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Reading poetry

May 22, 2021

Something that I noticed the other week that took me by surprise: I read poetry in a different way to prose.

A novel, a short story, a piece of prose, I’ll read once through, and presume I’ve got the gist of what the author meant and how he or she wanted to say it. I might come back to a novel in a few years time if it got under my skin or if I want to experience it again, but the whole thing is absorbed in one massive inhalation.

Poetry is different. By its nature, it’s more intense. I read each poem twice. The first time through is to familiarise myself with its structure and pattern, so the second time through I can understand it a bit better, get to grips with the narrative, take in the imagery, and hopefully enjoy it. It takes a couple of readings for all the elements of the poem to interact, so it can make me think or dream or let me stand in someone else’s shoes.

In that sense, a book of poems isn’t a quick read. It’s easy to dip in and out, but reading a collection can be a long haul.

I rarely go back to poetry. Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Ginsburg’s Howl are perhaps the only ones I can think of. Maybe Zoom. Oh, and Autumn Journal. Otherwise, once I’ve read it, it goes on my bookshelf, to look nice but rarely to be read again.

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