‘To read it well: that is, to understand’

Pray thee, take care, that tak’st my book in hand, 
To read it well: that is, to understand’ – Ben Jonson (1572-1637)


I found this quote from Ben Johnson hit very close to the mark when I read it earlier this week. This is exactly what we do, as poets, as writers. We give our words to the reader, to put their own interpretation on, but hope and hope and hope that they understand us at the same time. I guess that sometimes there’s a level of recklessness, and of stubbornness (particularly if we’re writing our words from a place of anger or of hurt). Of thinking, “Well this is what I’m feeling right now, so it doesn’t matter what other people say”, but that moment passes quickly.

When I first started writing poetry I didn’t put any of my writings out there for several months; I was terrified of being that vulnerable. I showed them to my friends and family, and they encouraged me to start putting them where someone else would be able to see them, and perhaps enjoy them. Part of me is still terrified; why should anyone care what I have to say?

But then I remember the poems that I’ve read, and the joy or thoughts they brought to me. It’s almost never about what the author initially intended with their words, it’s about what a reader can take from them, and how they interpret them from their own experiences. That is the beauty in poetry.

It is utterly unlike a novel, in which the author diligently crafts the plot, characters, and setting, so that the reader is drawn in to the world they set out to create. Poetry is a different beast, it’s almost as if the poet is saying “Here are my words; they were special to me when I wrote them. Now, how will they be special to you?”

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