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How to read – and enjoy – a poem – Vahni Capildeo

The University of York's Writer-in-residence, the contemporary poet, Vahni Capildeo, explores how to read- and enjoy - a poem.
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Hello, my name is Vahni Capildeo and I am writer in residence at the University of York, and we’re going to talk about reading and enjoying a poem. The first step in reading and enjoying a poem is, well, first catch your poem. What are poems and where can you find them? Even if you’ve studied poetry and enjoyed it, the sure thing is that poems are wilder and more various than anyone knows. Start by noticing where words make patterns that you like, or that catch your attention. Like dancing, or Minecraft, or Lego, or avoiding stepping on the cracks in the pavement, enjoying poetry means being open to enjoying patterns.
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Notice when you’re enjoying language for its own sake: maybe in shopping lists, lullabies, a good political speech, psalms, that sweary, funny person you can’t stop listening to. Delve into other dialects or languages you or your friends might know. Here’s a small poem I love. Does it make sense? No. It’s a sinister riddle and a lullaby
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that I love reciting and dreaming with: STRANGE CURRENCIES River traffic, sea traffic, heart traffic, lung traffic, head trade, heart trade, hand trade, gun trade, heart wars, night wars, river wars, rum wars, night saints, blood saints, gun saints, knife lessons, knife tricks, night tricks, night sleep, milk sleep, river sleep. Nicholas Laughlin, The Strange Years of My Life from Peepal Tree, Leeds.
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SOMETHING ELSE: don’t judge poetry by impossible standards.
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For example: have you ever met someone you didn’t like, but after a while, maybe years, you find something in common? Have you learnt to love someone, maybe by sharing a challenge? Similarly with poems, it’s a personal relationship. Give them time and space and don’t expect to understand them. No one person, however lovely, has all the answers. Neither will anyone poem. But some you want to live with. Shakespeare. Dionne Brand. Some you’d want holding the rope when you need rescue. Denise Riley. Ian Duhig. Some demand a lot – and you love that. Sylvia Plath. Dante. Jonah Mixon Webster.
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SO: reading and enjoyment are active, not passive. One of the ways of enjoying a poem is allowing it to provoke you, perhaps so much that you respond to it by sharing it, or by doing or making another artwork of your own.

The University of York is very proud to host Vahni Capildeo, one of the world’s most influential contemporary poets, as our writer-in-residence. To start us off, Vahni Capildeo talks about how to read, and enjoy, poetry.

Over to you

Consider these prompting questions and let us know what you think in the comments section. You may like to use these questions as a starting point for your comment, or you may choose to answer one specific question – we look forward to hearing from you!

How easy do you find it to read and enjoy a poem? Do you ever find it daunting or difficult?

Do you have any tips to add to Vahni Capildeo’s introduction to reading and enjoying poetry?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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Poetry: How to Read a Poem

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