Learning To Read Poetry

One of the nicest things I’ve experienced recently has been going to a bookshop. A bonafide, books neatly arranged on shelves by aisles bookshop. It’s been so long since I was in a bookshop at all. My Landmark love lies a decade in my past. And since then, I’m afraid I’ve let the old-person thing of convenience replace what nourishes me and opted for online shopping & ebooks. Bookshops themselves have been a struggling business for years and I haven’t been in one this opulent and unabashedly book-loving as this one for so long, I’d forgotten what made them good.

The thing about a great bookshop is not just that it has books. It’s that it preserves & nurtures a love of books (and not just money, money, money). I don’t see Amazon being able to do that, no matter how lovely the features they add to the Kindle. Collaborating with Goodreads is a good step. But there’s just something about an honest-to-goodness real life bookshop that the online just doesn’t replicate right now.

A friend invited me, which is another first. In another lifetime, I was the person inviting people to meet me in bookshops, hoping quietly they’d be willing to accompany me in unravelling the wonderful world of words together. Some accepted; none were good fellow travellers. Bookshops don’t seem to touch everyone the same way. But with this friend, I felt accompanied. He had already been there a half hour when I arrived and he let me pick my own way through the aisles, only occasionally looking up to catch my eye.

I found myself settling into a hitherto unfamiliar corner for me. To be fair, most bookshops don’t have an entire aisle on poetry. And echoing that, poetry has never really found a home in my book shelf or life. Yes, I know I’ve been writing pages & screens of it for years. I do that somewhat shamefully since I know I don’t read as much of it and that feels selfish & petty. Maybe that’s why I’ve preferred to label my work with euphemisms like ‘Spoken Word’ and shuffled uncomfortably when my written word gets called poetry.

I think poetry felt simultaneously too formless and too self-important to sit very comfortably in my being. I instinctively drew away from the classic English poets, imagining old, white men, the doyens of that kind of writing & behaviour. I’ve lived through the last ten years that gives voice to the Instagram poets, the people of colour and more. I dipped into Indian poetry, Chinese poetry, randomly opening to midway in the book & sampling a page-long piece. When I looked up, my friend was hovering close. Rather guiltily I told him, “I’m just reading one poem somewhere in the middle.” He smiled and said, that’s okay. Do you like it?

Later, we sat an a cafe (called ‘Poetry’ no less) and gloated over our purchases. Mine had only books of poetry. I read him a poem or two. Then he read me one from my stack. He had to leave before me and I told him I’d stay and savour the evening for awhile with my books. But after he left, it didn’t feel the same. I’ve sat in cafes, restaurants, shops alone and content and read. But this time it felt like not enough. Poetry is great when it’s read aloud, even page poetry. And it’s even better when it’s part of a conversation. Two weeks later, we repeated this ritual and I brought home three more books of poetry, this time allowing for some ‘old white men’ in the form of Sonnets. I told my friend, I’d been dipping into the books, reading just one or two at a time from across the spread. He said, yes, that’s how poetry is to be read. I’m learning. 🙂

In these days, I’ve found myself as formless as what I thought poetry was. And I’m making space in my mind, my being for poetry. Letting words touch me without having to be neat or sharp or have a point the way fiction does. I’m being haphazard as I pick books based on the designs on their spines (none of the books I bought have their titles on their book spines) and then dipping into the books wherever they fall open. I’m savouring feeling the aches, the joys, the frustrations, the ecstasies of so many writers (some unknown) without the back stories of why they felt that way. And I’m learning not to cling to those or impose structures on them. I’m learning to do that for myself too.

I’m really enjoying reading poetry.


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