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‘How To Play A Poem’ Encourages Readers To Simply Enjoy Poetry, Set Classroom Analysis Aside

Courtesy of the Author
Don Bialostosky.

If you don’t like poetry, maybe you’ve been reading it wrong.

So says Don Bialostosky. In his new book, the University of Pittsburgh literature professor contends that the reason more people don’t read poetry for fun is they were taught that reading poetry is work: analyzing metaphors and symbols, for example.

Bialostosky titled his book "How to Play A Poem," and he uses the verb “play” because, he says, we shouldn’t try interpreting poetry before we simply enjoy it.

“I see the poem as more like a play,” he said. “It requires enactment, not just interpretation, not just analysis, and not just identification of things in it that are poetic.”

To read poetry this way, he said, is to perform it for yourself, in your imagination. You could even read it aloud, although that’s not necessary.

“The idea is that a poem is like a dramatic script or musical score and requires someone to bring it back to life,” Bialostosky said. “It’s only on the page until somebody can animate the words and make it hearable again.”

Bialostosky said the book grew out of his efforts to teach poetry more effectively.

“I’ve looked at a lot of the sites online where kids ask questions about their poetic assignments, and they’re baffled by what could the metaphor be here, what tone?” he said. “They really don’t know what to do, and it’s partly because they think the things they already know about language are not going to be relevant here.”

The students have been told, that is, that poetry is something separate from everyday language, when in fact it merely expands on that language.

“One of the important things about my book is that I argue that you start from the language that we all know and share, and from the exchanges that we have with each other,” he said. “Poets start from those and do something interesting with them, make them worth playing with, worth doing something new with.”

"How to Play a Poem" is published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, Bialostosky presents a reading and conversation about the book at Alphabet City, at 40 W. North Street, on the North Side. The event is free, but reservations are recommended.