How to Read Poetry and Enjoy It!June 16, 2020
As far as literature is concerned, especially "popular literature", poetry tends to get a bad rap.
This can be blamed on a number of things but often stems from children and adolescents being forced to study and analyse the poems of notable past poets like Shakespeare, Frost, Keats, Shelley, Browning etc.
I am not saying these famous poets were not skilful wordsmiths and literary greats of their day, but with so many wonderful contemporary poets the early teaching of poetry would be better focussed on their work. This would appeal more, and be much more relatable to the young people of today.
Just a few of the more contemporary and living poets more worthy of study include: Robert Adamson, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg, Ogden Nash, Pablo Neruda, Shel Silverstein and Richard Wilbur.
In Defence of Poetry
The mistake many people make is that they tend to treat poetry like short fiction stories. In fact, poetry should not be read in the same way as a story. It is more like a song and should be appreciated in that way. Just like you listen to a favourite song over and over to obtain the full appreciation of it, you need to read a poem repeatedly. You should also read the poem aloud, at least once, to allow it to impart its full impact on you.
Many songs are just poems put to music and singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and Don McLean can easily be described as poets.
Most people are too busy for this and would rather spend time reading a 2000 word article on the Internet than on a 200 word poem even though the poem probably required much more time and skill for the writer to construct than the article did.
D.E.Navarro (author of Dare to Soar) says:
"Poetry does not simply convey information to our minds, like a story, but actually imparts itself..... Poets are philosophers who write, and most philosophers are poets who can't."
My Personal Favourite Poets
One of my all-time favourite poets, though vastly underrated, I feel, was Rudyard Kipling. A famous excerpt and fine example of his poetry is:
"Now this is the Law of the Jungle -- as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back --
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." (from The Law of the Jungle)
Another, and possibly my favourite of all his many poems is The Female of the Species.
Running a close second, or even equal first place would be fellow Aussie and Bush Poet, A.B. Banjo Paterson. The most famous of his poems being the iconic Waltzing Matilda, The Man From Snowy River, and Clancy of the Overflow.
To Rhyme ...
From the viewpoint of anyone who is really serious about poetry--rhyme is one of the deepest and most beautiful elements of the craft. Getting it right is like composing a symphony. Take for example these lines from a couple of famous poems:
"If we had but world enough, and time
This coyness, lady, were no crime."
"The grave's a fine and secret place,
But none, I think, do there embrace."
There is nothing not to like about rhyme when it is handled well.
The problem with rhyme is that it is really hard to execute well, and after a time all the rhymes have been used, especially in English.
Many publishers today, and so-called poetry experts, believe rhyming makes poetry forced or unnatural (though I admit it can sometimes happen) in my opinion it is more challenging to write a rhyming poem than free verse, and though it may not be quite as fluid, it is the rhyming makes it beautiful.
If Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or any of the other fine traditional rhyming poets of the past, were alive today, they might find it difficult to get their work published in today’s predominantly free-verse markets.
To write rhyming poetry that transcends mere childhood nursery rhymes, we must understand the importance of alliteration, assonance, and consonance and what they can bring to our work. These elements of rhyme become useful tools when used effectively.
Rhyme does not have to be an ABAB or AABB rhyme scheme. A typical rhyme scheme may look like this:
I went to the store
To buy some bread
But I found something more
A hat for my head.
In the example above, store/more and bread/head are examples of perfect rhyme (when the words sound the same because of the last syllable). Many poets are reluctant to attempt perfect rhyme since they risk writing poems that sound forced or even clichéd. Mastering the different types of rhyme beyond ABAB or AABB improves poetry techniques and also creates a more sophisticated style of poem.
While perfect rhyme is often found at the end of a line, there are a number of ways good rhyming poetry makes use of other kinds of rhyme. Internal rhyme is rhyme that occurs in a single line of verse. Internal rhyme is a more subtle way of creating rhyming poetry. Edgar Allan Poe provided an excellent example of internal rhyme in “The Raven":
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”
... or Not to Rhyme.
Editors hate rhyming poetry. Or do they? Rhyme has become a touchy subject in the world of contemporary poetry, but to many poetry editors, there’s some valid reason for the shift. A number of writers who work in rhyme have yet to graduate from the nursery rhymes and Dr Seuss poems of childhood to the more adult types of verse. Recollections of the fun verses that delighted us as children may be the reason editors tend to avoid rhyming poems.
Lay people often have the misconception that poems should rhyme. Free verses can be equally beautiful if written well.
A poem is just a lyrical flow of thoughts which should come out naturally. If rhyme is forced it can do away with the beauty.
Some think that to write a poem all they have to do is come up with some rhyming lines. However, rhyme does not a poem make! There are many elements of poetry. Rhyme is only one of them. If all you have are some lines that rhyme at the end, you really have nothing more than maybe a limerick. To avoid using rhyme as a crutch, first master the other elements of poetry, then tackle rhyme.
Another important element: conciseness. We can define a poem in this way: the best words in the best order and as few of them as possible.
Also, consider imagery and fresh, original language, and some sort of message or social commentary. Did you know this is what most nursery rhymes were originally written as?
Free Verse poems may have no set meter, no rhyme scheme or any particular structure. Some poets would find this liberating, being able to change your mind at will, while others feel like they couldn't do a poem justice in that manner. Robert Frost commented that writing free verse was like "playing tennis without a net."
Free verse poems are often considered the modern form of poetry, but in fact, they have been around for hundreds of years. Walt Whitman is often considered the father of free verse. Here is a short poem by Carl Sanburg as an example:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
Perhaps I am too traditional or old-fashioned, but I find it very difficult to call something poetry which does not rhyme, has no meter, no structure and no rhythm.
If we encourage no rhyme, or half rhyme, on the basis of it being more natural and flowing, aren't we in danger of creating a new generation of poets who define poetry as simply being a list of inspiring words and phrases, without any particular form?
I feel that where many people go wrong, and why they don't enjoy poetry, is that they are told they need to try and interpret what the poet had in mind and break the poem up into all its elements checking for form, meter etc. This is fine if you are a student and a literary or English assignment requires an in-depth analysis. But if you are just someone who wants to read poetry for the enjoyment of it, then all this is unimportant.
The first things I look for in deciding a poem to read (apart from the name of a familiar poet I like) is a catchy title, interesting subject matter, a pleasant and smooth flow, and often an effective use of rhyme.
Technicalities are the least of my concerns (unless attempting a formal style of poem such as a sonnet or haiku). If the poem reads well and sounds good when read aloud, then I am happy. I read poetry for enjoyment, not to analyse. The poems I write myself invariably have a clear message and are not obtuse and difficult to understand. I don't want my writing to be difficult to understand like a cryptic crossword puzzle. I want to appeal to the average reader who is not a poetry expert as well as other poets.
I also like to write short stories or flash fiction but recently have found a way of combining both poetry and storytelling in what I call "story poems." I can tell a story using rhyming verse and I find it a very effective method that saves on unnecessary words. I suppose this could also fall under the heading of narrative verse.
Poetry is Not Dead Yet
Sit back and read your favourite poem,
Somewhere comfy in your home.
Just relax, don't think too hard,
Give a mile, don't take a yard.
Reading verse is not a chore,
It isn't meant to make you snore.
Don't try to analyse each word,
Set it free, just like a bird.
Imagine listening to a song,
If it sounds good it can't be wrong.
Perhaps a message hides within,
If so take it on the chin.
Don't contemplate the rhyme and form,
Any port's good in a storm.
The poet's blood is in the verse,
The urge to rhyme can be a curse.
Put yourself within their shoes,
Imagine you're the poet's muse.
Appreciate the time and sweat,
For poetry is not dead yet.
- Find a poet whose work you enjoy and follow them
- Read poetry for enjoyment, not with the intention of analysing it
- Treat a poem like a song, not a story
- Read a poem numerous times, at least once out loud
- Don't dwell on technicalities unless it is a set form such as a sonnet, haiku etc.
- Don't label a poem as childish just because it rhymes
- Appreciate that a poem (especially rhyming verse) often takes a lot more time and effort to construct than a much longer article or short story
- Grab a cup of tea or coffee, relax and take your time to savour and enjoy a poem
I hope this article went some way to answering the question of how to read and enjoy poetry. Thank you for the prompt Chris Mills and Ann Carr.