In 1972 my parents bought me my first poetry book, The Golden Treasury Of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer. For a nine-year-old this was like being given a piece of treasure. Many an evening was spent under the bed clothes reading the many poems by torchlight and being held by the magic of Walt Whitman’s Miracles, becoming the baddie in Alfred Noyes’, The Highwayman, and floating in the madness of Edward Lear’s, The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. The innocence of childhood allowed me to get lost and become part of the poem.
Forty-five years on, my reading and understanding of poetry has become a little more difficult. Reading glasses come provided with filters of life experience, value and belief systems, norms of culture and society, as well as the pressures and pace of modern day living. The art of reading a poem is very different.
The question of how to read a poem has challenged poets and readers for centuries. Going back nearly two hundred years, poet and literary critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge divided readers into four types.
- Moghul Diamonds – the best type and someone who profits by what they read and enables others to profit by it too.
- Sandglasses – remember nothing of what they read and just go through a book to get through time.
- Strainbags – remember merely the dregs of what they read.
- Sponges- absorb all they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtier.
I can identify as being all of these during my life. A few years ago, I realised there was a need to get back to the Moghul Diamond stage as the quantity of poetry I was reading had superseded the quality, hence the blog and journey further into the heart of poetry.
Now the reading of a poem goes much deeper than the words and rhyming pattern. It is about the life and background of the poet, the story and emotion behind the poem and spending more time with the poem; living and breathing it to become part of what the writer intended.
In his recent book, The Poetry Pharmacy, William Sieghart gives some good advice about how to read a poem. He suggests not reading the poem like a newspaper and novel, but more like a prayer. Speak it aloud to yourself so you can hear it properly. Take it to bed with you and read it night after night, for at least five nights, remembering that no poem deserves only a single visit.
Just as I was putting together these Thursday Thoughts two of my favourite poets have combined to give me some poetry to test Sieghart’s theories. Roland Keld at Roland’s Ragbag has written an excellent poem, The Meaning of Life, which just lends itself to spending more time with and appreciating the full meaning.
Nigel Smith at Voices of a Hidden Self, has produced an audio version of him reading Roland’s, The Meaning of Life and listening to it brings more depth and meaning to the poem; hearing it read aloud as Sieghart suggests. I will be having more time out this week reading and listening to the poem and both versions are well worth the time if you can spare it.
What are your thoughts on how a poem should be read? Do you have any tips or habits you use to get more meaning from the poems you read? Please jump in and share them in the comments section. I’d love to read them.