Ways Of Looking At A Poem

When studying literature I did my best to avoid poetry. I found it very difficult to find a place for my own feelings & reflections – reading poetry was like doing maths = trying to find THE right answer. Maybe this is why Gregory Orr has made such a difference in my literary life?

Here is from his introduction to Poetry as Survival:

As a poet, I’ve always hated that poetry often intimidates people. Many people I know feel that poetry is a test they can only pass if they are smart enough or sensitive enough (or, as in the case for me as a student, I felt I had to be in line with my professors view of the work) and most fear they will fail. Many refuse the test altogether – never read poetry – for fear of failure.

Somehow something has gone wrong with poetry in our culture. We have lost touch with its purpose and value, and in doing so, we have lost contact with essential aspects of our own emotional and spiritual lives.

Orr not only helped me define the problem; he also made me overturn my own prejudices. The key is, I think, to combine the reading of poetry with excellent guides, with texts on poetry and poetics which can support your reading. I have already written a lot about my “mentor” Orr, another; very different guide, is the British poet Ruth Padel.


I’m currently reading her book 52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem: or How Reading Modern Poetry Can Change Your Life (2004), a book which is based on Padel’s column in the Independent on Sunday – in which she presented a poem a week by a series of contemporary poets.

52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem starts with a rather complex general introduction to poetry (and some might find this too technical), but it continues in a much more accessible way. When you have struggled your way through the introduction, you’ll find 52 poems by contemporary poets — all followed by excellent essays analysing the poem in question. Padel’s essays are full of information, she is an extremely competent reader, but she is never intimidating, rather she invites you to take part in her knowledge, enhance your understanding, and widen your own first reading.

Ruth Padel is a British poet, novelist, conservatist, critic and author. She teaches Poetry at Kings College London and has published nine poetry collections, a novel, and eight books of non-fiction including three on reading poetry.




One Comment Add yours

  1. I have not read Padel, but I’ve seen her book mentioned before. Time to put it on my to-read list, perhaps.
    I have always been open to poetry, but guides nonetheless show me new ways to be open to poetry. Also, when I teach students about it, guides offer me ways to help students feel less prejudiced about it.

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