Reading Poetry


As a Christian I acknowledge the importance of words. At God’s word life began (Genesis 1). Jesus is the Word made flesh; who came to dwell among us (John 1). And it is by words and the Word that God has chosen to reveal himself to us (Hebrews 1). Given the significance of words, I need to be considered in how I read. In last week’s blog I looked at the ethics of reading and pondered how reading poetry may help us to read. In this post I want to further that discussion.

How do you approach reading a poem? If, for example, I were to ask you to read Anne Bradstreet’s ‘To My Dear and Loving Husband’,

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.
Thy love is such I can no way repay;
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever,
That when we live no more, we may live ever.[1]

How did you go? What were the first things you noticed about it? When you read it, what did you do? Did you skim through it quickly, in order to get back to the prose? Did you read it slowly in your head? Did you read it aloud? How many times did you read it?

There is so much that could be written about the reading of poetry that this blog could veer towards the epic! So, I’m going to focus on the two aspects which together make poetry distinct (at least in my mind) from prose, and consider how thinking about reading in terms of these things will shape how we approach reading poetry.

First, as best you can read poetry aloud. As indicated in the previous blog there is something about poetry’s visual and aural character that makes it distinct, that makes it poetry. Even better than reading poetry aloud yourself is to listen to poets read their own (or others’) poetry, either online or at a poetry reading. I still get a shiver down my spine thinking about hearing David Malouf read his poetry only metres from where I sat in a courtyard café on a humid November evening, or W B Yeats’ voice come crackling out of the past as I listened to a recording on YouTube of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Yeats, who notoriously declared: “It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”,[2] is not wrong in wishing his verse being read as that: verse!

Aside from YouTube there are many sites on the internet which allow you to listen (for free) to writers reading their own or others’ work. A great one is The Poetry Archive. [3]

Secondly, part of poetry’s appeal is that it is both aural and visual. We see the patterns on the page made by the line breaks, and often this plays a role in our understanding of the poem. Indeed it is the visual that helps indicate how we are to read the poem (the aural aspect). An example of this is the work of William Carlos Williams, who explored the way line breaks can impact the syntax and therefore the meaning of the poem. We can see this in one of his most famous imagist poems, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’.[4]

However, the visual can be more than just a way of indicating rhythm and exploring syntax. I have been exploring ‘The Song of the Sea’ in Exodus 15 in preparation to lead a Bible Study. As it is written in the Torah scroll it has a visual pattern that is said to represent the two walls of the Red Sea, as parted by God, and the Israelites walking safely down the middle.[5] Unfortunately for us this is lost in translation. Despite this the poem is still rendered as poetry in our different versions, given line breaks (although they are of varying length), which indicates to us that it is different to the rest of the Exodus narrative. This difference is first seen and then heard as we read. The significance, for the Israelites and for us, of God’s mighty hand rescuing them from out of the deluge is still heard, even if we don’t have the same visual cue as if we were reading it in the Hebrew.

There are many other features that I could discuss at length in terms of how to read poetry. (And I do hope you will forgive me if the ones I have chosen seem obvious- they are, but I’ve seen postgraduate students of English Literature get these wrong!) However, I think these are the two which, when dealt with, can bring about the greatest change in terms of our understanding and enjoyment of poetry.

I know I hinted that I would provide you with an answer to what to read in the previous blog. However, there are just too many great poets out there to explore that I couldn’t be so prescriptive. So far I have indicated at least four poets from three different countries and spanning almost five centuries in this blog post- so, there’s a beginning for you.

A final word on how we read poetry. One of the ways that I have personally found helpful in approaching reading poetry has been to consider how poets see their own writing. Ars poetica (Latin, “the art of poetry”) is a common theme in poetry, and it is interesting to trace through the different ideas about poetry that different poets have made over time (the term goes all the way back to Horace). In reading through these poems you can look for clues in what the poet says about their own craft as an indication of how to read their poetry. Here are some selected verses from two Ars Poetica written in the last century that will hopefully whet your appetite for reading poetry:

The last verse of Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish,

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean   
But be.[6]

And some verses from Ars Poetica?
By Czeslaw Milosz

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:   
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,   
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out   
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.   

(…)There was a time when only wise books were read,   
helping us to bear our pain and misery.   
This, after all, is not quite the same   
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.   

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be   
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity,   
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.   

The purpose of poetry is to remind us   
how difficult it is to remain just one person,   
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,   
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,   
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,   
under unbearable duress and only with the hope   
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.[7]