Understanding Poetry #1: Slowing Down

One of the phrases I least enjoy hearing is “I don’t understand poetry” (it’s up there with “bus replacement service” and “all-day carvery”). I don’t like it because it almost always turns out to be untrue, but also because it’s a category mistake: can you imagine someone keeping a straight face while saying “I don’t understand songs” or “I don’t understand prose”?

Thought not.

In reality the biggest problem is believing there’s something complicated to “understand” – something that needs decrypting or translating into non-threatening prose – in the first place. I suspect it’s a consequence of the way a lot of poetry is taught in schools, which is a consequence of the syllabus, which is a consequence of…

But because I hear this so often I want to prove it’s not true. Over the next seven weeks I’m going to post seven short lessons in the (genuinely simple) art of understanding poetry. Starting with the most important of all: how we read.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re taught to read for information. Comprehensions, summaries, précis exercises: a lot of our early years are spent learning how to extract the meaning from pieces of writing as efficiently as possible. The more we practise, the faster we get. By the time we’re studying for A Levels or a degree, many of us can rattle through impressive amounts of text in an hour, asset-stripping for essential information. Those of us who spend our working lives at a computer get so good at assimilating emails that we can sometimes forget we’re reading at all. It’s hard to belive such a powerful and versatile skill grew out of those early struggles with a-is-for-apple, when each word had to be wrestled from the strange squiggles on the page.

What gets lost in all this is the words themselves. In the same way that we get comfortable with a-is-for-apple and start reading words rather than individual letters and phonemes, we go on to acquire the skill of reading ideas instead of individual words. As we get good at it, more and more of the complex process becomes unconscious. This doesn’t mean we never notice the words themselves: if some sesquipedalian numpty starts extemporizing with redundantly circumlocutative periphrasis it annoys us not just because it’s pretentious but because it slows us down; likewise, a beautiful phrase can sometimes stick in the mind like the sadness at the heart of all things. But in general we mine blocks of text for meaning rather than language. Can you summarize five key points from the last newspaper article you read? Almost certainly yes. Can you remember five specific turns of phrase? (No cheating)

This kind of reading is a powerful skill and pretty much essential for modern daily life. But it doesn’t work with poetry. Poetry is about how something is said as much as the information conveyed. If you summarize a poem, you destroy it. For example:

Zeus disguises himself as a swan and rapes Leda, who gives birth to Helen of Troy as a result. If this hadn’t happened, there would have been no Trojan war. Something mystical may or may not have passed between Zeus and Leda before he lost interest; probably not.

This accurately summarizes – and completely ruins – Leda and the Swan.

With poetry you have to slow down. This doesn’t mean you should read it ponderously (professional actors, please take note); just that you can’t read it efficiently. You can’t hurtle through it at newspaper speed, and if you try then it doesn’t make sense. All those line breaks and all that white space inhibit our normal way of reading, and this creates the illusion that we don’t understand it.

Unless you’ve picked a wilfully obscure poem, there’s nothing to stop you understanding it other than this illusion caused by trying to read for sense alone (trying to understand) instead of just reading. And the better you are at reading (the more you read, the more efficiently you read), the more likely you are to have struggled with poems in the past – because you’ve sped straight off the autobahn at 120 onto a winding country lane.

The good news is that this is easy to fix. You don’t need to learn a new skill; you just need to learn how to turn an existing one on and off as needed. You need to remember how to slow down.

A page of poetry contains fewer words than a page of prose, but it should take you longer to read. Savour it like a gourmet meal; don’t wolf it down like a Big Mac. You’re eating to enjoy the act of eating, rather than to refuel. And don’t worry about understanding: if you leave it alone, it will take care of itself; if you try to force it, you’ll get stuck.

This won’t happen instantly, but it won’t take long. If you spend a small amount of time reading a poem a few times a week, you’ll notice a change in about two weeks – provided you don’t try to force it and keep slowing down.

Pick a poem, any poem. There’s one at the end of this article if you can’t lay hands on one, but ideally you’ll try this with more than one. Set aside 10 minutes and find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Now read, slowly. Enjoy the sound and feel of the words. Enjoy the turns of phrase. Re-acquaint yourself with the wonderful thing that reading is. Read the poem several times over. Circumstances permitting, read it aloud. Give yourself the luxury of spending a small amount of time appreciating something beautiful.

That’s it. No mystery. Nothing magical will happen. It may feel a bit artificial the first few times but don’t give up: you already know how to do this; you just need to unlearn a few old habits.

As you get comfortable with this you’ll notice two other benefits. You’ll find yourself appreciating prose fiction in a different way as well (not because you’re consciously trying to read in “poem mode”, but because there’s some crossover benefit). And after a couple of months you’ll likely notice that you get faster when reading in “information” mode. (I’d guess this is something to do with having a clearer distinction between different types of reading).

But the main benefit is that you’ll see that you really do understand poetry and did all along. You just need to read slowly and not strain too hard after meaning.

Next week we’ll look at lines and line breaks. For now, here’s a beautiful poem that’s worth taking some time over.

The Song of Wandering Aengus (W.B. Yeats, 1897)

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

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