"How to read a poem"


This week, we're delighted to feature a post (with poem) from one of our assistant editors, Katie Ailes. Katie was one of our contributors last year and you can find her poems 'Farmhand' and 'Driveways' in our archive

photo by Fiona Hardie

photo by Fiona Hardie

The lovely Quotidian editors approached me recently asking if I might write a guide on how to read poetry for readers who maybe haven’t read much poetry, or read poetry in schools but weren’t big fans. I certainly get that feeling: so much education in poetry seems to have the aim of “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means” in Billy Collins’ words. I think many of us approach poems warily, already sure that they’ll go over our heads: that they will be complicated, needing breaking down and analysing, or that they’re simply not meant for us. And that’s so unfortunate, because there’s an incredible world of work out there to explore, some of it challenging but much of it simple and brilliant. The pieces we selected for this issue of Quotidian certainly fall into the latter category: they’re beautifully written meditations on the everyday that you certainly don’t need an Oxbridge degree to enjoy. 

So chuck the guidelines out the window! Each poem is a lake everyone will cross differently, whether diving deep or skimming quickly or floating on the surface for days: there’s no right or wrong way to approach it. In lieu of a guide, here’s my offering on how one might approach a poem. Enjoy! (or don’t – your call!)

. . .


How to read a poem
Katie Ailes (Jan 2016)

First, take it into your hands
like a lover’s face. Feel its weight,
its wind-chapped lips, the
stories it’s bit back.

Feel for the scars,
          the ridges that don’t fit
the ways it       flinches
at your glance.

It may be a feral cat,
timid, skittering,

or a pearly globe
to roll over your tongue

Speak it free of its page:
          release that song-bird
          to sweep the sky:
it was never meant for stillness.

Watch as it circles your head
reverberating into being

Let it spin you dizzy,
absolve your sins with
absinthe trips of
sip its whisky myth.

It will spurn you,
          flick its Zippo tongue
to singe
and burn.

You will learn not to be careful with it.

bathe in it.
Stay ‘til your
toes prune.
It isn’t busy
to be finished.

When you step out, see the mirror
fogged up. Look at yourself. This
is how a poem changes the world.