. TheSkaBoss says, “I don't think about anything, I just let the rhyme and rhythm wash over me.” tiganusi’s approach: “I think about the images, the tone and the voice moreso than the specific words.” Wolfrug relies on a different tactic: “I read the author's comments before reading the poem…how does [the poem] make me understand the author of the text better?”
One thing that almost everyone does is read the poem a few times. When re-reading, xlntwtch reminds us of something important: “read it again, and then again aloud.” Another common theme is that reading a poem usually requires paying a bit more attention than reading prose. futilitarian says poetry is “shorter, but more intense. It's not going to ask the same long-term investment of you as a novel, but in the short term it'll have an expectation that you'll focus on it and pay it some attention.”
Tips and Tricks for Reading a New Poem
Read the poem ‘actively’, by which I mean with the level of attention you’d give a board game, not a TV show.
Read the poem multiple times. Make sure to read it aloud.
Think about the sounds of the poem. Is there a natural pattern to the sound? Do some sounds repeat?
State for yourself what the poem is about, in simple and specific terms. Don’t get caught up in a ‘deep meaning’ that might not be there. A good poem is probably not about ‘the conservation of nature’, but ‘a man who feels sad that his childhood beach is dirty’.
Think about how the poem makes you feel. If the poem doesn’t make you feel anything at all, that’s still a good thing to note.
Identify the sensory images in the poem—the places where it talks about the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or textures of things.
Look at the title—did your feelings about it change from before you read the poem to after?
Does the poem tell a story? Does it have all the details of that story, or is there something you still want to know?
If after all that, the poem still doesn’t make sense or resonate with you, don’t give up quite yet. neurotype reminds us, sensibly, that “as a society we see so much prose overall that we're more used to processing it. It really boils down to practice.” And there are things you can do to make a confusing poem more accessible. LiliWrites has some suggestions: “check the author's comments for clarification, use Google to look up words or phrases…If all else fails, I can always ask the author in a comment.” NiteMuse suggests changing how you read the poem: “reread it a few different times, putting emphasis on different points, to see if it changes.”
It’s okay if you don’t ‘get’ a poem, even after spending some time with it. You aren’t supposed to like every kind of poetry any more than you’re supposed to enjoy every type of music. And you aren’t supposed to love every poem written in a certain way, any more than someone who loves rock music is supposed to love every single rock song. tiganusi suggests one option for when a poem remains unclear after some effort on your part: “move along” to another poem. Don’t worry—the more poetry you read, the easier it will be to read poetry.
Commenting on Poetry: Yes You Can!
Other than cash and publication , there are few things more useful to a writer of poetry than getting some feedback. If you think you can’t respond meaningfully and helpfully to a poem, think again! Nearly everyone I asked was emphatic about how ‘training’ in poetry isn’t necessary to leave a helpful comment. rockgem clears away the cobwebs: “the only thing you really need to comment on a poetry piece is the ability to read.” PinkyMcCoversong takes it a step further: “you know how something makes you react, and a reaction is perfectly valid feedback.”
neurotype agrees: “a good poem will evoke imagery with an emotional impact in any layperson.” LiliWrites adds: “do you need a college degree to find Van Gogh's Starry Night interesting or beautiful? Do you need a degree to understand that Harry Potter appealed to the basic theme of good vs. evil in all of us?”
Lastly, if the poem is in a specific form, you don’t need to know a lot about the form to comment helpfully—but it can’t hurt. And the rest of this week at projecteducate should help demystify some of the most common forms.
Tips and Tricks for Commenting on Poetry on DeviantArt
Be polite. Thank the poet for sharing the poem.
If the writer has not requested critique either in the Artist’s Comments or with the critique function, keep things positive. Even if a poem has some flaws you’d like to talk about, if there’s no indication they’ll be well-received you might be wasting your time. You can close your comment with something like “I have some constructive comments about this piece, too. Would you like to hear them?”
Look back at the list of tips for reading the poetry—your answers to those questions are strong contenders for things you might say in a comment.
If the poem is broken into pieces (lines or stanzas, for example), did that influence how you read the poem?
If something’s unclear, say so! You probably aren’t the only one thinking that.
If you’re not writing critique, you can keep your comment pretty short—but not miniscule. A good format might be 5 sentences long: “I liked this” at the start, “thanks for sharing” at the end, and any three of the following:
“the best part was ___”
“the poem made me feel ___”,
“I’m confused about ___”
“___ was a really great word choice”
“I wanted to know more about ___”
“the end was strong because ___”
“I love the sound of ___”
“I’m curious, why did you ___”
If you only say one thing, futilitarian wants you to go with your gut: “I think that first almost instinctive response, that ‘wow, that line really grabbed me’ or that ‘ugh, this bit was boring and I didn't get it’ is useful for 95% of the poetry on dA written for a general audience…Sometimes as a poet you just want to know what works and what doesn't and the why doesn't really matter.” Well said!
Actually Doing It: The ‘Yes You Can!’ Contest
The rules are simple:
This contest is only open to people who, before reading this article, found themselves at a loss when reading or commenting on poetry. You know who you are.
Read a lot of poems. Many articles that projecteducate will use this week will link to excellent, interesting poems on DeviantArt, and that’s a great place to start. “A lot” is up to you. The more effort you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.
Leave a comment on whichever one of those poems resonated most strongly with you. It should be 4-6 sentences long, but make it count—show that you’ve really read the poem several times, and that you really absorbed what it said. Give the poet useful, positive feedback. Thank the poet for sharing. It might be a good idea to leave several comments, so that you can pick the best one after you’ve written a few.
Note me, ShadowedAcolyte, with a link to the best one of your comments. (You can link to a comment by clicking on the time-and-date stamp when viewing the comment.)
The comment must be written and noted to me before midnight PST on Wednesday, March 13th. No exceptions.
I’ll choose an outstanding example, which will win points! Currently, thanks to our Literature CVs, there are 300 points up for grabs (a nice reward for a short, simple comment), but that number may rise!
(Edit: A link to the contest winner can be found in the Artist's Comments. This contest is closed.)
I originally planned to include some links to more resources here (other than the books I’ve linked to above, of course), but PinkyMcCoversong makes such a compelling argument I’m quoting it in full:
“Screw resources, read more poems. Start with a good anthology. I recommend The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy. Of course, it’s as old and crusty as I am now, being ten years or so old. So go find more anthologies. Hide in the library for a while. Pick up lit mags. Find something you ENJOY and read it and read more of it and venture from there. Resources aren’t going to help you read poetry. Reading poetry, however, will.”
These people all helped this article come to fruition in some way. Thank you all, and to projecteducate for hosting such an amazing poetry week.
I hope you feel a little less awkward about reading and responding to new poetry after reading this article. Remember, as Koch and Farrell say, “poets are not big, dark, heavy personages dwelling in clouds of mystery, but people like yourself, who are doing what they like to do…writing poetry isn’t any more mysterious than what a dancer or a singer or a painter does.” Fellow deviant futilitarian says it more bluntly and with wit: “poetry isn't hard and it isn't elite. If it were, poets wouldn't be able to do it.”