You probably know by now that I love to read poetry. It's the reason I got into writing in the first place.
And in the short time I've been reading publicly, I've been lucky enough to find so much encouragement (btw thank you for all the kind words. they mean a lot to me). It's become such a big part of my life, that I decided to talk about how I learned to read and hopefully get more people to try.
Quiet a few years ago, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company visited my school and read On The Eve of St. Agnes.To tell you that it was an important moment for me would be an understatement. It changed how I wrote, how I read, how I understood poetry.
And while I am nowhere near on that level, I am better for what I learned from that experience. More about that specific reading later but here are some things that have stuck with me since then.
Poetry People and Poetry Is The Message
Let's start with an uninspired, blanket observation: poetry isn't for everyone. And while that's true for almost anything, I have found such a hot or cold reaction to Poetry that I can't help but try and theorize why something I love so much, can be so hated as well. So I'll move to my second cliche and move to the beginning of these experiences.
Most of the time, when people find out that I love poems, I'm met on some scale between confusion, annoyance, distaste, or anger.
I meet someone who enjoys poetry too.
It's not impossible. But I find those encounters to be outliers. And of those few encounters it's even harder to find someone who enjoys the same kind of poetry I do. Maybe this is do to my geography, or the small circles I keep, and maybe this would all be solved if I just got out more?... but this has been my experience.
So younger me, often kept poetry as a solitary subject. Something not to bring in to conversations with my friends. The times I remember best, ditching class, to have time alone in a corner of a library, or in my room, or on the university lawn, or hiding in the front seat of my car with the windows down. Quietly absorbing every line. Taking in the page as a secret passed thru history just for me. And I was fine with that. In fact it was exactly what I wanted. A way to enjoy my lonerism.
After all, poetry wasn't about making friends.
Poetry is something I do for me. I read and write cause I want to. It's my desire that is it's own reward. There's no monetary value. No good job or high five. No reason other than a desire to read and write. I can share a moment with a writer's thoughts, see if they speak to me, if I like it or not or if I want even want that message in my life. And everything about Poetry, hinges on me. And while yes, sometimes it's another author who wrote the piece, the conversation is strictly internal. They were merely the fuel for my own imagination. I hold the conversation. I dictate how it ends.
And I imagine this true for you, if you are a poetry person.
Maybe that's where the disconnect occurs? Maybe some people don't understand why they should put so much work or thought into a poem when it takes so much effort to understand and they receive no tangible reward. Poetry is slow.Its practice requires calming that internal itch for fast and easy and waiting for a longer, personal reward that may not reveal its purpose until years down, when a reader can recall a succinct and poignant line.
And while poetry is personal, at its origin, it's meant to be communal. Meant to be spread and shared. That was a big lesson for me to learn from the Shakespearean Actor and my wonderful Romance Professor. What's the point of writing, of publishing, if not to spread out like a virus thru time, infecting futures with the strange ramblings of your mind?
Poetry, like all writing, is the message. Every poem has one. From the author to the reader. From reader to listener. And often that message is simple, though sometimes it is obscured in difficult layers of representation. *(More on this later)
That communication is the most important part of reading. Even if you're alone in your room, on a recording, in bed with a lover, or on a stage in front of a room full of people, or live on Instagram, the point is to uncover the message.
Bring it out.
Give it warmth.
Slowly make it live.
Only the reader can do that.
A good reading should help the message emerge. A great reading should bring the author's voice off the page and into our reality. Into the moment.
Sometimes it takes a lot of time and re-readings to ever get to a comfortable place and say - I know this poem well enough to read it.
I hear a lot of people read unconfidently. And this is probably because they aren't precisely sure what they are saying.
So take time.
I never read aloud the first time. And I never perform without many, many re-readings. I imagine this was equally true for the Shakespearean Actor who read at my University.
Read unfiltered, then Re-Read asking lots of questions like:
What did the author mean? What is actually being said here? What should the reader get from this? Why is the poem divided up the way it is? Are the rhymes and rhythms supposed to be emphasized or is it just a background mood? What is the tone of this poem? Etc.
There are a million questions and even more answers, but with every answer you find (different readers will and should find different answers) you should get closer to understanding your message.
This is the work of reading. It's not easy.
And the reward... that's even harder to define.
Maybe here we can revisit this Love/Hate problem.
Why work so hard for words? Why go slowly over an idea, again and again? Why obsess over someone else's thoughts? If you see no value in it, it is the equivalent of eating a chunk of rubber tire. Hard. Distasteful. Unrewarding. It's easy to understand why someone would hate the thought of it. Or think it strange that other people enjoy it.
I think that's the inherited attitude of our High School understanding of Poetry. And for that, I won't blame them.
But if like me, you are a Poetry Person, you know there are universes of ideas to escape to. Dreams to make. Experiences to feel. Each one has made my life so much deeper. Has taught me to appreciate others. To Think. To Feel. To Love. To be cautious of the words I use. To be mindful of my form. To be something more than I could be without Poetry.
So I challenge you to find a poem, record yourself reading it the first time, then read it over until you find some new insight into the meaning, and record it again. Hear the change that comes with understanding.
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