How To Read Poetry

by Shane Magee - Date: 2007-03-28 - Word Count: 478 Share This!

Good poetry is something that is not an intellectual experience, but something that speaks directly to the heart, and should be read as such. Many people just accept everyone else's definition of what constitutes good poetry without taking the time to find out what makes that poetry 'real' for themselves. Here are a few suggestions to use when reading poetry:

- With some poets, reading aloud to experience the sound really help. For many poets, the sound and stresses of the words are an integral part of the experiences, the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins standing out amongst them: he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind... [1]

When we read this passage by Hopkins we can almost feel the air currents under our wings as we arc and swoop in the sky. After the first couple of times, the power of those sounds enter into your being, and will stay with you as you read on in silence.

- The temptation is to be already formulating some intellectual response to the poetry as you read it. If this is happening, be aware that your mind is actually serving as a barrier between you and true understanding. Lift your eyes from the poem and try to still the mind a little by focusing on the inflow and outflow of the breath. Try with your hear to feel a sense of silence and vastness. Then return your eyes to the poem and let it speak to you rather than the other way around.

- Many poems - especially short poems - have a mantric quality about them, and by constant repetition one finds oneself getting deeper into the space of inner peace which they evoke. In a way, they are a little like a medicine pill; the mind swallows the outer covering of the words, whilst the inner meaning sinks further and further into the heart. Classic examples of such poems are Japanese haiku, or the aphorism-like poetry of Sufi and Indian poets:

Midnight, No waves,

no wind, the empty boat

is flooded with moonlight.

- Dogen [2]

As millions of stars

Sing and dance together

In harmony,

Even so, our body,

Vital, mind and heart

Must sing and dance in harmony.

- Sri Chinmoy [3]

- Try to find the soul of a poem. With our closest friends, we are familiar with them such that even when they are absent, we can still recall that sense of being they embody. It is no different with a poem. When in silence you can let the soul of the poem speak to you, you will find that this essence will stay with you, and can be recalled even if the poem itself cannot.


[1] The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

[2] Translation by Stephen Mitchell.

[3] from Seventy-Seven Thousand Service Trees, by Sri Chinmoy. Available at

Related Tags: heart, mantra, poetry, haiku, hopkins, dogen

The author, Shane Magee, is a contributor to He lives in Dublin, Ireland and is a member of the Sri Chinmoy meditation centre.

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