When I started writing poetry, I wanted to improve myself, and the advice Ted Kooser, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, and countless other great poets delved out was that I needed to read lots and lots of poetry. So I started checking out more poetry books from the library, and I subscribed to a couple of poetry magazines that I thought were worth the investment.
As I began to read poetry more, I often found, to my chagrin, that I didn’t seem to really enjoy reading poetry. It felt like more of a chore than a relaxing, end-of-the-day experience. And it usually was at the end of a long day. I would sit down on the couch hoping for some uplifting words, or at least some inspiration for some of my own poems. Often, though, I would be able to get through only a few poems before I was ready to be done reading poetry for the night. Each poem felt so weighty, so taxing that I would usually end up ditching the poetry book for some lighter reading.
I am persistent, though. I kept on checking out those books, reading those poetry journals, and clicking on my web browser’s Poetry Daily link to dose myself with the stuff. And I have found, to my delight, I am starting to be able to read it more, enjoy it more, and perhaps even understand it more.
Part of the problem, I think, is that I was approaching reading collections of poetry the same way I would a novel. I would save several hours of my evening, after the kids were in bed and the hubby was watching his Spanish TV on the internet, to read poetry. And while I think I am able to sit and read it for longer than I could when I started this endeavor, I find that reading poetry in smaller chunks is easier.
I don’t want to offend any poets or poetry publishers, but I have discovered that I am able to get through Poetry Magazine if I leave the copy next to the toilet. Five to ten minutes is a perfect window of time to digest one or two poems without feeling overwhelmed. I also read a few poems while I bathe my two little girls each night. They play with their bubbles and Styrofoam letters, while I sit on the bathroom counter, a safe distance (most of the time) from splashing, and read.
Another change I’ve made in the way I approach reading poetry is that I don’t rush it. I don’t rush through reading a poem, I don’t rush to the next poem, and I don’t rush to find the “meaning” of the poem. I believe it was Keats who said that reading a poem is like going for a swim in a lake. You don’t dive in only to try to get back out again as quickly as possible. You need to experience the poem and let it move around you. I’ve always been a pretty slow reader, but I’ve tried to slow myself down even further as I approach poetry.
I’ve also allowed myself the freedom to say that I don’t like certain poets or poems. Just because it has been published by a big name poetry journal or in an anthology doesn’t mean I have to like it or enjoy reading it. There is such a wide variety of poetry out there, a vast number of poets and poems, and there are bound to be some that resonate with certain readers and that turn other readers off. I think the trick is being open minded, not judging too quickly, but allowing oneself to judge after a healthy amount of exposure and move on to other poets one might enjoy even more.
An area that I know I could improve on with regards to becoming a better reader of poetry is reading out loud. I have read that advice numerous times. I have heard it from many teachers. But still, about 98% of the time I do not do it. Even when writing my own poetry, I seldom read it out loud (yikes! I know!) until, perhaps, I am in the final stages and even (gasp!) when I am preparing myself for a reading. How can I really improve as a poet unless I begin to read lots of poems out loud and learn to distinguish their aural beauty? Partly, I am deterred by the effort of vocalization, and partly it is because I don’t want to embarrass myself or be irritating to others present. What would my husband or little girls think, for example, if they walk by the bathroom door and hear me seemingly talking to myself? They would think Mom was ready to be checked in to an asylum, that’s what! But, honestly, I just need to do it. I need to start reading poetry, all kinds of poetry, out loud, at least once, and see what wonders it will reveal. Poetry, after all, has been around for a long time and in civilizations that didn’t have written language. Poetry is first an oral art form.
Looking back on my experience as a consumer of poetry, I would say that I have definitely made progress from my elementary school days when I read only Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. Even from several months ago when I waded through a collection of poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (whose work, in bite-sized chunks I love), I can tell that I’ve improved as a poetry reader and I hope to continue to do so. I hope, as I improve, the fruits will show in my own work.