Q: I love poetry, both reading and writing it. The poems I write tend to be on the “simple” side, as this is my writing style. While I respect poets whose work comes across as more complicated, I often have trouble enjoying it…because I can’t understand it! I want to be able to enjoy all kinds of poetry, not just poems that are similar to my own, as I don’t want to miss out on all the good work, both historic and contemporary. What can I do to ensure I don’t limit my poetic readings? —Hannah, Buffalo, NY
A: Dear Hannah, your dilemma is a common one. Whether it’s a new reader and/or writer of poetry or a lifetime advocate and/or artist, many people feel uneasy when they come across verse that doesn’t resemble what they know of as “poetry.” The truth, which you seem to willingly acknowledge, is poetic art encompasses an array of styles, voices, rhythms, topics and techniques; consequently, there is thankfully something out there for everyone to enjoy! It is, of course, completely fine for anyone to stay within his or her comfort zone when reading or writing poetry; however, an all-embracing enthusiast of poetry, like yourself, should not consider writing that eludes his or her understanding as a nuisance. Rather, such an enthusiast should consider a “complicated” or unfamiliar poetic arrangement an intellectual and creative challenge. Exposing yourself to the variety of poetry available for mental, emotional and aesthetic consumption will not only broaden your appreciation and understanding of this craft, it will also undoubtedly foster further creativity in you, making you into a better writer. Thus, my initial piece of advice for you is: don’t shy away from any work that doesn’t originally make sense to you. Second, don’t assume one read-through of a poem will grant you the complete meaning and purpose of the work. One of the most amazingly beautiful and respectable aspects of poetry is how concise it is. So much feeling, significance and thought is compacted into the lean lines of every poem; as readers, we must respectfully take the time to unpack these concentrated paragons of expression and experience, and we should view this opportunity to reflect and analyze as exciting, rather than tedious. After all, the dense nature of poetry is perhaps its most impressive attribute! This may not be an easy task, especially if it’s new to you; so I suggest, if you can, you read poetry with a pen or pencil handy. This way, you will be able to take notes—if you’d like, right on the page of the poem, or a separate sheet of paper—about particular aspects of the poem that are plaguing you. Identify words you don’t know, metaphors that don’t seem to make sense, and historical allusions with which you are unfamiliar. Rather than brushing the content off as mere nonsense or convoluted gibberish, rereading a poem allows you to recognize why it doesn’t make sense to you. Also, if you can, consider the poet—his or her age and life experience—and any other work by this person which you might know. Doing so may help you comprehend the intended voice, attitude and mood of the work. Next, try unfolding everything packed in the poem by paraphrasing it aloud, line by line. Sometimes, the biggest reason readers find difficulty understanding writing is because the language used in the work seems so alien; translating the poem in your own words and also saying it, rather than reading is ineffably helpful. Lastly, before you move on from a poem you’ve read, stop and ask yourself: What does this poem do? What is its purpose? Why did the poet write it? As a writer of poetry, you should know poets rarely compose any work just because; we are all motivated by something and mean something by the work we create, and the poets you read deserve to be given the same respect you’d likely desire from anyone reading your own work. Writers construct meaning when they compose texts, and readers construct meaning when they understand and interpret texts. So take the time to consider what inspired poets, what their poems accomplish, and the meaning your reading creates as a result of the meaning the poet’s composition creates… even if it isn’t at first obvious.