The Poem as a Journey - Ismail Bala

There is no one secret to reading a poem, but the closest I know is to think of it as a journey.

Where are the thoughts, the sounds, and the feelings coming from, and where do they land? ‘Each

word is a step on the road’, Patsy Rodenburg (who is a voice coach at the British National

Theatre) often tells student actors. To give words to an audience,   she says, you have to feel the

“journey of thought” in them and the shape they take. “Try walking”, she tells the student-actor,

‘the journey of the poem’. 

In life, too, poems and journeys go together. Both move. Both take a bit of time and effort. Both let you reflect on other things as you go on. Both can upset and surprise you. There may be boring moments or moments that seem boring at the time, but afterwards, you realise they were crucial. Both give you new windows on the world and take you out of yourself, but let you go deeper into yourself at the same time. They get you to new places.

So what is the journey of reading a poem?

There are as many ways of travelling as there are travellers. Virginia Woolf has a vivid image of reading a poem in her novel To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay is sitting opposite her husband, absorbed in a poetry anthology. They have not had an easy day. He is a philosopher and wonders if she understands what she’s reading. Probably not; he likes to believe she is “not clever, not book-learned at all”. We see him watch her read, then hear what reading feels like to her: swooshing up through a flower jungle (“anthology” from Greek anthos, “flower”, literally means “collection of flowers”). She is:

Climbing backwards, upwards, shoving her way up under petals that curved over so that she only knew, that is white, this is red.. swinging herself, zigzagging this way and that, from one line to another.. climbing up branches this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another.

She settles on a Shakespeare sonnet:

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose, she read, and so reading she was ascending, she felt, to the summit. How satisfying! How restful! All the odds and ends of the day stuck to this magnet; her mind felt swept and clean. And then there it was, suddenly entire, shaped in her hands, beautiful and reasonable, clear and complete, the essence sucked out of life and held rounded here: the sonnet.

Afterwards, as husband and wife talk, her mind is still ‘going up and down, up and down with the poetry’.

Who decides what understanding is? Is a philosopher the only judge? What matters more in reading a poem—heart or head, instinct or analysis? Is there one kind of understanding?

Mrs Ramsay is lucky. With the confidence of her class (upper middle, highly cultured) and her time (1920s), she can walk into a poem, feel welcomed and enriched by it, and rest in its beauty without worrying about what it means. That is luxury travel. If you are used to poems, you can read them without worrying about their meaning, just as a toddler used to dogs will pat one unafraid. But some children shrink from the friendliest dog, not realising that all it wants is contact, and some people shrink from poems because they are not used to them and don’t realise that what poems want is connection.

Connection is part of what a poem is for. It needs to matter to you personally, instinctually, and sensually before there is any question of meaning. The poet John Burnside once said, “when I read a poem that turns me on, it isn’t accessible at once. There’s a mystery to it. What draws you in is the music”. He was asked about the music, to which he replied, “How the words hang together and grab you, how they speak to you even when you don’t yet know what they are saying”. 

When you are “grabbed” like that and the poem suddenly matters, it becomes yours to enjoy, just as Mrs Ramsay enjoys the sonnet. No worries about understanding; she goes with the music.

Getting grabbed and making a relationship with a poem instinctively is as involuntary as falling in love. It is the primal act on which poetry depends—the relationship all poems hope to make with readers as they go out into the world. One poem suddenly matters to one reader. “The right reader of a good poem”, said Robert Frost, “can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken a mortal wound. That he will never get over it”. “Insight comes as a lightning bolt”, said the philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Falling in love may begin as a bolt from the blue, but if love lasts, you start to explore the reasons for attraction. The same is true of a poem. Having been grabbed, you start to ask why. Enter analysis and interpretation.

Samuel Coleridge divided readers into four types. He said the best reader was a “Moghul diamond”, someone who “profits by what they read and enables others to profit by it too”. After that comes the “Sandglasses”, who remember nothing of what they read and just go through a book to get through the time. Thirdly, the “Strain-bags” remember, “merely the dregs of what they read”. Worst of all are “Sponges”, who “absorb all they read and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtier”.

There is no reason why we cannot all be Moghul diamonds. We all grow as readers all the time. You can step into a poem as an escalator and simply be carried along, like Mrs. Ramsay, but you can also enjoy working out what it’s up to. If it’s a good poem, the more you put into working it out, the more the process of reading gives you. And because you have developed your reading muscles, you get more from other poems too. Working it out is part of the pleasure the poem wants to give.

T.S. Eliot says there are different stages of becoming a good reader. You begin intuitively, enjoying some poems, binning others. After a while, you start organising your experience of reading. You find you are reading each poem in the light of others and understanding them all more precisely, even ones you have read already. You see more in them and enjoy them more.

Every Greek school child today learns ‘

“Ithaca”, the poem by the early-twentieth century Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, which uses Homer’s Odyssey as a blueprint for our journey through life and gives unexpectedly wise advice about our attitude towards that journey.

Odysseus (whom the Romans called Ulysses) has spent ten years away at war. He keeps trying to get back home to his small, rocky island, Ithaca but is constantly blocked. Cavafy’s poem says, in words that could be about reading a poem as well as the journey of life, that you should not be in a hurry to reach your destination. Part of the point of having a goal is to enjoy adventures on the way to it:

Ithaca gave you your lovely journey.

Without it, you would never have set out.

In reading a poem, one goal is, let’s say, understanding. But you should enjoy getting there and everything you hear, feel, or think as you go. Every reading of a poem and every reader’s journey is different. How we enjoy poems, said W. H. Auden, is related to how we enjoy everything else. “It is our pleasure, not someone else’s”. We all approach every poem with our own baggage.

John Keats, like all great poets, was a passionate reader. He never knew Greek; he did not have an elite education like Lord Alfred Tennyson. He had heard how wonderful Homer was, and when he read him (in the Elizabethan translation by George Chapman), he was overwhelmed and wrote the poem that made his name, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In it, he describes reading Homer for the first time as discovering a new world. Much have I travelled in the realms of gold, he says (meaning he has read a lot of other poetry), but now he is awestruck to see, from a peak, this new landscape glittering beneath him.

If we are lucky, we develop through our lives as readers, just as we do in other ways. In the gym, everyone starts with specific talents of balance, strength, and instinct. You practice skills, develop muscles, learn from experience, and stretch your capacity to do new things. It is the same with reading poems. We start with our instincts and sense of what we should respond to. T. S. Eliot said no one was born with infallible discrimination. “Genuine” taste, he said, “is founded on genuine feeling”. Your taste in poetry is related to all your other loves. “It affects them, is affected by them, and will be limited as oneself is limited”.

Developing your taste in poetry is part of the overall development of your personality and character. William Wordsworth said that “accurate” taste in poetry was an “acquired talent” that developed from the experience of the “the best models”. “Inexperienced” readers had to judge for themselves, but he warned them not to judge too quickly. If you have not given much time to poetry, instinctive judgement may let you down, he says, and you will miss things. Be patient and open. Listen.

      As in living, so in reading. We learn by doing it. Developing our taste in poetry, food, clothes, and even people is part of how we come to be more ourselves.


Being a text of craft talk delivered at Bayero University Creative Writers’ Forum, 

Faculty of Communication, Bayero University, Kano

Tuesday, September 26th, 2023