Last week I talked about poetry’s purpose and took a shot at dispelling some common myths associated with poetry. Today I would like to cover some elements of good poetry and discuss a handful of approaches readers can use that will help them maximize their experience with poetry and maybe, with luck, find a poem that wiggles right into their hearts and minds.
ELEMENTS OF GOOD POETRY
Poetry is the most concentrated form of literature. Think of those little cans of orange juice in the frozen food section of your supermarket. If you opened one up and licked it, your reaction would be immediate and intense. Why? Because the ingredients are concentrated. More is packed in a smaller space. Same with poetry. Poetry gives you the most experience in the fewest number of words possible. Consequently, the language, like the juice in the can, is intensely concentrated and highly-charged. Every single word must contribute to the overall effect and carry its own weight, and typically even more. Poetry has a higher voltage than a novel a short story or an essay. As a result, good poetry gives off both light and heat. A good poem reminds me of a firecracker–hot, explosive, and powerful, but ultimately dazzling.
Poetry also uses comparisons (similes, metaphors, personifications), figurative language (words not meant to be taken literally, but evocatively), and imagery (word pictures that appeal to the five senses). If these devices are used to their fullest effect, the reader should be able to have a positive experience with the poem.
TECHNIQUES FOR READING POETRY
It is the job of a good poet to communicate meaning. That doesn’t mean, however, that the reader has no responsibility. Here are some techniques readers can use to more fully appreciate the poem in front of them:
Read a poem more than once. Because the language is concentrated, repeated readings may allow deeper meaning to emerge. In some poems I’ve understood new concepts during the tenth, even twentieth reading. I love that about poetry.
Keep a dictionary nearby. Discovering unfamiliar words will aid in your understanding of the poem and what it’s trying to say, especially if the poet is committing the cardinal sin of trying to sound smarter than you.
Read so you hear the words in your mind. Use your imagination to guide your understanding. Envision the images, the action. Play the poem like a movie in your mind’s eye.
Pay attention. Turn off the television, the iPod, and the cell phone and really listen to what the poem is trying to say.
Paraphrase. If you can put the poem in your own words, you have a better chance of fully understanding its message.
Read the poem aloud. Our comprehension of a message is often improved when we hear it spoken aloud.
But what if you use these techniques to understand and appreciate poetry and the poem still doesn’t speak to you? Then chances are, it’s the poem’s fault. There are a six billion poems in the naked city; find another one and try again. Eventually, I guarantee you, you will find a poem that knocks you on your ass.
A good poem can be electric, give off fireworks, shift the reader’s life perspective, and change the way he or she views the world. And in my book, that’s worth the price of admission right there. I’m not saying that poetry is for everyone and that everyone should love it. Some people just don’t connect with or understand certain concepts in the same way, much like I have never understood the mystery of Algebra, the function of power tools, or the appeal of Jersey Shore.
Question: What poet or poem have you read that knocked you on your ass?