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Poetry: Reading, Responding, Writing

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.


- ROBERT FROST

If you're already a reader of poetry, you know: poetry reading is not just an intellectual and bookish activity; it is about feeling. Reading poetry well eans responding to it: if you respond on a feeling level, you are likely to read ore accurately, with deeper understanding, and with greater pleasure. !nd, conversely, if you read poe s accurately, and with attention to detail, you will al ost certainly respond " or learn how to respond " to it on an e otional level. Reading poetry involves conscious articulation through language, and reading and responding co e to be, for e#perienced readers of poetry, very nearly one. $ut those who teach poetry " and there are a lot of us, al ost all enthusiasts about both poetry as a subject and reading as a craft " have discovered so ething else: writing about poetry helps both the reading and the responding processes. Responding involves re e bering and reflecting as well. !s you recall your own past and ake associations between things in the te#t and things you already know and feel, you will not only respond ore fully to a particular poe , but i prove your reading skills ore generally. %our knowledge and life e#perience infor s your reading of what is before you, and allows you to connect things within the te#t " events, i ages, words, sounds " so that eanings and feelings develop and accu ulate. &rior learning creates e#pectations: of pattern, repetition, association, or causality. Reflecting on the te#t " and on e#pectations produced by the the es and ideas in the te#t " re"creates old feelings but directs the in new, often unusual ways. &oe s, even when they are about things we have no e#perience of, connect to things we do know and order our e ories, thoughts, and feelings in new and newly challenging ways. ! course in reading poetry can ulti ately enrich your life by helping you beco e ore articulate and ore sensitive to both ideas and feelings: that's the larger goal. $ut the ore i ediate goal "and the route to the larger one " is to ake you a better reader of te#ts and a ore precise and careful writer yourself. 'lose attention to one te#t akes you appreciate, and understand, te#tuality and its possibilities ore generally. (e#ts ay be co ple# and even unstable in so e ways; they do not affect all readers the sa e way, and they work through language that has its own volatitilities and co ple#ities. $ut paying attention to how you read " developing specific )uestions to ask and working on your reading skills syste atically " can take a lot of the guesswork out of
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reading te#ts and give you a sense of greater satisfaction in your in your interpretations. &oe s, perhaps even ore than other te#ts, can sharpen your reading skills because they tend to be so co pact, so fully dependent on concise e#pressions of feeling. In poe s, ideas and feelings are packed tightly into just a few lines. (he e#periences of life are very concentrated here, and eanings e erge )uickly, word by word. &oe s often show us the very process of putting feelings into a language that can be shared with others " to say feelings in a co unicable way.

&oetry can be intellectual too, e#plaining and e#ploring ideas, but its focus is ore often on how people feel than how they think. &oe s work out a shareable language for feeling, and one of poetrys ost insistent virtues involves its atte pt to e#press the ine#pressible. *ow can anyone, for e#a ple, put into words what it eans to be in love or how it feels to lose so eone one cares about+ &oetry tries, and it often captures a shade of e otion that feels just right to a reader. ,o single poe can be said to represent all the things that love or death feels like or eans, but one of the joys of e#periencing poetry occurs when we read a poe and want to say, -%es, that is just what it is like; I know e#actly what that line eans but I've never been able to e#press it so well.- &oetry can be the voice of our feelings even when our inds are speechless with grief or joy. Reading is no substitute for living, but it can ake living ore abundant and ore available..
/fro (he ,orton Introduction to 0iterature1