Listen, I know how this looks. An NPR piece about "how to appreciate poetry" reads like self-parody. I get it! But — in case you haven't heard — things are extremely bad right now. And if you're holed up at home and have burned through all the TV you can stand, you may just need some art to help you process that sadness or anger or fear. And this might be a good time to give poetry a try.
A great poem can be there for you — the same way other works of art you hold dear can. Franny Choi, an educator and co-host of the poetry podcast VS(pronounced like "verses" or "versus," get it?), says a great poem "makes me want to get out of my chair and pace around the room. It makes me want to throw my hands up and show it to somebody or say it out loud or shout it from the rooftops ... when I have [it], it's the only thing that matters."
But if you haven't flexed your poetry muscles in a while, or if you've always thought poems were the domain of clove cigarette smokers and adjunct professors, that feeling might be a little hard to tap into. Here are 5 tips that might help you get there.
Every poetry expert we talked to pointed to the way poetry is taught in schools as the biggest barrier to entry for most people.
"Most commonly, people are taught that the way to engage with a poem is by parsing it, by trying to understand it and master it, and be able to write an essay about it," says Choi. "And I think that keeps us from really developing personal relationships with poetry."
Let's go back real quick to 10th grade, and you imagine you just got assigned to read that Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." You know it — it's the one that ends with the lines:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
A classic! But if you were to take the advice of The College Board, you'd recognize the poem as: "a tidy four-quatrain stanzaic structure, is written in iambic tetrameters, and has a rhyme scheme that effectively knits together one stanza's sounds and images and those of the next."
Stanzas, meter, form — all that stuff is well and good if you're already bought in, but it doesn't mean anything if you only have a passing interest in poetry.
"What's the use of understanding everything that's working ... If the end result is that you are able to answer a reading comprehension question?" says Choi.
Even when there's no formal graded quiz, people still put pressure on themselves to crack a poem, to unlock its meaning or to answer some unanswerable question about "what was the poet trying to say?" Don't do it!
Harryette Mullen is a professor at UCLA, and a poet herself. Her work plays around with language, and there are usually a lot of layers and meanings to her poetry. But even she says, "people don't trust themselves because they're thinking in the back of their minds 'no, there's a right answer, there's a correct answer and I wanna be sure I'm not giving a wrong answer.'"
She says, instead of trying to answer specific questions, when you read a poem, ask yourself some broader questions:
What overall impression do you get?
What ideas float around in your mind?
What do you feel?
Again — there's no test, there's no wrong answer. Just look around in your own brain as you read the poem and take in what's there.
"Those kind of overall impressions, I think most of us do get," says Mullen. "We are left with something." Whatever that "something" is — trust it!
And Mullen says if something in the poem is throwing you off — whether it be a weird image or a funny phrase — stop, take a breath, and read it again later. Sometimes that can mean right away. Other times it means take a week. Or a month. Or a year.
For a while Mullen couldn't really get into the work of poet William Blake — another one of those classic canon guys. It didn't click for her in high school, and not again in college. But she read his work again recently, and all of a sudden it opened up to her.
"Sometimes we change," she says. "The poem is still the same, the text is still the same ... But we return to the poem with a different understanding."
Hopefully by now the pressure's off. You're getting over any scars from 8th grade English. You're learning to trust yourself and your thoughts and your taste. You open up a poem, you give it a read and you get ... something? Maybe? You're not quite sure? One thing that helps, say our experts, is to read it aloud.
"We have to remember that poetry was an oral art form before anything else," says Choi. "And that oral tradition has been with us for thousands and thousands of years so I think a lot of information can be gained from reading poems out loud."
If that feels weird to you, you can try and mouth along to a poem. But Choi says it's best to read it out loud and read it out loud a few different ways:
Like you're savoring every word, and every syllable, trying out the shapes of the word in your mouth
Like you're explaining something really difficult to someone else.
Fun fact: here at NPR when reporters read their scripts, it's sometimes helpful to have them read them in different ways, with stresses on different words. It helps them find the groove of their writing, which is essentially what you're trying to do with someone else's poetry. You can make the very same words sound entirely different. Try it.
Listen to former Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera read his poem, "Almost Livin' Almost dyin'."
4. Visualize the poem.
A poem might offer you a stack of images, but there are plenty of gaps to fill. So go ahead and fill them! Mullen says to think of the poem like it's a movie or a play, and you're the director.
"What colors would you use?" she says." What kind of setting is there? If there's light what kind of light would it be? Harsh light? Twilight? Dusk? Would it be indoors or outdoors? Can you imagine the speaker?
These brain pictures will help illuminate whatever it is you seem to be getting out of the poem. And keep in mind the first two tips: this isn't school, and there isn't a single answer. What you see is what you see.
If you need help — Choi suggests an exercise that involves just doodling images that really stick out as you read the poem. That might help you find a common theme or a through line.
When we talked in Tip #1 about not approaching poetry like it's school — we focused on the more homework-y aspect of poetry. But it's also true when it comes to what you're actually reading.
The experts we talked to say their poetry curriculum in schools was mostly centered around the classical canon — your Shakespeares and your Frosts. But everyone stressed that the world of poetry is a lot bigger than that (not to mention less white, less male, less old). So if poems about walking in the woods when it's snowing aren't your jam then keep looking — there's something out there for you.
Or better yet, when you can, head to your local poetry reading. Shihan van Clief and Dante Basco co-founded Da Poetry Lounge — a long running poetry reading in Los Angeles that takes place every Tuesday. On a recent visit, the readings there varied from more slam-oriented poetry, to more formal readings, to people practicing their rap lyrics, to a guy looking for a girl he'd met at the Chateau Marmont years ago (hope she's reading this, my dude!).
Van Clief says to be honest about your tastes and what you're looking for — if you're looking for something closer to Shel Silverstein than the latest Pulitzer Prize winning collection, that's fine.
"There's just as much value in that because it gives them a stepping stone," says Van Clief. "It gives them something they can digest quicker than someone going 'here, take this and try and figure it out.'"
There are readings at libraries and bookstores, and bars and clubs. If you can't get to one, there are poetry instagram accounts and youtube channels (some recommendations below).