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Life Kit: How to get into poetry


April is National Poetry Month. And if poetry isn't your thing, don't worry. A lot of people are with you on that. But if you want to give poetry a shot and it just seems too dense or hard to appreciate, NPR's Life Kit has some tips for you. Here's NPR's Andrew Limbong with that.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: You probably don't need an official month to get you to pick up a book or listen to music. But I promise you, poetry can offer you the same rush of feelings.

FRANNY CHOI: It's visceral to me, and I can't explain always what it is that gives me that feeling. It's just that when I have it, it's the only thing that matters.

LIMBONG: That's Franny Choi, poet and co-host of the poetry podcast "VS" - as in VS, the abbreviation, by the way. And she says a love of poetry comes not from your head but from your gut, which is our first bit of advice when it comes to appreciating poetry. Try and forget how you learned it in school.

CHOI: Most commonly, people are taught that the way to engage with a poem is by parsing it, by trying to understand it and master it and be able to write an essay about it. And I think that keeps us from really developing personal relationships to poetry.

LIMBONG: Sure, learning about similes and meter and form has its place, but it's not like you have to know a thing about cinematography to appreciate a movie - right? - which brings us to our next tips, which are, one, read the poem out loud, and then, two, visualize the poem. Poet and UCLA professor Harryette Mullen says, think of the poem you're reading like a movie you're directing.

HARRYETTE MULLEN: What colors would you use? What kind of setting would there be? Can you imagine the speaker? Does the speaker seem to be male or female or both or neither or indeterminate? What might the speaker be wearing?

LIMBONG: I asked Mullen if I could try this out on one of her poems.

...If that works.

MULLEN: We'll see.

LIMBONG: So it's called "Still Waiting." And then it says, for Alison Saar.

(Reading) Please approach with care these figures in black. Regard with care the weight they bear, the scars that mark their hearts. Do you think you can handle these bodies of graphite and coal dust? This color might rub off. A drop of this red liquid could stain your skin. This black powder could blow you sky high. No ordinary pigments blacken our blues. Would you mop the floor with this bucket of blood? Would you rinse your soiled laundry in this bason of tears? Would you suckle hot milk from this cracked vessel? Would you be baptized in this fountain of funky sweat? Please approach with care these bodies still waiting to be touched. We invite you to come closer. We permit you to touch and be touched. We hope you will engage with care.

MULLEN: Mmm hmm. Nicely done.

LIMBONG: Oh. I was very nervous. So...

I told her what I saw - someone dressed in dirty, dusty coveralls, making a speech at an auditorium or something. It didn't match her intention when writing the poem, but that's OK because our last tip is there are no wrong answers. Trust yourself as much as you trust the poet.

MULLEN: This is so wonderful, because when I write something, I know what I'm thinking when I'm writing it. And what is so interesting to me and what I'm always curious about is, how does the reader experience that? - because obviously, it's going to be different because the reader was not right with me when I wrote it. And, you know, even if I tell you exactly what I thought and where I was and all of that, it's still going to be a different poem for you, for any reader.

LIMBONG: And hopefully, with some of this advice in mind, you'll be one of those readers. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.