Monday, February 7, 2011

A Handy Guide to Anxiety-Free Poem Interpretation

A Handy Guide to Anxiety-Free Poem Interpretation

Recently someone sent me some song lyrics and asked me to interpret them for him. He's told me on several occasions that he finds poetry--and especially my poems--difficult to understand. I was puzzled by this, because this person has a great ear for music, and usually people with an ear for music tend to have a natural affinity for poetry.

It could be that my poetry is completely obtuse, but considering the feedback I’ve gotten occasionally from other poets and editors, I’m actually a bit of a simpleton--my poetry is shallow, too easy to understand, too “matchy-matchy”. Which is fine with me. My intent has always been to write poetry that non-poets can understand and enjoy. In other words, I want to write accessible poems. After thinking about it, I realized that this gentleman, who is very intelligent, and by no means verbally stunted, is probably just suffering from a touch of Poetry Anxiety.

Poetry Anxiety is caused by the bad teaching of poetry in the formative years, and common misunderstandings about what poetry is, and its function in our lives. I think we’re culturally conditioned in many ways to be suspicious of things that have multiple layers of meaning, shades of gray, ambivalent interpretations. Because of the way we're taught early on, it’s very anxiety-provoking to be confronted with a work of art or a piece of writing that does not have a clear meaning or message; something that we can't be "right" about or find a single, definitive answer to. This is compounded by teachers who use poetry interpretation as a sort of “gotcha!” instead of an open exploration of themes. Teaching poetry with the idea that understanding its meaning is the most important thing about experiencing a poem is short-sighted and often turns kids off very early to what could otherwise be a wonderfully expansive venue for their creativity.

So, for all of you non-poets out there, (or for you poets who also have Poetry Anxiety--and I'm one of them), here’s a simple, stress-free guide to reading and enjoying poetry:

Practice Makes Perfect

1. A poem usually needs more than one read-through before it begins to reveal itself. For me, reading a poem is a bit like staring at those weird 3-D posters in the mall where you’re supposed to find the pattern in the squiggly lines. If you’re not accustomed to reading poetry, it can take a while to get used to it. But the more you read it, the more you get used to hearing language used in a poetic way, and over time, it will start to feel more natural.

Center Yourself

2. To experience poetry, you need to be in a still and quiet state. Take a few minutes to breathe, eliminate distractions, and get your mind focused on the poem in front of you. Although reading poetry can be very entertaining, it's not a passive form of entertainment. It requires your full involvement and some degree of concentration.

Be Fearlessly Wrong

3. Once the poem is written and “out there” it becomes less about the poets’ intent for the poem and more about a dialogue--an interaction-- between the reader and the poem. The reader is entirely free to have their own experience of the poem. So, it’s okay to be “wrong”, because a poem is not a static object; it’s a living thing that depends on you as the reader to bring your own experience to it. Everyone will perceive a poem differently depending on their individual perceptions and being-ness.

Sound it Out

4. When you’re first reading a poem, focus on images, sound, and the general rhythm, and try not to be anxious about deciphering “meaning” right away. For example, a staccato sound will evoke a different emotions than a lot of soft, extended vowel sounds. Shorter lines create a different feel than a poem with long, extended lines. Poets usually make very deliberate choices about these things when they write, depending on the feelings they want to evoke in the reader. Consider this when interpreting the intent of the poet, but mostly consider how you feel when the sounds wash over you. Again, read the poem more than once. Let it in. Open yourself to it's texture and feel.

Images, Images, Images

5. If you feel like you aren't understanding the meaning, concentrate on one or two images that you find interesting, and just meditate on those. Or, refer to the title. Clues to the intent of the poet can often be found in the title of the poem.

Symbolize This!

6. Consider what the objects in a poem might be symbolizing on a deeper level than the surface appearance. For example, lots of images of winged creatures (butterflies, etc.) could be about reflecting a longing for freedom-- or escape (flight). You might find over time that you begin to develop your own vocabulary of symbolism and that interpreting imagery will start to come more naturally to you.

Pattern Recognition

7. Sometimes a poem may appear to just be a fragmented collection of images. Try to find a pattern in the images; some common thread or theme that runs through all of the images, or a feeling or emotion that the images evoke for you.

How Does This Directly Affect Me?

8. Think of the poem expansively; apply it yourself and your life, and then the world outside of you. Be playful and creative! Poetry is not supposed to be all that serious; just have fun with it.

Take the Wild Ride!

9. Reading poetry should be emotional, exciting, fun, comforting, inspiring, humorous, adventurous, deepening, wrenching, uplifting, eye-opening. But it should never be about the fear of being “wrong”.

For a simple place to start, check out They have a huge selection of poems based on topics that are easily searchable. This is a great place to begin discovering poets whose work you resonate with. And if you really want to go out on a limb and try your hand at writing yourself, Big Tent Poetry is a wonderfully supportive environment for beginning and experienced poets alike.

Happy reading!

--Kristen McHenry


Dale said...

Great advice, Kristen!

Jo-Ann said...

I agree, great advice,this is what I need, especialy point 2, about becoming still and quiet before reading. And I love the imagery of point 4: "consider how you feel when the sounds wash over you." Now that is poetry.

I remember having to interpret the Stones "Paint It Black" back in Grade 8. I wrote something a little too concrete compared to the more subtle "artistes" in the class. Didnt go over so well. Hmmm, perhaps the roots of my "poetry anxiety"!

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks, Dale! And Jo-Ann--yep, I would bet that's where it all started. I just took a peek at those lyrics and I, who can be a very concrete thinker in many ways, sort of felt the same way you must have about it at that age. Like, "Who the hell is doing all this painting? How much does black paint cost, anyway? I hope he's not getting paint all over his leather pants. Oh...leather pants! Yeah, baby!" And...Geez, what a whiner!" So, be yourself, and don't let those eight-grade art fucks dictate your enjoyment of poetry. :) I bet none of them can rock a loaf of homemade bread like you can!

Jo-Ann said...

Love the new layout Kristen. Bright, accessible..
And (cough, cough) glad you didnt paint it black... dont know how I would have interpreted that...