How to Read and Talk About Poetry

By Jessica Flynn, NEA Literature Specialist
close-up photo of open book
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash
“Don't worry about what a poem means,” says poet Joy Harjo. “Do you ask what a song means before you listen? Just listen.” Harjo’s book of selected poems, How We Became Human, is one of the recent additions to the NEA Big Read library, along with two other books of poetry: Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Book of Hours by Kevin Young. But for those of us who don’t read poetry on a regular basis, the prospect of opening a book of poetry—and going as far as to talk about it—might seem daunting. So… where do we start? We asked three poets and teachers for their advice: Rachel Brumbach (English teacher at McCaskey High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania); Adrian Matejka (Ruth Lilly Professor/Poet-in-Residence at Indiana University; mostly recently the author of The Big Smoke) [EDITOR'S NOTE: The Big Smoke is now part of the NEA Big Read library]; and Tyler Meier (executive director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona). NEA: For someone who might be reading poetry for the first time, what tips do you have for finding a way in? RACHEL BRUMBACH: When reading a poem for the first time, instead of becoming caught up in trying to decipher every single word's meaning and every line's meaning, just read the poem the whole way through without stopping, really absorbing the tone and mood of the poem first. After this, reread the poem and focus on each stanza—go stanza by stanza. Then, finally, reread it again and focus on each line—go line by line. With each reading you will pick up more and understand more than you may have realized you would at the start. If you are very new to reading poetry, maybe just read a few poems the whole way through and then come back to them later and go stanza by stanza, then come back later to go line by line. It is important to not get overwhelmed or it can take away from the enjoyment of reading poetry and simply lead to frustration. ADRIAN MATEJKA: Poems ask for a different kind of reading than stories or essays because in poems, we’re looking for immediate emotion and association as much as meaning. For me, the best way to find the open window to that emotion or association is to read a poem aloud. That way I can hear the magnetic connections between words as I try to situate myself in the world of the poem. We also live in language differently when speaking it aloud. We can feel the words reverberate in the brain and chest. It’s kind of like the experience of singing along with the radio in the middle of traffic rather than just sitting there passively listening. TYLER MEIER: Above all, let curiosity be the guide. Poetry is language, and we use language all the time, every day. Language is where we meet each other—it’s what connects us. Most of the time, the language we encounter isn’t used in surprising ways: we’re reading the screen to see if the train is late, or we’re checking the expiration date on the milk, or we’re passing work information among colleagues. [Poetry] is a chance to celebrate and elevate language. In a class I’m teaching this semester, we’ve read an interview where Joy Harjo suggests that language is culture; to think creatively with language is to think creatively about how we make meaning out of experiences. How we talk about the things we care about is, in a way, who we are, and a demonstration of our values. If you approach a poem with curiosity, you might be surprised at what you discover—and how you respond. Can you remember the last time you heard or read a poem? Was it a funeral, or a public speech? An inauguration? A wedding? We often use poetry to signify cultural importance, and help us make sense of important events. Was the last time you read a poem on social media or in your inbox? Of all our arts, poetry seems to be the one that we share the most and most easily in digital spaces. I’ve never been to a wedding or inauguration where a theater performance was prepared in celebration; I’ve rarely been compelled to post a novel on Facebook. We often turn to poetry first, and it’s worth noting the role poetry plays in the popular culture when reading poems for the first time. NEA: What do you tell someone who feels they don’t know how to talk about poetry? BRUMBACH: Everyone knows how to talk about poetry because everyone is part of the human condition and poetry is an art that truly speaks to the human condition. One wonderful aspect of poetry is that it is very subjective and what you get out of it is just as important as what the poet intended for it to mean. The effect a particular poem has on someone individually is crucial and will obviously vary from person to person. So start first with your experience with the poem—think about its mood and tone, its underlying meaning, and then its poetic devices and how they interact to create a finished piece. Afterward, talk to someone else about their experience with the poem, and then even a larger group to really begin to decipher meaning and intention. MATEJKA: Poetry is an experience as much as it is a concrete thing to be discussed and like all experiences, there isn’t always a right or wrong answer to it. That’s part of the reason why we often talk about events narratively and in ways that are connected to our reactions. Like “X happened today and this is how I feel about it.” That same model works great for poetry because reading poems can be very personal. What do you think happened in the poem? How does that happening make you feel? Answering these two basic questions about a poem opens up many other possibilities for discussion. MEIER: I tell them to worry less about trying to grapple with the whole poem and some take-away from that totality, and instead, point at lines or images or moments in the poem that spark interest. Do you notice something because it is strange? Or confusing? Or provocative? Does it feel like something you recognize? Does it feel like something you’d never expect? Read a second poem by the poet, or better yet, a section, or a book. Keep pointing to the moments in the poems that stand out. You’ll create patterns in your reading that become ways of speaking about the poems; you’ll be able to trace your attention, and that attention tells an important story. The more broadly you read and recognize where your attention goes, the more you’ll develop a sense of taste—what interests more, what interests less, across one poet’s work, or across broader swaths of contemporary or historical poetry. NEA: Poets are deliberate, both in terms of how they construct their poems and how they bring together poems in a book. When you read a book of poetry, where do you start? Do you read it cover to cover? Do you jump around?  BRUMBACH: When I read a book of poetry, I usually start by jumping around, to be honest. After doing that, then I will go back and read the book cover to cover. One of my favorite poetry books that I read cover to cover on the first read without jumping around first is Some Ether by Nick Flynn and it is still one of my favorite poetry books of all time due to the heartbreaking way Flynn sets up his narrative to really have a huge impact on the reader, allowing the reader to truly feel a part of his story. MATEJKA: A collection of poems is arranged in a specific order to create a particular reading, so I start at the front and read straight through. Each poem builds on and amplifies the previous poem in one way or another, whether it’s through narrative, image, theme, etc. As Robert Frost said (and this is a paraphrase) if you have X number of poems in a book, the way the poems are organized is the final poem in the book. Almost all collections of poems are best experienced sequentially so that we can better understand the poet’s intentions. MEIER: When I read a new collection of poems that isn’t explicitly a survey (like an anthology or a collected or selected), I always try to read the book cover to cover. I appreciate a conversation among the poems. I read with an eye for patterns and common themes. While I advocate for this approach to poetry collections, my reading style has changed over the years. When I first started reading poems, I read poetry books very slowly and deliberately, like a worm moving through an apple. Now, having read many poems, I find I prefer to read more quickly and to take in the horizon. Most poetry books are around 80 pages, and you can read them in about 2 hours. My job and family life keeps me on my toes, but it is still possible to read 3+ books a week. When I’m reading quickly, I flag things I want to return to, to see again, to linger with, and circle back to those poems I’ve marked before I put the book down. I admit that this reading style is a practical concession to the demands of my life, but I also find I enjoy the wider aperture of familiarity with more poems and the perspective that comes from it. NEA: As an example, one of the new poetry titles in the NEA Big Read library is Kevin Young’s Book of Hours. The collection centers on two life-altering events: the death of the poet’s father, and the birth of his son. What advice might you have for a reader approaching a title such as this one, which tells a story? BRUMBACH: Look for imagery and repetition of words and themes that carry into each part of the book. This collection I would choose to read from the beginning to end and not jump around just because there is an obvious narrative included and Kevin Young was certainly very deliberate in choosing how to introduce both experiences to the reader, so I would want to go along for the ride and experience these moments the way that he chose to introduce them to me as a reader. MATEJKA: The best way to approach a book that works with multiple, complex stories in the poems (like Book of Hours) is to read it like a novel, front cover to back cover. Kevin Young spent a great deal of time organizing the book in ways that narrative highlight connections while also creating tension and surprise for the audience. There is so much to discover with sequential reading in this book. Readers who skip poems will miss parts of Mr. Young’s elegant world building, for example. Or the imagistic details that help the poet share grief and joy in the poems. MEIER: I would offer no special advice that differs from what I’ve suggested above. Be curious, and read for moments in the poems that spark your interest. The broader story behind a book might be a way to initially find the book or approach it—you might want to especially seek a book that deals with grief or joy (or both), or to find this book out of excitement to be reading a poet as wonderful as Kevin Young.  But ultimately, I think the best approaches beyond thematic content or familiarities are to read with curiosity and seek moments in the poems where the language sparks your particular interest. Afterward, after reading—use the internet!  Fill in the gaps about Young and about the themes of the book and of Young’s work more broadly. Watch him read a few times on YouTube. Seek out the reviews you can find. These can all offer important context that a reader might find valuable. NEA: Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems 1975-2001 is another new poetry title in the NEA Big Read library. The book pulls together poems from the first 26 years of the poet’s career, showing the range and breadth of Harjo’s poetry over that period of time. What advice might you have for a reader approaching a book of selected poems such as this one? BRUMBACH: For a larger anthology such as this, I would not recommend reading this entire book start to finish in one sitting. Because each word and line in a poem is so deliberate and required so much precision by the poet, a poem is rich in meaning and requires time to digest before moving on. In my experience, I cannot read a large poetry book like I would read a novel, devouring hundreds of pages in an afternoon's sitting. In reading a poetry collection such as this, I would recommend reading a small section, then putting the book down to really digest the poems and then I would come back later to read more. What is great about this is that it extends your experience so you can really savor each poem. MATEJKA: A [volume of] selected poems—especially from a writer as necessary and sustaining as Joy Harjo—works a lot like a greatest hits album because the poems come from so many different books. What unifies the volume is quality: each poem was selected because it is artistically, narratively, or aesthetically important. So treating Ms. Harjo’s selected poems like a greatest hits—a series of excellent, but not always narratively linked poems—allows us to appreciate the power of her individual works while also getting a glimpse of her poetic evolution between 1975-2001. MEIER: My approach is similar to what I’ve suggested above: to read with curiosity and for moments in the poems that resonate. One distinction—I give myself extra permission to read books that survey a poet’s career (collected and selected poems) by dipping in and dipping out, by moving around.  I purposefully skip a linear reading approach in these instances, and instead skip ahead or move backward. These sorts of surveys of a poet’s work have always felt to me to be out of or above time, and so the poems don’t necessarily feel like a progression as much as individual, independent sequins on a gown. It’s good to admire each sequin (and we should!) but my sense is the order doesn’t matter as much as the gown does. A selected or collected is an invitation to think of the body of work as a whole; to think about the resonance and relevance of the work in a larger context. In my mind, the best thing that could happen is that a reader’s experience of the selected work sends him/her happily, eagerly back into the individual volumes. This post originally appeared on the Art Works blog on December 2, 2016.