Can you learn to like poetry?
August 1, 2016 6:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm an enthusiastic reader, across pretty broad boundaries; literary fiction is probably my favorite, but I also enjoy good sci-fi/speculative fiction, mysteries and thrillers as well as quite of bit of non-fiction, including history, science and true crime. What I've never been able to manage though, is to even read, let alone enjoy poetry.

I've just finished Kate Atkinson's great novel A God In Ruins and although I understood the references to many poets--I know who Wordsworth is, and what kind of stuff he wrote, and why he's famous--I was ignorant of many of the specific lines of poetry quoted in the novel. Beyond the fact of having the novel mean less than it could because I missed many of the allusions, I also took note of how much poetry meant to some of the characters in the novel and realized I don't have that experience.

I majored in English in college, and was able to read some poetry when I absolutely forced myself to do it, but the times when I've actually enjoyed reading a full poem are few and far between. Is this something you can learn? I saw a similar question that focused on particular collections to read and advised reading aloud (which is what i did when I had to read poetry for course work in college).

Are there any other tips for how to develop a facility to read poetry for enjoyment, beyond finding good source material and reading aloud? It's strange to me that the form or written poetry (the lined aspect) should make such a difference compared to prose, but it really does seem to make it impossible for me to pay attention to verse for reasons I cannot figure out.
posted by layceepee to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I subscribe to the daily email of the Academy of American Poets at They send one poem a day from all kinds of different poets, new and old. I'm not crazy about ALL of it, but some of them I do love and have gone on to purchase collections. It would be great way to get started.
posted by raisingsand at 6:58 AM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if you're looking for books on poetry, but I highly recommend How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry By Edward Hirsch. He does a great job of explaining how he comes at a poem and how a reader might do the same.
posted by holborne at 7:41 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have never enjoyed poetry so much as when I'm lightly stoned. YMMV
posted by RedEmma at 7:42 AM on August 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

The Ode Less Traveled is technically about writing poetry, but I read it as a poetry appreciation book and it helped me to describe, and then find, what I liked. Another thing I'm thinking is that if the format on the page makes it hard for you to pay attention, maybe listen to some poems being read?
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:01 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

The way in which poetry is presented is, in my opinion, a big part of the reason why a lot of people don't have very good experiences with it. Poetry books--by which I mean a single poet's collection, rather than an anthology--don't usually come with much in the way of explanation of what the poet is doing or what the purpose of the collection is. It's like walking into an experimental art exhibit completely out of context. Meanwhile, people in the know are getting a lot of context via blog posts, discussions at poetry readings, etc.

So seek out context. Look at your local bookstores' calendars to see when poets are doing readings there. Read poetry blogs. A lot of contemporary poetry can just seem like people acting weird for no reason until you learn a bit about what the poets are up to.
posted by roll truck roll at 8:09 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dorothy Parker. (Get her complete works b/c the short stories are amazing too)...then try some Wallace Stevens.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:32 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My best experiences with poetry have been on the blogs of fans explaining why they like a certain poem so much.

I also recommend Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook for a quick introduction to the things to look for, written in such a way that her love of the subject comes through.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:37 AM on August 1, 2016

What do you like about reading fiction? Is it narrative?

Then maybe try poetry with a narrative like the good old classic epics.

Have you tried listening to rather than reading poetry?

I quite enjoy hearing the use of different sounds. I also think it reduces the naval gazing aspect some poetry has.

If you have Spotify the coverage on poetry is actually pretty good. This playlist for instance.

Also hip-hop/grime etc....

Also, I know this isn't the question, but I hereby, in my capacity as a stranger on the internet, bestow on you the right to simply not enjoy something regardless of the idea that "you should."
posted by Erberus at 8:48 AM on August 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Grab a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury and try reading some of the selections aloud.

Or try the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf. As an audio book!

A particular collection I like, on Gutenberg, is Georgian Poetry 1916-1917. Fascinating works as Victorian sensibility was giving way to modernism, tinged with the sorrows of World War I. I mean, scope out this Siegfried Sassoon piece:


The Bishop tells us: 'When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.'

'We're none of us the same!' the boys reply.
For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert's gone syphilitic; you'll not find
A chap who's served that hasn't found some change.'
And the Bishop said: 'The ways of God are strange!'
posted by zadcat at 9:23 AM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I bought these for my kids and loved them both so much I read them cover to cover on the way home from the bookstore: Love That Dog and Out Of The Dust. Both are free verse novels, aimed at older children/young teens. Love That Dog starts with a boy explaining to his teacher why he thinks poetry is kind of silly, and ends with him finding his voice about hard things. Out Of The Dust is almost a diary or snapshot moments of a young girl's life during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, with glimpses of so much happening around her as she grows up.

There are books written in verse and much longer poems meant for adults, but both of these books have I think the advantage of being deceptively light by being aimed at children but about death and loss and hope and poetry and words and being very young and struggling to speak about too-big feelings and thoughts. They couldn't be written except in verse. They're stories and poems.

I agree, definitely try an audiobook for an epic verse. A good saga or something stirring read by a great narrator is amazing stuff. There are quite a few verse recordings of verse-heavy plays - Under Milk Wood is one I remember listening to as a little kid and being overcome by the magic of it.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:57 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not all poets are enjoyable to everyone even though they may turn out to be great. I have a hard reading most poetry but grew to like many of the beat poets like Ferlinghetti. Of course it is a personal preference - the same as it is for any type of literature. You read what you can relate to so read poets until you can relate to a poet's voice.
posted by JJ86 at 10:38 AM on August 1, 2016

Best thing is to take your time. Reading fiction or non-fiction prose is a kind of go-ahead process, while reading poetry might require going very slowly to get the best sense of it. Sometimes, for example, the rhythm of the words or line provide insight into the "meaning," and you don't get that if you read it fast. I recommend Emily Dickinson for clear, brilliant poetry. Also, it's a bit like abstract art: No two readers draw exactly the same meaning.
posted by Skipjack at 10:44 AM on August 1, 2016

It's hard to fall in love with "Poetry." It's much easier to find poets you love. I could recommend Cummings, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Charles Simic, James Tate, etc. and you could despise them. (Although I've never found anyone who despises Oliver or Berry, but people are different wherever you go.)

I taught myself to love certain poets starting in my twenties by grabbing a bunch of poetry books off the shelf at the library, like 20-30 at a time. Then I sat down and sampled poems from the books, down-selected to my 5-10 or so favorites, spent more time with them, and then checked out the ones that stuck with me. Repeating at each of my regular library visits over the months taught me what kinds of poets and poetry I was drawn to and what I definitely did not like. 30 years later, my love for (my kinds of) poetry has served my spirit well. Happy exploring.
posted by cross_impact at 11:08 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Personally, and YMMV on this, although I can't for the life of me get into audiobooks, the only way I enjoy poetry is when it's read aloud, either live or on a recording. Try it. Audiobooks of poetry are available. YouTube clips of authors reading their own, or others' poetry, are also out there. Someone upthread suggested attending poetry readings at your library or bookstore. Give it a shot.

cross_impact's advice about trying out lots of different poets is good as well. I would guess that I enjoy about 60% of the authors I read, and maybe only 10% of the poets--but those whose work I enjoy, I tend to love.
posted by duffell at 12:04 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

You can keep a book of collected poetry in the bathroom.
posted by feste at 12:13 PM on August 1, 2016

I teach a range of levels of postsecondary English lit. Confession time: I did NOT think I cared for poetry much while doing my English lit degree! But then I became an instructor and I had to learn to like it and help my students understand and enjoy it. I discovered I did actually like it--I just needed to really think about what my preferences were. It's okay--you don't have to like all of it. But chances are you'll like SOME of it.

I've found one crucial element in students at the intro level understand and enjoy poetry is providing context for it. So before you read a poem, try to find out a bit about who the poet is/was. Look up a bit about their sociocultural and historical context. If possible, try to find out a bit about the context of the poem. Read speculation about why the poet wrote it, the various themes others have found in the poem, critical reaction to it.

I now enjoy poetry quite a bit.

Also, interpretation of literature is easier if you're familiar with the cultural tropes in that particular literary tradition. How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a good primer for a lot of Western English lit.

And seconding everyone who is saying that hearing poetry read out loud makes a huge difference!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:21 PM on August 1, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for all the helpful answers. I just put a hold on "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry" at my local library, and I will definitely be following up on other recommendations here both for books on reading poetry and specific authors and works that might ease me into the poetry-reading habit.
posted by layceepee at 12:35 PM on August 1, 2016

"There are two ways to like poetry: One is to like it; the other is to not read Pope." [Oscar Wilde, paraphrased]
posted by sourcequench at 12:57 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I long ago hated poetry and now really love a lot of poetry.

When I go to bookstores, I hang out in the poetry department and find titles and authors who's names intrigue me. Then I open to a random page and read the first few lines. If I am engaged, I buy it. Chapbooks are cheaper than most books and I generally allow myself a book of poetry even when I feel I can't afford another second hand novel.

I bring the book home and leave it in the bathroom or next to the bed and read it in bits.

I've discovered I like clever poems that evoke thought or maybe one emotion, often a rueful one. I enjoy light verse. And, rarely, long meandering but weird stuff.

How I learned to like poetry: avoided learning anything about what poetry actually is and just read the bits that I was drawn to.
posted by latkes at 1:40 PM on August 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding poetry in the bathroom. Also seconding latkes. You might get more out of the "study" part of studying poetry, but I personally find that part so boring...

For me, poetry is extremely hit-or-miss...but sometimes, out of the blue, I glance at a poem in a textbook preface and am suddenly fascinated by it, somehow. Ever do that with lyrics? You've heard this line from that song over and over, but you haven't really paid attention to the words and the structure and meaning, until suddenly one day you do! And you turn that one verse/phrase around in your head, just loving the way it's put together -- how it sounds so natural and yet so, oddly, composed. (And now the song will never be the same again.)

Anyway, that's how I think about poetry. I don't think you need to take it super duper seriously. Let serendipity be your guide. Sooner or later you'll find something that catches you by surprise and makes you laugh in the strangest, most natural way. Or have some other emotion, I don't know.

Perhaps you'd enjoy some grooks? Maybe some more grassroots stuff like everything2?

Or, for some more gravity, maybe some Biblical verse? If you grew up with that, it might be a nice way in. I imagine that religious texts are often read and passed on for far weightier reasons than their wordy merit -- so you have at least some idea why people find their verses interesting/enjoyable/familiar, and maybe that's a way to relate to it?

Also, write your own poetry! Yes it might be terrible and stupid, but who cares? If you get any fun out of it, it will definitely help you notice things in poems that maybe you wouldn't have found interesting before.
posted by miniraptor at 9:18 PM on August 1, 2016

I would start with contemporary poetry and work your way back. (Look up a list of poetry award winners, maybe even "young poets" divisions, as in under 30.) I find a lot of people will try to go the other way around, but there is a lot of contemporary poetry that will grab you immediately, and when studying the classics you'll find that experience of recognition more reliable and familiar.
posted by stoneandstar at 9:28 PM on August 1, 2016

Poemcrazy may work for you. It's a book about noticing striking imagery and sounds in everyday life and intermingling that feeling with reading/writing poetry. Some specific kinds of poetry that I think it relates to best include haiku, automatic writing, autobiographical prose poems, and the idea behind the simultaneous poem. If that's not on the right track, you might like this essay by Ben Lerner, who is a poet at least somewhat sympathetic to the problem.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:55 PM on August 1, 2016

For me, the key is not to try to read it like a novel, but to slow down and linger, to dwell on sounds and feelings and images. Some poets I like the feel of their work, sometimes I like the way it sounds, or the images it evokes, or the turns of phrase that perfectly capture something. I really love John Donne (the metaphors!) and Gerard Manley Hopkins ("fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion") but the main thing is variety; you won't like everything, or the same things someone else likes.

Another potential avenue: look at Rap Genius to see crowdsourced analysis of hip hop lyrics, which are one of the largest sources of popular poetry right now. (Or, if you're not ready to go full hip hop, check out the extensive analysis of the lyrics of Hamilton, which contain some astounding levels of poetic wordplay and multi-layered significance in addition to being technically brilliant in terms of things like rhyme schemes and scansion).
posted by oblique red at 11:04 AM on August 3, 2016

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