How to Talk About Poetry

Let’s be honest. Reading poetry, in the greater scheme of things, is just this side of engaging in an obscenity. Poetry is meant to be spoken or sung or chanted; it’s meant to be heard and shared, it’s not meant to be a sullen and solitary vice. Poems live when they are shared; they should be spoken and heard and passed on and celebrated. Fortunately, anyone can read and enjoy and comment appreciatively and intelligently about poetry. You don’t have to be some sort of creative writer, or a poet, or an artist, or sensitive, or anything, beyond a thoughtful reader.

I thought I hated poetry for much of my life; it wasn’t until I read this poem that I realized I liked some poems. I thought I hated poetry because of the way poetry was presented to me in school, where teachers spent hours trying to explain meter and scansion (it’s not that big a deal, and you can read and like poetry just fine without knowing anything about meter or rhyme schemes). If you like music with lyrics, if you like songs, then you like poetry.

Moreover, no matter what your English lit teacher told you—poetry has a multiplicity of possible readings. There are lots and lots of ways for people to read the same poem; they’re all valid, as long as readers can tie their response to the poem. Even “I don’t really like this poem because it brings up a really unpleasant memory” is a valid response for that person at that time to that poem. Moreover, lived experience can change the way we read a poem, or the ways it makes us feel. We aren’t static and unchanging; neither is poetry.

What then do you talk about with respect to a poem? To start, you can talk about what you notice about it. Is there a particular line or section that draws your attention? Is there something that reminds you of something in your life, or perhaps something else you’ve seen or read? Are there any patterns, or sounds, or words, or imagery, that you find interesting or that attract your notice? Is there something that you just simply like about the poem (or dislike)?

Poetry by its nature is compact. A poem is language is compressed, without excess words. That means it’s particularly fun to look for patterns that shine through the compact shape of a poem. Patterns of image, and metaphor, of sound, and rhythm—and perhaps even more interesting, to look for places where the poet sets up a pattern, and then changes, or departs, or alters that pattern.

If you want something a little more formal, here’s a getting started guide to writing about poetry in academic terms. Me, I’d rather just talk about why I love a particular poem, and how it works, including, how it works on me.

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She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.

Posted in Poetry, Writing and Language