How I Learned to Read Poetry

I’ve always wanted to read poetry. As a kid, my dad called me “Coo Coo Man” after a skin-stealing Shel Silverstein character. Silverstein’s books were magical for me and I thought that I would love poetry forever – and then I went to high school.

Poetry isn’t something that fits neatly into a curriculum for teenagers. I was terrible at concentrating in school and the poetry portion of English class was something I dreaded each year. I was especially dreading the prospect of having to express myself in a poem to read aloud to my classmates. Circumventing this dilemma was as easy as not doing my homework, but it still left a sour taste in my mouth that lingered into adulthood.

While poetry intimidated and frustrated me through high school, I did love the Odyssey, and I spent a summer reading it on a swinging porch bench with a view of the Catskill Mountains. Each reading session was serene and I think this book single-handedly saved the flickering flame that was my interest in poetry.

The only poetry I read in college was Dante’s Inferno. I tried reading it by myself, but I quickly realized that I wasn’t really understanding the deeper meaning of the text, so I found a free online course from Georgetown University that walked me through Canto by Canto. This course is still available and highly recommended. It didn’t only teach me about the Inferno, but about how to read actively and participate in a close reading of a text. This course was a bit of a breakthrough for me, but I still didn’t really understand modern poetry whatsoever.

Luckily for millennial me, I found a free online course about modern poetry (ModPo taught by Al Filreis) and it was probably the second most important thing that helped me understand poetry. I’ve taken the course twice now and I can see myself taking it again sometime in the future. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I felt more comfortable the second time through and I feel confident now that I’m at least familiar with the players in the modern poetry game.

As useful as ModPo has been for me, there is a single term that has changed the way I view poetry, and all art for that matter, and it has brought me to a place I thought was reserved for artistic geniuses. The term is “negative capability.” Coined by John Keats, the term is about being capable in uncertainties without the grinding to find or produce objective fact. This blew my mind. I had been reading poetry with the intention of “figuring it out” while this term allowed me to experience the beauty of poetry for beauty’s sake and accept it no matter the objective understanding. It has influenced me to write more, read more, appreciate more, and it has generally made me a happier person.

As an inspiring writer without the scholarly background to fully understand a lot of modern poetry, negative capability has changed my life. I don’t use it as an excuse to not try to understand writing, but it has shown me that there are other ways to experience a text rather than as a puzzle in need of completion. Negative capability allows me to appreciate the puzzle pieces.