How to read poetry

From time to time I meet someone who seems interested in poetry in principle, but doesn’t know where to start reading. Of course in most cases they’re just feigning interest, because they want to please me or are playing me like a Singing Teapot. Nonetheless, it has helped me think about what I’d recommend, and why.

The first thing to remember is that ninety per cent of the poetry we read at school (who hasn’t read Yeats’ “An Irish airman foresees his death” or Blake’s “The Tiger”?) puts us off poetry. Those poems are good and interesting if you understand their historical context, albeit as interesting as studying cross-stitch techniques of the late 18th century. Historical context gives teachers and children something to talk about, because the teachers themselves usually don’t know enough about poetry to spot innovation, or to explain why a particular image or use of line breaks or internal rhyme is special. Or as kids we haven’t got the intellectual equipment to handle subtlety or get irony and innuendo.

Also, those who pick “school poems” usually want us to think that poetry has great social and historical significance. And the thing is, no one really knows this for sure. Only a few truly believe that poetry can change the world in any meaningful way. Perhaps occasionally a poem might tweak the zeitgeist, but usually it tweaks our recollected impression of a time, not the time itself. Reading poetry as a history lesson is a terribly narrow way to read poetry. Good poetry is good for how it fizzes and sloshes in the ear and the mind, not for how it teaches history.

A last suggestion: read slowly so you can take in the details. It’s like those metal flowers made from old cool-drink cans. Prose is like the can. It’s practical, it serves a purpose, and even when well designed it’s not something you take a moment to contemplate, unless you have the time and are interested in cool-drink-can design. Poetry is the flower made from the can. The most colourful, intense parts of the can are used in a particular combination, often borrowing the essence of the can’s design, distilling it, and presenting it in a form that is carefully chosen for maximum effect. It is something you might keep and return to, because it shows that someone cares about the details, and that it’s possible to carve something beautiful from the ordinary.

Poems to look for

Obviously everyone likes different stuff for different reasons. These have been important poems for me since I was very young.

  • Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”, “Out, Out–”
  • Philip Larkin, “Church Going”
  • Howard Nemerov, “The Blue Swallows”
  • W. H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”
  • William Carlos Williams, “Danse Russe”
  • John Agard, “Poetry Jump-up”
  • Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
  • Hugh MacDiarmid, “Perfect”
  • E. E. Cummings, “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”
  • Robert Graves, “Love Without Hope” (and most of his poetry, especially his love poetry)
  • Douglas Livingstone, “Gentling a wildcat” (one of South Africa’s greatest poets)
  • Theodore Roethke, “Root Cellar”
  • Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”
  • James Wright, “I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again”
  • Adrienne Rich, “The Ninth Symphony of Beethoven Understood at Last as a Sexual Message”
  • Sylvia Plath, “You’re”
  • Seamus Heaney, “Death of a Naturalist”, “Limbo”
  • Craig Raine, “A Martian Sends A Postcard Home”
  • Carol Ann Duffy, “Warming Her Pearls”
  • Alice Oswald, Dart (This is a short book, a single poem. It’s the most astonishing thing I read in 2004.)