“I Don’t Understand Poetry”


Celebrating 10 Years of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


It’s a common enough complaint that aspiring poets are used to hearing, even from book lovers. Many people can’t – or at least say they can’t – read poetry. Whatever the reason (haunting memories of school teachers, a more familiar relationship with prose, an inability to find beauty in the mysterious twists and turns of verse), poetry remains one of the most sequestered areas of Literature.

I could try to argue that this is not poetry’s fault: we all have our own ways of expression, and poetry just might not be yours. But let’s face it: poetry is difficult to read. By nature, it is a highly stylised form of articulation. And it often expresses things so deeply personal that they can be difficult to access for those not ready for that.

As an aspiring poet, I consider it my duty to not only bring people to poetry, but to bring poetry to them. So here’s a handy nine-step guide to becoming the perfect reader of poetry for all you sceptics out there:

(1) Read the title.

To read, one needs to start at the top, then find your way to the bottom. Once you’ve read the title, close your eyes, take a breath. Think about the writer’s well-woven net.


What is the poet trying to say? Is he giving the gist away (Leisure by W H Davies)? Is he playing a trick of letters with you (My Last Duchess by Robert Browning)? Is he sharing memories (Full Moon and Little Frieda by Ted Hughes)? Does the title confuse you (I am Vertical by Sylvia Plath)? Does it make you fear reading on (Casualty by Seamus Heaney)? Is it deceptive in some subtle way (The Tiger by William Blake), or laughing at the mishaps of the poor poet’s day (Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)?

Only the poem can answer.

(2) Read the first line.

It’s a make-or-break moment, and the suspense is rightful. Does the first line align with how you thought the poem would go, or has it gone off on a free-wheeling spree?


The first line of a poem is the hardest to penetrate and sets the tone and atmosphere for the rest.

(3) Read the rest of the poem, in a rush.

Let your feelings arise in spontaneous response to the poem. Let the images fill every part of your brain. Let the words drown every other thought. Submerge yourself in soul-filling rain.


Don’t try to draw out the meaning just yet. Your emotions must feed your intellect.

(4) Walk around. The poem is a world.

Stride through the word-maze. It twists and turns. It builds and falls. Cities collapse, guides call. Clocks adjust their cogs, and animals rush through the humdrum of daily life.



Don’t let the strangeness fill you with fear. You are now seeing the world like the poet in their head.

(5) Swim to the depths, the very bottom of the lake. Now you are delving into the siren-song. You will find pools of living, life-giving words.

These are words penned from an original art. Some will be near, others somehow apart.


Come close enough for them to cast their true spell. You have reached the depth of the poem’s inner well.

(6) See how the words stack and merge.

They playfully whirl and scourge, collapse and explode. Try and work out their rapid interplay. See if you can hear what they are trying to say.


Let them move through you and find release. Feel the beauty we so rarely see.

(7) Pause, take a deep breath.

Inhale: all of it, its whole length and breadth. Take in the words and with them the whole world. Let it seep and swirl.


Let it settle deep in the back of your brain. Let it sink in and take root again.

(8) Water the plant with the love it has inspired.

Let Spring sprout in the realm of your thoughts. Watch it grow into a blooming seedling. Feel it spread through the veins of your being. Think with its pulse as it throbs within.


Let it show its hidden meaning.

(9) Know that now, the poem is you.

Heart and lungs and nerve and sinew. The meaning of the poem is embedded in your mind. Welcome, new reader, join our kind.



Physicist Paul Dirac once said, “The aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way.” I don’t agree, and nor, I suspect, do many poets. In fact, we would likely state the exact opposite. The business of life is far too complicated as it is. Poetic life is richer and more vibrant than objective reality, and takes place entirely within ourselves. Poetry is an attempt to distil life to a level of simplicity, and capture that in words. Most often, we don’t succeed, but when we do: boy, do we create amazing things.


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One Response to ““I Don’t Understand Poetry””

  1. I totally agree on what you say rushati. Indeed, the poetry is ignored by readers then any other kind of literature and i think that poetry is the most beautiful and artistic way to express your feelings and thoughts. Even if you look at jlf’s new writer membership program, it is only for story writers. therefore being a poet,a person doesn’t receive as much inspiration and recognition as a novelist or a story writer. I love writing poems but i don’t see a future of me being a poet.

    Utkarsh Kaushik


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