The Crow's Dream

Philosophy, geekery, and the meaning if life, and what I read this week…

How to enjoy poetry

with 4 comments

It took a long time for me to become a good consumer of poetry. Mostly I saw it as strings of unconnected words that made very little sense to me. Good poetry is very, very hard to find. I know I am not a good poet, for instance, but I keep on trying. Poetry is one of those things that is so sublime and beautiful–when done well–that it can stay with you for days, and some times even forever, but how do you appreciate and enjoy it? This is a continuation of my  previous post on appreciating literature. Here are the basics of poetry appreciation as I see them.  

1) Read it aloud

While you can get away with reading a whole entire novel without ever speaking any of the words in it, that will not do for poetry. You have to recite it, otherwise you will lose it forever. You need to say the words in the poem at least a few times before you can truly let it sink in. 

2) Understand the words

Poets have to find the perfect word to say what they mean. Poetry can’t afford to get lost in vague generalities. It demands perfection, and the lack of it turns it in to dreary dribble. If you don’t understand every word in the poem, you may be missing the whole thing. You need to look every word up in order to make sense of it, and to use it in conversation. Approximations won’t do. 

3) Forget about the meaning of poems

A lot of authors cleverly hide deep metaphor and innuendo in their poetry, but if you are not a literature major, or a professor, there is no need for you to sweat the meaning. Back in school, I had to extract, force, and wring the meaning of poems, but you do not have to. The meaning will come to you. Trust me, your mind wants to find it. Poems, if they are any good, will express what they mean to express so well, you will have a very hard time finding a better way to explain it. It is okay to write about poetry, but writing on the topic is about as exiting as writing about cake. You have to write about it, if you want to make the delicious chocolate confection, but nothing beats eating it. 

4) Memorize the poem

Some times poems will give you a jolt of awe. When this happens, read the poem a few more times. Take it on dates to the park, walk with it, talk to it, and go dancing. Then go to the movies. If you still feel that little jolt of awe after a while, then marry it. Once it lives in your memory, you will find it’s meaning every time you speak it. 

Don’t forget to pay attention to punctuation.

I think memorization is the most important step. I used to go hiking or biking in the chaparral hills of Southern California. When my breath was heavy, and when the sun, and the sage played with my senses, I would recite parts of Song of Myself, and the whole experience became transcendental. My wife loves it when I find a new poem to whisper to her, and my friends are amazed by my smarts when I can quote Shakespeare or Gibran. 

5) Write your own 

I am a bad poet, but I still like to play with words once in a while. I still haven’t had the guts to read my poems in front of a crowd, but I like performing other’s people poetry. Not surprisingly, I love writing haiku. I like what the form does to moments. Learning the forms of poems is a great way to be surprised by yourself and to see why some authors are revered. My wife is an amazing poet, and I love to hear her stuff. I don’t think I’ll ever be as good at her, but that doesn’t keep me from writing haiku. 

6) Go to slams and performances

I go to poetry slams when I can. To be honest, I find most self-proclaimed poets to be arrogant and self absorbed. I can hardly stand the artsy crowd, but once in a while someone will blow my socks off, and they will take me with them on an amazing journey. Tough the distillation is not as intoxicating as the actual experience, check out youtube for poetry slams. They have some pretty decent stuff. Not every performance has to be a slam. Some colleges hold speech competitions, and some times you can go watch them, and even judge them for free, and some of the performances are great. Other performances, like The Raven, or The Night Before Christmas, are seasonal. Finally, you can find some pretty good stuff at renaissance fairs and other gatherings if you keep an eye out for it. 

Finally, if poetry feels weird, keep in mind that you already quote it and listen to it when you sing along to a song. 

I hope that you will find these ideas helpful. I wrote this post because I was inspired by the poetry in The Journals of Enreal. I normally avoid poetry blogs like the pest, but this writer is actually very, very good.

If you want to get started, I’ve added some of my favorite poems to the reading list section of my blog.


Written by Hector

November 13, 2008 at 9:36 am

4 Responses

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  1. I was a self-proclaimed poet until my early 20s, but finally decided that my poems were too self-focussed, so I stopped writing poetry. In fact, it makes me cringe when I think back to how much they focussed on my own anxieties and miseries. And there is that danger in poetry. Poetry can either take you to the land of enlightenment, or it can move you in the other direction. So I couldn’t agree with you more when you say that you find self-proclaimed poets arrogrant and self-absorbed.

    But it is good to indulge in great poetry. It does need to be read aloud. Poetry for me was all about rhythm. The rhythm was far more important than the words. Try reading the poems of Robert E Howard if you find the time. He inspired me to start writing poetry when I was about 13. You might find that odd – he was the creator of the original Conan the Barbarian stories. But he was also a very fine poet. He died at the age of 29.


    November 14, 2008 at 3:28 am

  2. Dear Hector, your insight on poetry is quite observant… poetry is something that doesn’t have to make sense… it is a string of words interpreting emotions… I read all poetry aloud… it has to sing, it has to have a rhythm…

    Your words are so true… all of it… it is quite humbling to hear I am an inspiration… I want to thank you, it means more than you can imagine.


    November 14, 2008 at 6:11 pm

  3. I guess I’m just an unrefined lout. I haven’t found much, if any, poetry that I could really say that I like. There isn’t a single poem that I love. I understand the value of poetry to humanity, but it holds very little value for me personally.

    Song lyrics are things that I find generally useless and self-indulgent in music. Even when I was a singer, I never really liked the words that I sang… they could have been random syllables (and sometimes were) for all I cared. This is a major point of contention between Anne and me.

    I dunno… I guess when it comes to words, I like them to mean something, and for that meaning to be fairly clear when I read or hear them. Then again, I am an unrefined lout.


    November 14, 2008 at 9:20 pm

  4. Drew and wisdomjunkie– I think it is very interesting that you both point out the pretentiousness of poetry. A lot of so called poets are obsessed with their internal monologue and with finding clever ways to say stale cliches. I thikn some poets, however, are concerned with saying the truth. They look at the world and find the perfect words to describe what is right before them. Check out “marriage” by Gregory Corso. There is no pretentiousness in that one. I agree with Drew about music. A lot of lyrics are about what we used to think when we were young. I suppose that is why so much music is aimed at younger people. I laugh a lot when I listen to lyrics by bands I used to love. I’ll check Howard’s poetry. 🙂

    Enreal- I agree with you, a lot of it has to do with sound, and with saying what the author is saying in order to understand what they are thinking or experiencing.


    November 14, 2008 at 9:37 pm

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