Epic poetry used to be THE gold standard for literary endeavor. Modern readers, however, can find it difficult to relate to or read. Our world is mostly one of prose—not poetry. How are we supposed to read epic poetry when we’re already overworked and overwhelmed? Well, I have a few ideas about that from my own experience:
- Get a translation which works for you.
- Learn to read poetic lines.
- Know your simile, metaphor, and allegory.
- Use footnotes and endnotes without shame.
- Take your own notes.
- Relax and enjoy yourself!
Reading poetry is like reading anything else that is difficult. It takes practice, patience, and a little strategy. There are plenty of options and tools out there to help you enjoy yourself!
Get a translation which works for you
Any ole translation will not do. I found this out the hard way with The Divine Comedy and ended up missing out on what would become one of my favorite literary pieces until years later. Take some time to investigate different translations and translators and find one which you can read, understand, and enjoy.
This is where finding a very good used bookstore is helpful: try out several translations and translators side by side. You’ll find out quickly what works for you and what doesn’t. Also, if you already have favorite writers, see if they have translations.
J. R. R. Tolkien, for instance, has translations of several very famous epic poems AND they have extensive (often entertaining) notes. If you liked Lord of the Rings, check out his Death of Arthur, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Sigard and Gudrun.
Lines of poetry are just like differently arranged sentences, so you have to practice reading them.
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.Dante
The first three lines of Inferno, for instance, are a single sentence. They’re just split up into three lines. When you figure out where the sentences are, then it’s a little easier to figure out what the poet is saying. Epic poetry at least has a full-blown story behind it so you have a basic framework to help you.
Another idea? Try reading aloud. Most of the epic poems you had to read in school originally were read aloud. Or recited from memory. Bards like Jasiker in The Witcher were the norm in Dante’s day and we know Dante read his own works aloud—a social sensation which would guarantee the host’s bragging rights.
Modern writing, especially internet writing, is very direct. The sentences are shorter, have fewer clauses and come straight to the point. Paragraphs are now 3-5 sentences long. We’re not used to long descriptions or sentences with a lot of information in them.
So, we must train our brains to read them again.
Get used to recognizing and using simile, metaphor, and allegory.
Figurative language is a way of expressing yourself and your ideas while also connecting your emotions and ideas with other things. We encounter this type of language without ever realizing it. Marketing is largely based upon associations between objects, colors, and concepts.
All poetry does is express what modern marketing does with language. If you know how to understand modern marketing, then you are well on your way to understanding poetry.
Use the footnotes and endnotes without shame
If what you need are footnotes and endnotes, use them!
We live in a distinctly non-poetic and increasingly fast-paced world. There’s not always enough time or energy to read “context clues” to figure out the meaning of a word, or what a particular symbol means. Most references in classic literature are other works in the canon. If you haven’t read ever single “great” work of literature EVER written, then you will not “get” every reference.
There’s no shame in adminitting your need to look something up. If you feel stupid when reading, then that is a false belief you need to nip in the bud. You aren’t stupid. You’re a 21st century human reading something written by a human who lived and wrote hundreds of years ago.
Put your own notes in the margins
One of the best things I ever started doing was making notes in the margins of my books. It’s a fantastic way of interacting with the text and making connections between different concepts. Best of all, if you re-visit that work several years later, you can compare your thoughts then to your thoughts now.
The section dedicated to Hamlet in my Riverside Edition Shakespeare is almost completely covered in 10+ years of notations from the time I was in college to just last year. It’s a fantastic way of seeing how much my own thoughts have changed in that time.
Now, I absolutely do not make margins in books that are antiques. I have a few volumes from the 1800s and no pencil mark will ever mar one of those pages!
But my Penguin and Signet Classic paperbacks? Fair game. I underline words, note my own interpretations or thoughts in the margins.
The point is to enjoy yourself
You are reading purely for yourself now—not a grade. Or to impress someone else. So relax, read and re-read as often as you want without shame. Think of it as a mystery or puzzle to solve or an adventure for you to learn something about yourself.
If it’s an unfamiliar form for you, don’t rush through it. If you aren’t enjoying reading, take a break. You’re not in school anymore. Relax. There’s no final test due and no set deadline.
Most importantly, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, there’s no shame in taking a break and moving on to something else for a little while. These works are not White Claw works. They’re very fine wine and there’s no shame in slowing down to really appreciate them.
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5 thoughts on “My Top Tips for Reading Epic Poetry”
I have zero knowledge on poetry, but I’ve always been meaning to explore the medium. Just not sure where to start, apart from the Plaths and Bukowskis I’ve been dabbling over. But your one point made me feel like I could definitely do it, and that’s the bit about relaxing and enjoying myself. Thanks for this reminder!
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Yay! Glad you feel more confident in tackling what is one of my favorite forms. I blame it on reading Anne of Green Gables growing up.
Here’s hoping you dive in at some point! There are a host of possibilities out there stretching across centuries.
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