How to read a poem

August 24, 2018

Today is National Poetry Day:

National Poetry Day was established in 1997. A one-day national poetry event extravaganza, it is held on the fourth Friday of August each year.

From seasoned poets, to total newbies, to the simply-a-bit-curious, participants in Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day 2018 — on Friday, 24 August — will have the opportunity to be touched by the magic and excitement of poetry, to get involved in the poetry community, and to discover New Zealand poets, share poems and explore and experience what poetry is all about. . . 

I love poetry.

With or without rhyme, the economy of words, the way a poem helps me understand something I feel when I haven’t the words to explain it myself, the poet’s ability to say something with what is left out as well as what is put in . . .

But how do you read a poem?

Dunedin poet, Diane Brown provides her answer to that question:

“How do you read a poem?” a woman asked as we aqua-jogged. Despite years of writing and reading poems and a degree in literature, I had no easy answer. My pool friend was talking of the poems in The Weekend Mix and in particular poems without the certainty of rhyme and meter that she was familiar with. Many modern poems have irregular lines and seem to follow no pattern. Where does the emphasis go, how do you know when to pause? And how do you interpret?

The Romanian poet, Paul Celan said: “A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the -not always greatly hopeful – belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too are under way: they are making toward something.”

I find this a helpful way to think of a poem. A bottle lying on the sand. You pull out the paper and unfold it. It’s in hieroglyphics. Imagine the frustration. All you know is that you have received a message from far away. A person reaching out. To you. Maybe you have to live with the uncertainty, maybe you can find tools to help decipher. . . 

Interpreting a poem can require a consideration of sound, appearance, surface and underlying meanings, and more words than the poem itself. And it’s easy to beat the life out of them.

Dear Reader, I urge you to simply enter into a dialogue with the poem and listen to what it has to say. Even if you get a glimpse of understanding, in the same way as you communicate with speakers of other languages. That’s more than you had before. Don’t be afraid, keep an open mind and enjoy the meeting.

If you’re of a mind to meet some poetry, you will find some of Diane’s  at her website.


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