Independent Study

Thirty days, tons of poems, and a new way of looking at the world.

Like most people, I did not have a super-auspicious introduction to poetry. My early education was good but not great, and while it included A Child’s Garden of Verses and a stint at Shakespeare daycamp, it didn’t instill a lifelong love of rhythm and meter. In college, during the time that I went to a college that had majors, I thought mine would be English, so I took a poetry class because it was required. The professor had long, long center-parted flat brown hair and was rumored to be going through a divorce. The celebrity she most closely resembled was the farm wife in the painting American Gothic crossed with an Aubrey Beardsley engraving of the Lady of Shalott. (This is how I thought about things at the time.) We read poems by women poets who were dissatisfied with their domestic lives, or by Randall Jarrell posing as one of these women (“Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All . . .”). We eventually had to choose a poem to memorize and read aloud to the class, and like any oft-rehearsed thing, this poem, the one I for some reason chose to memorize, flits back into my brain sometimes like the refrain of an earwormy pop song about the brute heart of a brute like you. Everything about the class (including me) was a cliché, but I do remember enjoying it, and actually that I remember it at all speaks volumes in its favor. But I didn’t develop a habit of reading poetry in college, or in the 10 years that followed. I had a couple of favorite poems, but I would have felt like a poseur telling anyone these were my favorites; how can someone essentially unfamiliar with a genre deign to have favorites? Saying Elizabeth Bishop was my favorite poet seemed sort of like saying Jay-Z was my favorite rapper. The earth was also my favorite earth. Luckily no one ever asked.

But earlier this year, for a variety of reasons, it seemed like some kind of tide was turning toward poetry, at least in my life. I signed on to do a series of talkbacks for a Shakespearean theater company, and found myself rereading plays I hadn’t thought about since high school (they hold up quite well, wouldn’t you know) and allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats for the first time in years. My boyfriend was assigned a piece about Joseph Brodsky and spent months walking around the house declaiming, sometimes in Russian. I wrote a piece about a poet’s memoir in which I called a blogger who’d claimed not to like poetry childish and obtuse. But did I like poetry? Belatedly, I realized that I’d never quite bothered to find out.

So I set out to learn about poetry, via a method that was at once haphazard and systematic. I read a randomly selected poem from the Poetry Foundation’s website each day for a month, then picked my four favorites and read the books in which they were originally published, one a day for four days.

It turns out that unless you make a concerted effort in the direction of reading poetry, poetry doesn’t just traipse into your mind by chance. You have to seek poetry out and, at least at first, you have force yourself to swallow it. Like a scratchy vitamin. Those poems jammed into the middle of a page of text in a magazine: no one reads them, or if they do, they read them in the wrong mindset. A poem is not like a cartoon that provides an instantaneously assimilable commercial break, a respite from long-form narrative. A poem requires full attention in a way that prose does not, and worse, a poem is much harder to like because every word matters. In a 5,000-word story or article, a reader will forgive or just not notice an off metaphor, unfunny joke, or annoying word. But one false note destroys a poem, or at least destroys its rapport with a reader. In this way, a poem is as hard to like as a person. But to give a poem a fair shake you have to meet it on its own terms: it doesn’t work to stop in the middle of whatever else you’re doing and decide, okay, poem time! unless you want to fuck up your day (or fuck up the poem). The only time this approach met with even middling success was when I was trapped on a stalled bus with nothing but the poem (“Fresh Air,” by Kenneth Koch) in my email, which I was reading on a semi-smart (it gets only email, not the Internet, so actually relatively dumb) phone. Imprisoned with the poem, I fell in love with it. When the bus started moving again the poem lost some of its charm, but I still remember it fondly.

The rest of my single-serving poetry experiences weren't as charmed, though. I found myself struggling to hurry up and get in the mood to read the individual poems, and then in just as big of a hurry to get out of the mood to go on with my day. Maybe the model of ideal poem consumption turns out to be a lot like the vaunted ideal of music consumption: “Don’t download the single, get the whole album,” purists chide. Maybe more so in the context of poetry, the album model serves an important purpose: it establishes a reading rhythm that lingers in one’s thought patterns even after the book is done. When I put down Kim Addonizio’s book Lucifer at the Starlite, I walked down the street and noticed that the ordinary litany of tasks and concerns that my brain likes to take out and fondle was unspooling, for the moment, in Addonizio’s style. My worries seemed consequential and even a little bit beautiful in this new style; instead of disjointed phrases my thoughts had the solid heft of real sentences. This lasted for about 10 minutes.

Another great thing about reading books of poetry instead of single poems is that it takes only about an hour to read a book of poetry, sometimes even less. During this time people in the café or the library or the subway will admire you and also be totally mystified about what kind of person you are, which isn’t true of any other type of literature.

Having read 30 poems in a month and then four books of poetry in a week doesn’t make me an expert on anything, even my own taste. But although I’m at the beginning of developing my taste, I’ve noticed that my allergy to conspicuously showy turns of phrase —jokes or metaphors that interrupt whatever’s going on to call attention to their own glamour, like a movie star who can’t stop being her pretty self long enough to let the audience start believing her grubby character’s story—still applies here, as it does with prose. The word “lovemaking” can eclipse any amount of goodwill I’ve built up towards a poet (sorry, Kenneth Koch). I like funniness, even shtickiness, and I like drama. Love poems are okay, but they need a major hint of queasiness or salt to work for me; angry poems are best.

Another strange thing that I discovered: I was wrong, mostly, about what I’d thought I liked, based on single poems. I did not turn out to be a fan of Kenneth Koch’s jokey, wordy, formally complex and virtuosic poems, though I had loved that one on the bus. Kim Addonizio’s poems were cocky and strong but sometimes a little too smooth. What had initially attracted me— the way she revivifies worn phrases by inserting them into the jarring context of something deep and earnest— began to seem a little like a cheap trick by the end of her book. But I still like it, liked her, the way she writes about men, moments of transcendent joy and grief and rage, and most of all cats. I like her sense of humor; she was the only poet I picked who ever made me laugh out loud (“Where does macaroni come from? Where does matter? / Why does the cat act autistic when you call her/then bat around a moth for an hour / watching as it drags its wings over the area rug?”) I had no luck with W.S. Merwin whatsoever.  Robert Lowell alone made me gasp and remember unwanted memories and feel genuine lasting sadness: “Poor ghost, old love, speak / with your old voice of flaming insight / that kept us awake all night. / In one bed and apart.”

Thus honed, will my poetry habit last? I think it must, if only because I’ve discovered that 10 minutes of reading poetry—any poetry, even poetry I don’t love, even just skimming my eyes over it on the page without bothering to translate it into prose if its meaning is obscure—can negate up to half an hour of mindless browsing of the Internet. My number one work-related problem is that I will write for hourlong bursts and then reward myself by checking my email and Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and whatever other sinkholes these portals lead to for however long it takes to disentangle myself, until I can summon the self-control to disable my Internet access again. But emerging from this underworld I’m often not in the right frame of mind to make anything; a thousand jumbled images, a few crappy and homogenous prose styles, and a few bursts of adrenaline from 10 or 12 manufactured controversies that I’ll forget by dinnertime are still percolating up through my consciousness. A few pages of poetry wipe my brain clean, without filling it with someone else’s story, and since I don’t write poetry I don’t have to worry about unconsciously parroting anyone else’s voice. Inoculated against bullshit ways of thinking and reacting, I can go about my business.

Originally Published: March 9th, 2011

Emily Gould is the author of a novel, Friendship (2014), and a memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever (2010). 

  1. March 9, 2011
     William Gabriel

    Sounds like you're on the right track! I'd only add -- going to poetry readings can help you develop an "ear" that reading by yourself won't. Even when the poet isn't that much of a performer, you can still get things out of it you wouldn't get any other way.

  2. March 10, 2011

    Excellent post! I completely agree with your observation that total immersion in a poetry collection is the best way to appreciate it. My husband is a voracious reader but remains daunted by poetry, so I will be sharing your article with him. I also like the way you describe the experience of wading through Internet verbiage and feeling both exhilarated and drained by it.

  3. March 10, 2011
     Toby Jackson

    "A poem requires full attention in a way that prose does not, and worse, a poem is much harder to like because every word matters" Nice thought.

    Mindset matters, try reading the same poems under diffrent condition. read the same four book a year from now, see if you don't notice diffrent thoughts and feelings about the same work.

    Go ahead,stop in the middle of whatever else you’re doing and decide, okay, poem time! Go ahead F-up your day it might be worth it.

  4. March 10, 2011
     Aaron Lain

    Just read wide and far is all I would say.
    Read Sexton's Love Poems if you haven't.
    Each poem is like a glass of salted wine.
    To comment on what William said,
    sometimes you can develop an ear by just
    reading poetry out loud. Poetry is meant to
    be read aloud.

  5. March 10, 2011
     Abas Noor

    My first attempt at mass poetry reading is when I first attempted to publish a book of poetry, and my mentor said to me coldly--"Read 1000 poems before you attempt to write another."

    I'm not quite sure I'm at a thousand, I stopped counting, but what I most fear is "unconsciously parroting [some]one else’s voice."

    Regardless, I've come across beautiful stretches of words that come to me time and again at bus stops, theaters, etc. And those are moments which bring me back to it all.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  6. March 11, 2011
     Emma Koch

    I will have to try more reading actual books of poetry. I've always read mostly from anthologies, or try and read a few poems a day from different poets. Even though I have quite a few books from single poets I rarely read poems from the same book in succession. The way you describe the infectious nature of certain poets' rhythms is pretty amazing. Also reading poetry in public does indeed make you look classy.

  7. March 12, 2011
     Matt C


    Twitter, FB Internet browsing are huge sinkholes of time, yet even worse...

    they change your ability to creatively distill feelings into language and hence are totally destructive to the poet's effort.

    I've been detaching myself from them over the last 6 months after nearly 4 years on twitter. It has destroyed me in many ways, not all expressible here.

    Good for you, and your immersion into poetry. You've found your way to a fuller life for yourself and others.

    Keep it going.


  8. March 12, 2011

    Laughter came out of my nose when I read the part about writing and rewarding yourself with internet breaks . . . that is EXACTLY what I was doing when I read this.
    Great post!

  9. March 12, 2011
     Christos Giannak`os, Athens, G

    Every poetry recipient develops Her poets.
    At first there was the discourse in one's mind that prompted him to scribe it down. Then came the discourse of the others; the other books.
    Soon after his mid-life he realizes that there is always lesser time to study than to scribe.
    What have you?
    A sea of books and a She of tuning eyes.

  10. March 13, 2011
     Kevin Halls

    I was one of those people who just couldn't get poetry,it seemed too much trouble and hard work, and at times baffling. But whilst on a creative writers class we had to study verse, and lo and behold I had an eureka moment ! I fell in love with poetry there and then, it just seemed to hit me like a literary sledgehammer so to speak, I put this down to being older and wiser, I must have been too young and naive to understand poetry at that time in my life,or just a bit too lazy to get into it ? Now I write poems myself which I would never have envisaged all those years ago, so to anyone who finds verse a bit confusing like I used to do, all I'd say to them is don't give up just yet because it is worth it in the end.

  11. March 14, 2011

    i certainly agree and enjoyed your article. i also find that going to readings or hearing the poet read his/her own work is not only a joy but can be quite an insight to sounds and feelings. there are many poets and poetry readers out there, some even admit to liking/loving particular poems and poetry. i owe much to my third grade teacher who exposed us, our class (pun unintended) to this majesty. thanks

  12. March 14, 2011
     Luke S.

    "Another great thing about reading books of poetry instead of single poems is that it takes only about an hour to read a book of poetry, sometimes even less."

    Really? Seems to me like you're reading much to fast!!

  13. March 14, 2011
     jaffray Geddes

    Poetry is born in the writer of it. A poet
    is merely one who writes. It is not a
    teachable subject and least of all does it belong to the Academic society of elitists who appear tp have so much to say about it. They seem to forget Shakespeare was APPRENTICED to a
    butcher,Robert Burns a common ploughman, and Chekov the son of a drunken peasant! They would never have given a damn who or what in the learned fraternity had to say about their writings, I write the stuff simply for
    my own pleasure how one measures it is on no concern to me whatsoever.

  14. March 14, 2011
     Doron Narkiss

    Ha! funny article, fresh and direct. Made me conscious of my lack of a definable taste, and how I cling to the poems I was taught. Far prefer teaching poetry to fiction, but couldn't ever write any, would be too derivative.

  15. March 14, 2011
     Karl Hexean Sumner

    Wonderful article.
    Slow Down.
    The reason that it takes so long an exposure for you to catch a poet's rhythm is that you are going to fast.
    Unlike when reading prose,you must force yourself to read at a rate no faster than the rate of speech.
    I do this by reading aloud in a quiet voice.
    If you're reading in public,than read the same poems again when you arrive home. Aloud. Over time you may find a great anticipatory excitement before doing so.

  16. March 15, 2011

    The comment by Matt C. perfectly
    articulated how I've been feeling about the
    effects of the internet, facebook, twitter,

    I actually now have some comfort in the
    fact that I am not alone in feeling this way!

  17. March 15, 2011

    Thank you. Great article. I started my journey into poetry last year. Fell in love with a poet and then discovered the alphabetical list of PF poets -after she flew away! Its now the last thing I do before packing up at work and I'm only half way through 'D' surnames and loving it!
    Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry" was a great find en route, along with his plea for how not to do it:
    "..tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it."

  18. March 23, 2011
     Lynne Hoffman

    I have come to poetry late in life. My father would still be proud of me. I highly recommend 'How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch. Great book and it turned me on to great poetry, especially some Russian ones.( Akhmatova, Pasternak, etc) I had the good fortune to hear him speak which made the reading of his book even more special. I also attended a poetry reading by Billy Collins. I think he is one of my all time favorite comtemporary poets. To hear him deliver some of his own lines was sublime. I do agree with William Gabriel's post...everyone who enjoys poetry should 'hear it being read',even if it's in your own voice.

  19. March 27, 2011
     Jack Taylor

    Hey this is a great idea! I too never took the time to find out if I really like poetry or not either, and your technique seems easily repeatable. Thank you for inspiring a method of discovery in me!

  20. March 30, 2011
     Clifford Schwartz

    I find it useful to substitute the word "acquire" for the word "read" when I deal with poetry. If I were to "read" 30 poems in one month, the experience would reduce the poems to snippets of information. (That's because, normally, I read for information every day; but that mindset only makes poetry boring to me.) But poetry is much more than mere information, and, for me at least, I cannot acquire poems by simply reading them. So, seven years ago, I acquired a Poetry Study Partner: She is a retired lawyer with 5 grown kids. We meet on Sunday morning for 2.5 hours (we joke that it's kinda like going to poetry church!) and we read aloud & discuss big poetry projects. So far we have "acquired": all the poetry of W.H. Auden alongside Edward Mendelson's biography of Auden (titled "Early Auden" and "Later Auden"; all of Shakespeare's sonnets; Wordsworth's "The Prelude"; all the poems included in the historically important volume "Lyrical Ballads" published in 1798 by Wordsworth & Coleridge; and now we are "acquiring" the book-length narrative poem "Don Juan" by Lord Byron (George Gordon). Having someone to read aloud, think through, summarize, and remember -- i.e. a poetry partner" makes all the difference between "reading" and "acquiring" poetry for me.

  21. April 7, 2011
     Ezenwa Chima

    The first day i learnt about poetry from wikipedia, i said to myself, 'so i can write something for my pleasure without caring about grammar and semantics?' Then i learnt about free verse and concluded that no one have to judge me for my poems. Poetry is a unique way of expressing your deep feelings. Poetry puts you in a state of mind you hardly get from prose. Thank you for the post. The feeling is mutual.

  22. April 7, 2011
     Noah Cohen

    This is really cool! I'm glad you wrote
    about how poetry works for you, instead of
    how poetry IS. There are so many people
    who try to explain what poetry is and it
    gets really confusing but this is a much
    warmer and more intimate approach.
    Thanks a million for letting us into a month
    of your life. It's really charming and

  23. April 7, 2011
     Noah Cohen

    And maybe I'll use poetry like brainsoap,
    now, too. :)

  24. April 7, 2011
     Mike Michaels

    Just a hunch but I'll bet that reading poetry
    has improved and informed your writing.

  25. April 7, 2011
     Jerry Emily

    your approach reminds me of being mindful... an awakening moment by moment