How to Read Poetry to Expand Your Heart
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Carolyn Elliot on how to read poetry to expand your heart.
Carolyn is author of the book Awesome Your Life: The Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius. She won several awards for playwriting, fiction, and poetry, fresh out of high-school, and later, taught the courses Reading Poetry and Literature and the Contemporary. She is well read, and some of her favorite authors include Dickinson, Emerson, Goethe, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Neruda, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Whitman. Carolyn did her undergraduate work in Creative Writing and English at Carnegie Mellon University, and in her dissertation, she investigated the relationship of literature to the soul as it is imagined in romantic aesthetics.
Given her background and passion, I asked Carolyn if she could tackle the following challenge:
How can anyone, without a poetry background, get started with poetry as a source of inspiration and insight in their day to day?
The result is a powerful recipe below for awakening your senses and dipping your toe into the evocative pool of poetry. Without further ado, here is Carolyn …
Poetry isn’t just for folks in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. The greatest poetry is language infused with the wisdom of a powerful heart. If we learn how to read that great poetry well, we can let that infusion soak into us and transform our own perception for the better. Reading poetry sensitively can be a spiritual practice that gradually alters our consciousness so that we see our world with vast insight and love.
The mode of encountering poetry that most facilitates heart-expansion isn’t the kind of technical, critical reading that’s taught in most English classes (“The caesura in line 8 creates a tension that magnifies the alliteration within the ABDDC rhyme scheme, highlighting the hendiadys that follows in line 10….”). That kind of reading can be interesting if you’re already a balls-to-the-wall poetry buff and you want to “get under the hood” of a poem. But most of us don’t want to tinker with the engine of a fantastic car. We just want to drive it.
The way to “drive” a wonderful poem so that it opens you up is through contemplative reading. In contemplative reading, we meet a poem via our intuition and imagination rather than our analytic brain.
To get a feel for contemplative reading, try this exercise (I’ve used it with my Reading Poetry students at the University of Pittsburgh for years to great effect):
Entering the Aether
Select a poem that you want to meet deeply. For those just starting out, I suggest the opening pages of “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, “Ode to a Lemon” by Pablo Neruda, and “I Dwell in Possibility” by Emily Dickinson.
For the purpose of this example, we’ll use a magnificent lyric, “The Orchard” by H.D. Sit comfortably with the poem within easy-reading reach. Read the poem once, not bothering to “figure it out,” just getting a sense of what’s there.
Now close your eyes. Settle in by breathing deeply and slowly. Imagine that you see swirling all around you a very fine, very silvery substance called aether. Aether is the material of the imagination and spirit, thought to be a basic element by classical and medieval philosophers. The aether is fluid like silk, and moves around you in spiraling eddies.
The aether is extremely sensitive. Whatever words or images you bring to it, it will amplify by means of all the senses and emotions available. In a moment, you’ll bring a line from your poem into the aether, and the aether will respond by creating visions, sounds, scents, touches and feelings. You might see whole scenes unfold. You might hear music. What you experience may or may not directly relate to the words you bring in. The aether offers its response from a place of deep wisdom beyond the conscious mind.
Bring into the aether the first lines of the poem, “The Orchard”: “I saw the first pear / as it fell.”
Now close your eyes again and observe how the aether responds to just these lines. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Sit in contemplation for a few moments, allowing the aether to fully unfold its response to these lines.
After observing the response of the aether to your satisfaction, write down what you witnessed in terms of every bodily sense.
Here are responses my students have recorded:
“I caught a scent of lemon mixed with black coffee, and felt overwhelmed.”
“I saw Versailles, with rows of round pear trees and a huge blue sky.”
“I saw Adam and Eve under the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.”
“I saw a giant primeval forest, with a huge pear falling slowly, bursting with juice. I heard the sound of quick-beating drums.”
“I felt a woman’s cold hand on my shoulder.”
You’ll notice that some of these responses pertain directly to the words of the poem, and some don’t. That’s perfect. The point is not to find what the lines “mean” but instead to discover what they do.
Repeat this process of bringing lines from the poem into the aether, observing the aether’s response and writing it down until you complete the poem or until you feel full (like you’ve eaten all you want from a delicious meal).
The wonder of this mode of reading is that it requires no background knowledge, no technical terms, no “expertise” at poetry. And yet again and again, I find that when my students partake of it, they intuitively and immediately discover all the rich mythological and historical resonances that a poem has to offer, often finding more depth than the most highly-trained critics offer in their essays on the same poem.
Reading contemplatively by entering the aether with a poem gives you a way to create a meeting space between the wisdom of poetry and the wisdom of your own imagination. Over time, this practice of reading feeds your deep self and renders you capable of seeing from your calm heart rather than your frantic mind. It accomplishes what the great poet John Keats called the work of “soul-making,” a process of being able to discern the profound truth beneath disturbing appearances, so that bliss rather than worry becomes your default experience.
Carolyn Elliott is a life coach for creative and the author of Awesome Your Life: The Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius, a best-selling self-help book for artists on Amazon. She blogs at www.awesomeyourlife.com.