Much of the difficulty of reading poetry comes from unfamiliarity, from not being able to take the suggestions the poem gives as to how to read it. It’s possible, too, to be misdirected by teachers and critics, so that poems are read in an unprofitable way. Common mistaken ideas about how to read poetry include the Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried amid the words and music. This idea probably comes from the fact that, being moved by a poem, one assumes an important religious, philosophical, or historical cause for being moved and tries to find it hidden someplace in the poem; whereas in fact a few words rightly placed can be moving if they catch a moment of life — almost any moment; if, amidst all the blather and babble of imprecise, uncertain language in which we live, there is something better, some undeniable little beautiful bit of light. This is given to us, of course, by the music and the words, not something that they conceal. Important, and at first unseeable, meanings may be in poems as they may be in other experiences, but there is no way to find them except by having the experiences. It's not the nature of poems to be clues, or collections of clues, so to read them as if they were is not to properly experience them, thus to be lost. Many people talking about poetry are lost, and even more people have given up reading poetry because they knew they were lost and didn’t like it. A poem may turn out to be a deep and complex experience, but the experience begins by responding to the language of poetry in front of you, not by detective work that puts that response aside.I wish that teachers everywhere could take Koch’s words to heart.
Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
More Kenneth Koch
kennethkoch.org (Biography, bibliography, selections)
Koch reading his work (PennSound)
Against “deep reading”
Seventeen ideas about interpretation