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Lecture: How To Read Poetry

By Michael J. Paietta


Poetry is an imitation of human action or thought whose end is to please or delight by moving the passions. By poetry, I am including not just the narrow sense of it — the sense which includes metered verse — but the broader sense which includes imaginative literature.

The problem most people have in reading poetry is that they tend to read it for its doctrine. They ask: “What is this author saying; what’s the teaching here, what’s the argument?” I submit that this misses the point of what poetry is all about.

In approaching any poetic work, you must first understand what the work is trying to do. Poetry might espouse a teaching, but it needn’t do so. Rather, it aims to move the passions through an imitation.

The first thing to understand about poetry is that it is an imitation. Poetry does not concern itself with universals or historical particulars, but with things imitated. And it is this imitation that moves our passions. But how does it do this?

Occasionally, in real life we see something happen as funny as in a comedy, but only occasionally. A comedian, however, abstracts and simplifies, presenting an imitation of life that is funny. The same way with tragedy. When we encounter tragedy, we don’t feel the same way as when we read tragedy. In life, tragic circumstances are always too complicated. But a poet creates tragedy by removing things from the conditions of ordinary life. Imitation seems ideally designed to please in a way that life does not.

Indeed, we tend to be moved more by an imitation than the real thing. What is paradoxical is that our emotional involvement in a play or a movie depends on us thinking that what we are seeing is real, but at the same time, knowing that it is not real. If you think those people on stage are really getting stabbed, if you think those actors that Hamlet is laying out, are really up there bleeding to death, you may be moved by pity and fear, but it won’t be the same kind of pity and fear that the poet is aiming at. It’s like riding a roller coaster. That pleasurable fear you get from the roller coaster will disappear the instant you notice the rail stops just ahead of where the car is. Then we can really find out whether you enjoy fear.

Put another way, if you are watching, say, Ben Hur, and you know that in a particular scene one of the stuntmen dies, it seems undeniable that for that moment, you are out of the movie. You are not watching the character, the charioteer, you are watching the human being.

If poetry has this character of moving the passions through an imitation, then the way to read poetry is to make yourself attentive and receptive, not just intellectually, but emotionally, especially emotionally, as you might be when listening to music, when you are letting the musician work on you. The only way to find out whether poetry succeeds, then, is to be open, to be ready, to let the poet work on you.

C.S. Lewis makes this same point: “Now the true reader reads every work seriously, in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ.’ What is meant lightly, he will take lightly; what is meant gravely, gravely. He will ‘laugh and shake in Rabelais’ easy chair’ while he reads Chaucer’s Faibliaux and respond with exquisite frivolity to The Rape of the Lock. He will enjoy a kickshaw as a kickshaw and a tragedy as a tragedy. He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison.”

Now how will being open to a poet’s designs help us interpret symbolic meaning? The first task is to determine whether something is symbolic. Some works make it clear. If you read Pilgrim’s Progress and find everything named by an abstract quality, a hero named Pilgrim who travels to or avoids places like Vanity Fair and who fights with the giant Despair, it’s not tough.

But what if the poet doesn’t give you at least a hint? It seems to me, then, the burden of proof is on the one who’s claiming a symbolic meaning exists. To borrow again from C. S. Lewis: “No story can be devised by the wit of man, which cannot be interpreted allegorically by the wit of some other man.… The mere fact that you can allegorize the work before you is of little or no proof that it is an allegory.… We ought not to proceed to allegorize any work until we have plainly set out the reasons for considering it an allegory at all.”

If, then, we are satisfied that something is a symbol, or that the whole work is allegorical, how do we test that interpretation? This, I think, is where our sympathetic reading must be the test. Poets spend a great deal of time working on words that will achieve subtle emotional effects — rhythm, expression of language, the rate at which incidents happen, the way incidents follow each other. Why would someone go to all that difficulty and have it undercut by some other meaning?

There really is no other test than the literal meaning. Things used as symbols usually have many meanings. We see in the Bible, for example, that both God and the Devil are described as a lion, or that we are told to be as wise as serpents and we are told to beware of serpents. That being so, if a character is described as, or if there is in a book, a lion or a serpent, what will it symbolize? Will it symbolize the Christian or the Devil? Will it symbolize God or the Devil? It might be either. How will you settle the question?

The only way you will know what the author means is by looking at the poem that surrounds the symbol. Generally, poets are genial enough to give you some help. If they aren’t, then maybe they’re not offering a symbol of anything.

Unfortunately, students today — and I was this way when I was a student — find it hard to give a poet a sympathetic reading. People tend to have short attention spans and are used to being assaulted with strong sounds or images. Also, old books, by their character, are harder to read. A present-day author speaks to you directly, speaks the language the same way you do, and lives, roughly, the same way you do. The farther back in time you get, the harder it is to adjust to what that author expected in his audience.

In addition, some symbols need special knowledge, and the poet isn’t always going to tell you enough to interpret what they mean. Often poets, such as Spencer in the Faerie Queen, will use certain symbols knowing that, for example, people then knew their Bibles and that, for example, an anchor was a symbol of hope.

In general, the more you give the work a sympathetic reading, the better shot you have at correctly interpreting it. Poets don’t mean to mislead and the symbols they use are generally meant to heighten and add to what’s on the literal level, not subtract from it.

Probably the most concrete piece of advice I can give you about reading poetry (especially verse poetry) is that you read it aloud. At least move your lips. Poetry is not for speed reading. Poets work a great deal on the sound. The sound helps almost everything. You don’t want to race through and get the facts. You want to be as if you were listening to music.

Another piece of advice, particularly about plays. What you miss when you read a play is the help that the actors give. At the beginning of any play, you don’t know how any line is meant to be read. You don’t know who to trust or who not to trust. If you just read it once through you are going to carry certain impressions that will be undercut later.

What you have to do with a play is to read it twice. You read it once simply to find out who’s to be trusted and who isn’t, who is on whose team and who is not. Then you read it again to evaluate the things that they said.

Remember that poetry is not for school, that is, it is not really meant to be discussed and analyzed like a philosophical work. But it is still useful to education.

If you are pleased, and rightly pleased, with what the poet puts before you, this has a moral effect. It can’t help it. The poet is putting before you the likeness of human action and there’s a proper, suitable, fitting response to that. The poet, by moving your passions rightly, helps you along as you should be with the world. What you love, what you are moved by, what you are attracted by; so much determines whether you act rightly. It isn’t syllogisms, it’s what you love that will determine what you do. Poets won’t determine that, but they sure will help. And to be sure, bad poets will corrupt, too.

But poetry works its effects only when it pleases. It is like music in that way. If there is more than just that surface effect, it’s going to happen through the surface effect. You can’t sit down before your stereo determinately listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass, getting your culture injection, sitting in agony and not enjoying any of it. You might get moral points for that but you aren’t going to be getting help from the music. Likewise, poetry isn’t spinach; it isn’t going to make you stronger, better, and more muscular like Popeye, whether is tastes good or not, just as long as you swallow it. The good effects are all going to come from being pleased. That is why you should read what’s pleasing to you. What doesn’t please you isn’t going to do anything for you.

That doesn’t mean that your own pleasure should be the ultimate guide. If you don’t enjoy poetry now, then put it aside for a while. You can probably judge from the authority of the ages that it is good, even if you don’t happen to like it now. But pick it up in five years and see what you think. You might find that you do like it. But it won’t do you any good until you find that you do so like it.



Michael Paietta has been a Tutor at Thomas Aquinas College since 1989, having graduated from the College in 1983. He obtained his Masters in Medieval Studies from the University of Notre Dame in 1986, serving as an editorial assistant at the Medieval Institute from 1984-86, a research assistant at the Ambrosiana Library from 1986-87, a teaching assistant from 1987-88, and a research assistant at the Jacques Maritain Center from 1988-89. Following is an abridged version of a lecture he gave at the College on September 17, 1999.