It has come to my attention over the course of my English classes that even a lot of people who are English majors do not know how to properly read or enjoy poetry. And yes, it is a pleasure that can be learned -- poetry is a fast evolving and changing tradition, and its much less popular than it used to be, so many people don't enjoy poetry because they never learned how poetry is supposed to be read. Hopefully this tiny introduction will open the doorway to years of happy poetry reading ahead of you.
1. What's the point of poetry?
Poetry is as broad-ranging and diverse an artform as you can imagine. The "point" of a poem can be as simple as relaying a single emotion over a few lines, or as complex as challenging an entire society and government over hundreds of pages. Poetry does have something universal to offer, however -- it serves as a window to the human experience, a way of living other people's thoughts and ideas through words. Poetry expands the human mind through philosophy, emotion, and truth that extends back thousands of years.
2. Poetry is not Fiction
These days people pride themselves on how fast they can read. They speed through 500-600 page novels in a weekend and feel satisfied, having thoroughly enjoyed the story. Literature wasn't always meant to be read that way, however. In the case of poetry, it is much more enjoyable to read slowly. This can be hard at first for people who are used to reading fast, because our eye wants to speed along the lines and get to the end, but in a poem the placement of every word and linebreak is meaningful. Therefore, in order to get the full meaning and picture of the poem, one must read slowly, savor each line and linger on it before continuing. Of course, some poetry doesn't require you to read as slowly as others, some poems are easily understandable and simplistic while others are much more complex and stylized. Both, however, are equally enjoyable if you just adjust how fast you're reading and engage in the poem's message or energy.
3. Sometimes it's about imagery, not meaning.
Sometimes people read a poem and go "What the heck was that? I don't get it." Yeah, well if anyone ever tells you they've understood every poem they've ever read, they're lying. That's part of the beauty of poetry -- in a sense, it is a mystery; there is a certain amount of freedom and interpretation that happens between the author and the reader. Sometimes the nice thing about a poem isn't so much the meaning behind the words but the imagery that is used, or the expression of a certain atmosphere. So don't read every poem like a robot expecting everything to be literal; you have to read it with your feelings, and understand that sometimes when a line doesn't make sense grammatically, its meant more as an image to communicate a feeling.
4. Poetry is painting with words.
Poems are about images, not rhyming. One of the reasons a lot of my classmates don't seem to get poetry is that they don't know what to focus on. A poem can rhyme, yes, but that's not the point of the poem - the point of the poem is its imagery. The image in the poem is what impacts the reader emotionally, be it of a raven or a summer's day. Rhyme vs. non-rhyme has to do with the tone the author wants to communicate to the reader, and is mostly up to your own interpretation. So don't focus on whether the poem rhymes or doesn't rhyme, poetry and song lyrics are not the same thing, though at one time that was arguable.
5. Don't be afraid to be wrong.
That's the thing about poetry -- there's no right or wrong answer. You understand poetry better the more you familiarize yourself with it, and it is a very enjoyable artform once the eye and brain adjust. So find a poet you like (because we all have tastes), take half an hour, and enjoy a few poems.
Have fun! :)