3. Try to meet a poem on its terms not yours. If you have to “relate” to a poem in order to understand it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. In other words, don’t try to fit the poem into your life. Try to see what world the poem creates. Then, if you are lucky, its world will help you re-see your own.
4. Whether or not you are conscious of it, you are always looking for an excuse to stop reading a poem and move on to another poem or to do something else entirely. Resist this urge as much as possible. Think of it as a Buddhist regards a pesky mosquito. The mosquito, like the poem, may be irritating, but it’s not going to kill you to brave it for a little while longer.
5. People will tell you there are two kinds of poems: the “accessible poem” whose intent and meaning are easy to appreciate, and the “obscure poem” whose intent and meaning are difficult to appreciate. It’s up to you how hard you want to work.
6. If you don’t know a word, look it up or die.
7. A poem cannot be paraphrased. In fact, a poem’s greatest potential lies in the opposite of paraphrase: ambiguity. Ambiguity is at the center of what is it to be a human being. We really have no idea what’s going to happen from moment to moment, but we have to act as if we do.
8. A poem has no hidden meaning, only “meanings” you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice. Reading poetry is a convention like anything else. And you learn the rules of it like anything else—e.g., driving a car or baking a cake.
9. As hard as it sounds, separate the poet from the speaker of the poem. A poet always wears a mask (persona) even if she isn’t trying to wear a mask, and so to equate poet and speaker denies the poem any imaginative force that lies outside of her lived life.
10. When you come across something that appears “ironic,” make sure it’s not simply the speaker’s sarcasm or your own disbelief.
11. “Reading for pleasure” implies there’s “reading for displeasure” or “reading for pain.” All reading should be pleasurable: Like sex, it pleases to a greater or lesser degree, but pleasure ultimately isn’t the only point.
12. A poem can feel like a locked safe in which the combination is hidden inside. In other words, it’s okay if you don’t understand a poem. Sometimes it takes dozens of readings to come to the slightest understanding. And sometimes understanding never comes. It’s the same with being alive: Wonder and confusion mostly prevail.
13. Perform marginalia. Reading without writing in the margins is like walking without moving your arms. You can do it and still reach your destination, but it’ll always feel like you’re missing something essential about the activity.
14. There is nothing really lost in reading a poem. If you don’t understand the poem, you lose little time or energy. On the contrary, there is potentially much to gain—a new thought, an old thought seen anew, or simply a moment separated from all the other highly structured moments of your time.