Monday, October 8, 2007

How to Read a Poem

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:

A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists

The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived

Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,

Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,

Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.

We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

-Man Carrying Thing, Wallace Stevens

What’s different about a poem? Let’s not belabor the question in this small space. Here’s some improper answers: it uses metaphors, it’s short, it has special form, it has a recognizable rhythm or meter, and the kicker… it rhymes.

I’m squeezing open the pages of my crackling new Best of American Poetry, 2007 and trying to discern a distinguishing poetic marker. Just when I thought I had one, I turned the page and found a stunner that had absolutely no properties close to anything on my ever changing criteria-list. Then I remembered the image I had formed from just a few lines in a poem by Jane Hirshfield, entitled Critique of Pure Reason:

Let reason flow like water around a stone, the stone remains.
A dog catching a tennis ball lobbed into darkness
Holds her breath silent, to keep the descent in her ears.

You can reflect on that thought picture for a lifetime. Granted, it was planted neatly within the context of a powerful poem, but still, the image holds up on its own. It has to. Poetry gives you very little time to make mistakes. It’s got to grab you on an impulse and somehow find a place outside of (or at least alongside) reason and reasoning. As Wallace Stevens writes, it must resist the intelligence almost successfully.

When you come to that three-liner in Hirshfield’s poem, or shortly thereafter, you lose a breath before comprehending the full import of how and why you lost that breath. That’s the power in the stroke, the torque in the engine of poetry. And to fully appreciate it, you have to give in to the temptation of having it all right there on your plate at that very instant: green peas, corn on the cob and a steak, medium rare. You have to be willing to sit there, reading, without any kind of a clue, but anticipating the grand possibility of somehow getting a clue. Sooner or later you just may.

To have a clue, reading very good poetry must be swallowed whole. Don’t sit there chewing away, gumming the food and trying to figure out if you like it (I’m not talking about fast food here, but fine cuisine). Most people know within seconds if they’ve got a really big fish on the line. The pole goes down and you get a tug. The response? Any self-respecting angler will exclaim in glee and start reeling away like a lunatic.

So, I’m suggesting, when you read poetry, do just that. Read it. It’s that simple. Don’t cerebrum your way through it, asking: what does this mean? What does that imply, what is the author trying to tell me? Oh dear, that poet must be in a very dark place… no, that poet can’t be talking about a real life experience, etc. There's plenty of time for that later. Sometimes you just have to swallow before chewing.

There are other similar pitfalls. George Szirtes, in an insightful essay in the latest issue of Poetry Magazine (October, 2007), comments on a popular confusion that ‘bedevils’ the reading of poetry:

"…it [the confusion] involves the reading of poetry primarily in order to find out about the poet as a person in real life. This involves reading the poem as symptom or evidence. Poetry is useless as evidence. As far as I know, no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court."

I think one begins to see this operating in an online forum. Communities that are organized around poetry on the internet abound. Folks begin to become familiar with each other and suddenly poets are being sympathized with and counseled through their poems. Further, and interestingly, authors in this milieu often morph into a symbiotic relationship with their newfound observers, and begin to write poems that are shaped by the demands and reactions of others. Perhaps this will spawn its own 21st Century variety of fascinating poetry, but for now, it lurks as a danger to creativity for both the writer and the reader.

So what are you to do after you’ve breezed zenfully through a poem? You could ask yourself the following question (just for fun!) How do I feel? Here are some choices, circle at least one: sad, happy, perplexed, exalted, or even apathetic (a valid emotion). But don’t tell me you don’t feel anything. If that happened very often to you, I’d probably have never gotten you past the first paragraph of this essay. After all, we are talking about poetry here, not linear equations.

Some more options. You can always go back and reread the poem to see if your initial impressions are bolstered or amplified or diminished in some way. See if you learn anything new about the poem, or about yourself. See if an image fills out, a thought comes into better focus. See if you suddenly remember an incident or sound or reaction hearkening back to experience. Perhaps a thought sequence is jarred in your recollection.

Do you like the poem? If not, no worries. On to the dishes or a mystery novel. But if you like it, you may find yourself a little more open to understanding why you like it. That’s an interesting proposition and one that matters, I think. Maybe you’ll bookmark the poem and try to find other ones by this poet online or in a bookstore. Maybe you’ll write your own poem with a newfound perspective afforded by this poet’s work (secret: that’s how good poets write good poems!).

After all is said and done, my guess is, you won’t be impressed by the logic of the poem or the didactic way in which it presented in linear, irrefutable arguments (admittedly, there are such poems). Szirtes, in his essay, develops a rather compelling case for jettisoning reason as a primary tool for appreciating poetry (note here, this is not advocating the expulsion of meaning in poetry, quite the oppositie). He makes the following bold assertion:

"[the confusion involves] the reading of poetry as articulated intention; that is to say, imagining that the poet intended to mean some specific bare thing, then sat down to dress it up in pretty, graceful, elegant forms that you could then strip away to find the naked meaning. Fancy talk."

He goes on to make the point that such ‘plain speech,’ if it really existed, is not of much use in poetry. “Tell me what you really mean, the plain-spoken demand,” he argues, “the poet has a broad subject, but he cannot know what line or what word will come next in his poem. The poet listens as intently as he speaks and sings.”

This is perhaps revolutionary to some, and may elicit a knee-jerk reaction in poetry readers who do not want to abrogate meaning in text. I’m very sympathetic. Yet, I don’t think Szirtes is trying to convince us that poets don’t care about meaning! Quite the opposite. Yet, the purpose of poetry is not to convince or prove from premise on through to conclusion. We have other forms for that. I think a poem takes on a fragrance in reading, acquires its own shape and color and texture. To give it a pro forma look, bottled and ready to distribute, would be to kill the poem before it has one minute to breathe.

Poets do care about meaning. However, speaking as a poet who tries to communicate some very discrete ideas in his poems and hopefully identify emotions and observations that convey meaning in experience, I think I can still see the importance of decrying reason as the ultimate arbiter of understanding in the reading of poetry. How many poets, after all, will fall on the sword of their own explication? Not many, I think. That is to say, if pinned down (and I have been… more times than I care to think about), they will spew you their nuggets out of one side of the mouth, then, from the other, on a different day, or in a different mood, give you quite another explanation. This is no secret. And there is no shame in it.

Perhaps even more illuminating, however, is the observation that average run-of-the-mill spectacular poets will allow you to get away with a pretty wide band of interpretation of their vaunted metaphor and argument, if you insist on describing them in those terms.

Bottom line (and here’s where I’ll probably get chopped to pieces and spit out like a bad poem), most poets I know will be very satisfied that you are satisfied with their poems- even if you come up with some fantastic new gem that they never had one inkling of, while writing it (unless it relates to your cat). Life is short, and you write a poem, stick it out there, and hope it makes a splash somewhere. It’s not an essay and it’s not a sermon. Well, I suppose some are, but I’m not tackling that one today!

Thus, poetry is fluid, not static. Poems are water, not ice. They should be read with observation and sensitivity, realizing that they may die tomorrow, then be revived a month later by the taxi driver who reads a haiku waiting for a rider, or the professor trying to explain a bloody Shakespearean sonnet to dumbfounded students with slumping heads. Or, maybe they only live for one ephemeral blinding moment in your heart. For many, that’s enough.

EDN, October, 2007


  1. This is a very interesting essay. I will come back to it later when I have more time to read. This aspect of poetry appreciation should also be taken into the record - where many people when reading poetry are also surfing the net while at work or what have you.


  2. Thank you very much, Didi and for that excellent suggestion

  3. Edward, this is such fantastic insight. As a Lit student I have been exposed to various instructions on how to read poetry, now if poetry was some kind of gadget I'd understand, but it isn't so I never really figured out those instructions. I love how you've written this it is quite engaging. As for me, I react to poetry, I remember after reading Allen Ginsberg I took some time reorienting myself to where I was. It is quite an emotional experience for me, poetry. Writing it gives me much joy yes, but not as much as reading it and watching some images come to life, be they good/bad or particularly morbid. I join the poem and savour it. Recommendation, do try and read Ranjit Hoskote's work I think he is brilliant.

    Shruthi (Gather)

  4. Thank you for this post, I found it very interesting as an English poet I find that sometimes that we can sometimes forget the very thing that makes it a poem its sound and rythem. The viseral evocation of image by the use of sound and the pulse of the poem can be forgotten in the rush to deconstruct and examine the nature of each splinter of it. Sometimes we may come away from a poem with microscopically observed splinters but the beautiful bridge and the sound of our feet upon it is lost.

  5. Sorry I commited the terrible crime of mispelling rhythm.Please put it down to a hard day at the office that has increased my dyslexia quotient and a power cut that means I am typing in the encircling gloom.


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