I never thought I’d post the above image online. I only took it to bookmark the time I enjoyed a Jackson Pollock painting. Pollock is not my favorite, but I had fun exploring this piece. I share this as a work of abstract art I enjoy. More importantly, I share it as an example of where I could care less what the artist meant.

Now, what does this have to do with poetry?—the art I contribute to Wheat and Tares. I’ve been musing on why many people dislike or fail to connect with poetry. My hypothesis? They read a poem once and become mired in the task of deciphering the poet’s meaning. Also, I fear readers may let their first reading be judge and jury.

Especially in the internet age, we do a lot of hasty reading and over-valuing first impressions. But with poetry, hasty reading doesn’t cut it. For that matter, neither does only reading poems once through.

Think back to the Pollock painting. When you look at a painting, do you only glance once? Do you only look from top to bottom? I sure hope not. Likewise, to best experience poetry, you need to wander around in the words.

What follows is my recommended approach to reading poetry. This approach helps me enjoy a wide range of verse from old to new, from formal to free. Additionally, it helps me learn more about my own thought processes.

I have no frickin’ clue what this poem means. How the frick did this poem get published? What do frickin’ editors see in this stuff?

Jake Christensen after a first reading of just about any contemporary poem

Approach to Reading Poetry for Enjoyment

  1. Read the poem straight through without stopping. Avoid worrying or getting annoyed if it fails to make sense. Preferably, read aloud.
  2. Take a deep breath.
  3. Sit with your first impressions for a few moments. What are they? Moved? Confused? Charmed? Offended? It’s all okay. Just be aware of them.
  4. Read the poem a second time. Pause briefly along the way, making mental notes of phrases that stand out.
  5. Take a deep breath.
  6. Think about the phrases that stuck out to you. Ask yourself, why? Avoid any urge to decide what the poem means. Instead, focus on your reactions and muse on what in the poem sparked them.
  7. Take a deep breath.
  8. Read the poem a third time. And read creatively. Start in the middle. Backtrack. Read only the last words of each line or only the first. Start wandering through the poem!
  9. Lastly, contrast your first and third readings. As the poem became increasingly familiar, how did your attitude toward it evolve?

As much as you can, avoid the dreaded question, “What did the poet mean?” Doing that can be just plain frustrating. Besides, if the poet really wanted to convey a clear and specific message, she or he should have written an essay instead of a poem.

Using the above steps, the poem’s meaning for you will present itself on successive readings—like unfolding revelation you might say. Good poets, even if initially hard to follow, craft their poetry carefully and deliberately. In turn, good poetry rewards careful, deliberate readers. In any case, what’s most valuable is exploring your reactions.

A Poetry Exercise for You

Here are links to three poems. Choose one and experience it using the above approach. Of course, you are encouraged to come back here and tell fellow readers how it went. Thanks for reading!