Many of us regularly read poetry as one of our spiritual practices. But often we approach it the way we learned to study poems in our high school English classes. We analyze the structure of the poem and look for unusual phrases. We compare it to other poems from the same era or put it in the context of the poet's life story. But, mostly, we obsess about what it means. What is it saying? What's its point?
There is another way to appreciate and absorb a poem. John Brehm describes it in his splendid collection The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy. He calls it "mindful reading." Here is his essay.
"Mindfulness enhances everything we do: walking in the woods, washing the dishes, listening to music, looking at a tree, even taking out the garbage. As with all these experiences, the more mindful we are when we read poems – the more we can cultivate an open, receptive, nonjudging awareness in our reading – the richer our experience will be. How can we learn to bring the same quality of attention to poetry that we bring to meditation practice?
"When we sit in meditation, we shift from thinking about our life to experiencing whatever arises in the present moment: bodily sensations, sounds, feelings, the breath. Thoughts will happen, too, but we learn not to indulge or chase after them. We simply notice them as one more strand in the intricate texture of the present moment.
"But what happens when we read a poem? Here the analytical mind wants to take charge, wants to turn the poem into a problem to be solved, a code to be cracked, a secret to be revealed. For whatever reason – trauma suffered in high school English class, intimidation before a sometimes strange and difficult art, the anxiety of not getting it right – we too often bypass the pleasures of experiencing the poem and go straight to the work of interpreting it, hoping to figure out what it means.' But as John Keats wrote in a letter to Fanny Braun,
" 'A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.'
"If we follow Keats's advice and understand the poem through the senses, if we allow ourselves to luxuriate in it and accept its mysteries, our experience will be quite different, and much richer, than if we just think about what the poem is saying. And it's here that mindfulness practice can help.
"Just as we shift from thinking to experiencing in meditation, when we read a poem we can also focus on noticing and appreciating rather than interpreting and explaining. We can immerse ourselves in the poem's atmosphere, its tones and textures, its sounds and images and rhythms, the way it moves and how it feels, the details of how it's made. Doing so requires no special literary training. What's needed mainly is alertness and curiosity, a willingness to be with what is happening in the poem without worrying too much about what it means. Poems do communicate ideas, but they are much more than a mechanism for communicating ideas. We don't read a poem the way we read a set of instructions or a newspaper or a philosophical argument. We look at the language as well as through it; we relish it, experience it sensually as well as conceptually. And the longer we can stay with the poem on the level of noticing and sensing rather than thinking and explaining, the more we will enjoy it. In his mock manifesto, 'Personism,' Frank O'Hara downgrades the importance of ideas in poems: 'I'm not saying that I don't have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They're just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I've stopped thinking and that's when refreshment arrives.'
"In 'Introduction to Poetry,' Billy Collins describes trying to get his students to enjoy rather than interrogate a poem. He wants his students to 'walk inside the poem's room / and feel the walls for a light switch' or to 'waterski across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore.'
" 'But all they want to do
is tie the poem in a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
"They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.'
"So, how do we enter a poem with openness, gentleness, and a lively curiosity rather than an irritable need to know? As in meditation, the first step is to simply notice what's happening, to see how the poem is saying what it's saying. Is the voice of the poem serious or humorous, intense or relaxed, formal or informal? Are the lines long or short, rhymed or unrhymed, smooth or jagged? Does the poem move quickly, like O'Hara's 'The Day Lady Died,' or slowly, like Tu Fu's 'Jade Flower Palace'? Is the poem immersed in the physical world, as in Philip Larkin's 'Here,' or is it a poem of abstract statements, like Fernando Pessoa's 'Calm because I'm unknown'? Is it a single gesture, a single striking image, like A. R. Ammons's 'Clarifications,' or a series of careful observations, as in Ruth Stone's 'Train Ride' or Elizabeth Bishop's 'The Fish'? Does the poem feel playful and affectionate, like Rod Padgett's 'Words from the Front,' or heartbreaking, like Kobayashi Issa's 'Mother I never knew' or Andrea Hollander's 'October 9, 1970'? Poems have many ways of being in the world, an almost infinite variety; they ask us to notice their unique way of doing what they do.
"Most important is to notice what you enjoy about a poem and let yourself savor it. A poem must first of all give pleasure. No one will stay with a poem for long if it doesn't give pleasure, no matter how significant its subject. But poems are not obliged to make perfect sense, and sometimes they don't, or not right away. As Wallace Stevens said, 'The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.' If you encounter something in a poem that isn't immediately clear, the mind will want to engage that, like a terrier with a rag doll. But don't worry about it. Let the line or passage rest in the soft light of incomprehension, along with all the other things you don't know or fully understand. The Chinese Zen master Dizang said, 'Not knowing is most intimate.' But when you read lines that seem especially lit up – that move or intrigue you in some way, or that are simply pleasing or even dazzling – don't focus on what they might mean, or on being able to formulate a statement about what they might mean, as if you might be called upon to explain the poem, to yourself or to someone else. No one will quiz you! Just linger with those poems or passages that resonate with you: notice how you feel when you read them, the emotional weather they cast over you, the way they sound and move. Let them live inside you for a while; rest your mind on them the way you might rest it on the breath. The longer you can just sit with the poem, the more it will reveal. But it doesn't really require effort – just presence, alertness, patience, care. Mindfulness, in other words."