How to Start Reading Poetry Without Feeling Stupid

It all started because my dog, Bonnie, is a real slut for treats.

Truly, any object that remotely resembles something edible is fair game. She’s not discerning, and she’s highly food-motivated. (It’s a trait we both share.) So when we walked past Skylight Books in Los Feliz, and she caught a whiff of a bacon-flavored treat-like delicacy, she lost it. Dragging me behind her, she pulled us into the bookstore and directly to the counter, where a very kind man in Birkenstocks handed over the goods.

After such a sweet gesture, we couldn’t leave the store without at least walking through the stacks. Usually I’m all about that non-fiction life, but for some reason on this day, we found ourselves in the poetry section. A familiar name caught my attention: The Poems Of Dylan Thomas,” a hefty, hardcover book. Reading the title sparked something in me, a memory I hadn’t visited in a while.

Dylan Thomas is a 20th century poet who famously drank himself to death in The Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1953. You probably read his poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night” in high school and thought it was kinda boring, but still pretty good for poetry. 

And although Thomas is no doubt an iconic and important poet, his stuff — like a lot of poetry that’s read in the classroom — doesn’t always hold up. In a recent article in The Atlantic, James Parker bemoans that Thomas’ early works are, “The sort of poetry you press upon a non-poetry-reader if you want to make sure he never goes near a poem again.”

Parker isn’t wrong.

In fact, I’d argue that statement could be applied to the majority of poetry that’s taught in schools in the modern age.

Not only do we grow up reading earnest, erudite words on a page written by opium-addled young men hundreds of years ago, we’re also taught to treat poetry like it’s a math problem.

We dissect the structure, shape, syntax, and every possible metaphor or analogy until we’ve unearthed the ONE TRUE MEANING that the author was trying to portray. It’s boring! And frankly, it’s a turn off.

The zeitgeist has hyperbolically cried out “POETRY IS DEAD” so many times in the past few decades that we’ve stopped taking the extended death knell seriously — but it does seem that poetry is an endangered species in our modern age. A 2012 governmental study showed that less than 7% of American adults read poetry at least once every 12 months. The study doesn’t dive into the scope of what’s considered poetry (I mean, technically if you read the lyrics to your favorite song, that’s poetry, dude) but regardless, the numbers are pretty disappointing.

It’s not crazy to consider that our cultural aversion to long, opaque verse has something to do with the way we’re taught to read and interpret it. Unlike a beautiful painting, or a fleeting dance performance, or even a well-acted TV show — all of which are encouraged to be enjoyed instantaneously and perhaps dissected for deeper meaning upon later introspection — poetry requires a deeper commitment.

We’re taught that we need to sit with a poem for a while. That our first interpretation is likely wrong. And that if we don’tget it” at first blush… well, then we’re ignorant.

Which brings us back to Skylight Books, where I found myself standing in front of a copy of Dylan Thomas’ complete works and heard the 16-year-old version of me in my head saying, “You’re not smart enough to read poetry.”

But that’s not true, I thought. I read poetry every day.

You see, our generation has an unexpected well from which we can discover and read poetry daily: Instagram.

Many young scribes post their work on the platform. They share their words as comments under images, or as stylized graphics. And they do well. Like, really well.

Cleo Wade, an American poet who often posts her short poems written in her own handwriting as photos, has over 355,000 followers. Her poems that encourage readers to love themselves and be kind to others regularly get upwards of 15,000 heart-shaped likes.

Nayyirah Waheed has over half a million followers. Her four to five line verses that center around intersectional feminism, racism, and love have been reposted millions of times.

And the biggest Cinderella story of them all is Rupi Kaur. The 25-year-old Canadian-Indian author who pairs her own drawings with her poems has 2.5 million followers on Instagram, and has sold two books on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The successes of these three women suggest that young people really are reading poetry — and enjoying it. But the work we see on the ‘gram is so enjoyable, that many don’t even consider it poetry. Both Wade and Kaur have come under fire in the press for not being ‘real’ poets. And yes, maybe their work isn’t as complex as the work of someone like T.S. Elliot… but it’s still fair game.

So with that in mind I bought the book. And I started reading a poem every day. Some of them objectively sucked. Some brought me to my knees. Some of them I could recognize were probably good, but I didn’t really understand them. So sometimes I skipped them. But by the final page, I was addicted — and my relationship to poetry had really changed. Here’s what I learned about reading poetry over those 400 pages:

It’s okay to just enjoy the way a poem is without fully understanding it —

Poetry isn’t all analytical — it’s actually very visceral. You can like the look of the shape of the words on the page. You can relish the feel of the vowels and consonants as they roll around in your mouth. You can appreciate the brevity of a two-line verse, or the depth of a piece that spans multiple pages. Just like enjoying any type of art, it’s fine to say: “I like something about this, but I’m not sure what. It’s beautiful, and I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean — but that’s okay.”

You can probably find at least one thing that you like —

Once you give yourself permission to not totally understand, you’re free to appreciate the work! Find a word that you like. Or a phrase that resonates. Or the use of periods. Or maybe just the way that the whole experience of reading a poem makes you feel. Honestly, that’s more important than anything.

Skim away —

Skimming isn’t the worst thing in the world. Sure, ideally you spend a little more time with the work, but sometimes you’re just not in the mood to diagram sentences. And finding your own meaning in a poem can be a great mindfulness practice. When you skim, what sticks out to you? How can that piece reveal something about your inner self, in this moment?

Find a poet (or subject matter) that you dig —

Just like flavors of almond milk ice cream, there’s something for everyone. By the time I got to the end of my Dylan Thomas book, I was very ready to branch out. Lately I’ve been loving Mary Oliver’s work because she writes about love and nature. My jams! So do a little research, and try a few writers on for size before you completely blow off the whole poetry thing.

Now that I’m all in with this poetry thing, I like to read one verse every morning. It’s a little like meditation or pulling a tarot card. It sets the tone of my day, and forces me to stop and think and be still, for a moment.

Michelle Pellizzon is a creative consultant based in Los Angeles. A former professional dancer-turned-startup employee, she’s led a strange but wonderful creative life. Follow along for her latest projects and mishaps at @betterbymichelle.

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