When asked why they don’t read poetry, many people answer, with a slight frown and a shrug, “I don’t really get poetry. I never know what the poem is supposed to be about.” If you’ve taken high school or college-level literature courses and analyzed poetry for its metaphors and meter, it’s easy to get caught up in whether or not you understand a poem. It’s also easy to get distracted by meaning if you think a poem should read like a tiny story. But it doesn’t have to be so serious. Opening yourself up to the language of a poem and letting it provoke a response in you is also a way of understanding a poem.
“My first relation to a poem is sound,” said Carol Moldaw, author of five books of poetry, including her most recent, So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems, and a lyric novel called The Widening. “If I am moved by rhythmic sounds of the poem — the way the words sound together, the way the phrases move together, the way the poem has its beats, its pulse — then I’m engaged with that poem. It’s almost embarrassing, but particularly when I was young, I would read poems and love poems and never ever think of what they meant. I just loved them. It’s never the paraphrasable quality of a poem [that matters]. It might be one line that I get the meaning in without really thinking about how the poet got there.” As she got older and developed as a reader and writer, she learned to tease apart different analytic strands in poems, but she confesses that outside of a classroom setting, she finds it hard to appreciate a poem whose sounds don’t viscerally move her. “It’s a bit of a liability on my part,” she said. “Sometimes I miss things that are great, that other people love.”
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