Poetry and I have had a rocky journey. For the longest time I didn’t read or like poetry at all, with the exception of the occasional Robert Frost. I was convinced that it was all unnecessarily vague, overly abstract, artsy fartsy nonsense, and that the whole form just wasn’t for me. Why struggle to make sense of these scraps of pretentiousness when you can spend that time reading a novel instead?
Then in my first year of university I decided to volunteer for a poetry festival (one of my better life decisions). Watching all these poets perform their work made me realise the wide variety that is out there and the effect a good reading can have on an audience. I bought a collection of poems at the festival and began reading it on the bus ride home. Then I asked my mother if I could borrow her poetry anthology. Then I bought the collected works of W.H. Auden. And the following year, I volunteered for the poetry festival again.
You too may think that poetry is not for you or maybe you want to try but you find the whole thing a bit intimidating. I have put together a list of tips to help you across the first couple of hurdles, and you can take it from there. You can do it. Trust me.
1. Start with something easy.
If you’re new to poetry, starting off at the deep end can ruin the whole experience for you. Warm up first with something approachable and easy to follow (my personal recommendation: Billy Collins).
2. Don’t rush it.
Reading poetry often takes time because it has been put together with great precision, even more so than prose. Every word, every comma, every blank space, these are all things the writer has carefully decided on to produce a specific effect. A poem may be only a few lines, but you need to give it time to sink in, to swish around in your mouth.
3. Don’t fly through an entire collection in one sitting.
As the Dutch poet K. Michel once told me, a collection of poetry shouldn’t be consumed in one go, but enjoyed in multiple readings: “it’s like a hard piece of candy; if you want to enjoy the flavour, you don’t just bite straight into it, but suck gently” (minds out of the gutter please).
4. You are not going to like everything.
Like with novels, sometimes you have to read around a little before you find something that is to your liking. Don’t give up if you just can’t get into a certain poet’s work, but regroup and move on. Try out different movements, different time periods. Shop around, have fun, and don’t force it.
5. You don’t have to like everything.
If you don’t see the appeal of Lord Byron, that doesn’t mean that you are any less of a literature lover. Be above that kind of snobbery, you’re better than that.
6. You are not going to understand everything and that doesn’t mean that you “just don’t get it.”
Often poems are not so much vessels of information, but more like an experience. A good poet can reach out and get an emotional response from you even if you have no clue what (s)he is talking about. Sometimes you need to read a poem a few times before you fully understand it, or you can spend the rest of your life reading a work and still not grasp what is actually about. Sometimes the poets doesn’t want you to get it. You’re not stupid or illiterate, it’s just… Poetry. If you feel it, you feel it. If you don’t, you don’t.
7. Reading up on the poem and its context can help you “get it.”
However, like I said, I think that you should be able to enjoy a poem without having to do research on it first.
8. Give it time to grow on you. Maybe the time just isn’t right yet.
I used to be bored to tears by Shakespeare and modernist literature, and now look at me. If you hated something in the past, leave it for a while and then try coming back to it later.
9. Read it out loud.
Kick out your roommate and put on your best performance. Sometimes the words don’t make sense on the page, but when you hear them spoken out loud, something suddenly clicks.
10. Go to poetry slams or look up youtube videos.
A poet’s delivery can completely change how you see their work, and some poems were meant to be heard, not read.