Notes on How to Read a Poem

National Poetry Month 2014
(Poster design: Chip Kidd)
Click image for PDF copy of the poster.
I’m of two minds about National Poetry Month.

In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.

In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.

Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.

The following essay appears as the prologue in my book, Field Notes on Language on Kinship. My ideas (in the essay and in the book) are informed to a great degree by Patricia’s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).” (Listen to Laura’s stunning performance of Patricia’s poem here.)

* * *

Notes on How to Read a Poem

Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my forte.

Besides the line break that says, “Hey, you’re looking at poetry,” several other characteristics give this student’s language the quality of a poem, things that exist in the statement independent of the way I’ve represented the line on the page. The t‘s, p‘s, n‘s, and r‘s that hold the vowels in place and run the tongue from syllable to syllable. The aural interplay between the first syllable of “interpreting” and “is” as it slides into “not,” a connection that underscores the student’s lack of confidence as an interpreter of poems. The statement’s dynamic rhythm structure that rushes the tongue through “interpreting poetry” then slows it down to emphasize and give force to the idea that interpretation is not the student’s forte. The internal rhyme of –ing and –try that calls attention to the statement’s first two words before that attention gets shifted to the slant rhyme between these two long e‘s and the final syllable of “forte.” This slant rhyme overturns the expectations we may have for the couplet’s rhyme structure; it also makes the couplet sound a bit more sophisticated than a true rhyme might come across, as in, for instance, this more sing-songy rendition:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my cup of tea.

Some people will say I’m over-thinking things, that the confession was just a confession, no more and no less, and that the student never intended any of the above, so leave her/him alone already. And while I agree that the student likely never intended anything like what I’ve described, by spending time with this student’s confession since s/he spoke it those years ago, by entering into and exploring its landscape, I’ve become acquainted with its inherent poetic qualities, which are less a matter of the student’s lyric intentions and more a matter of language use itself. By which I mean that this student may have had little training in how to read or write a poem, but there are certain aspects of language–its sound and syntactic structures, for instance–that, as the saying goes, can sometimes make us poets even if we don’t know it. As unintentional poetry, then, this student’s statement becomes a bit ironic, as if s/he were saying, “Poetry’s not my thing, but that doesn’t mean I can’t admit to it by speaking poetically.”

My response to the confession at the time it was confessed was much less involved. As another student in the class–one who took the study of poetry seriously–I heard the statement as an out, as if this student had said, “Don’t expect much from me when it comes to these poems: I don’t get poetry and, honestly, don’t care to learn how to get poetry.” I suppose the confession could also have been intended to give the class, the professor especially, a frame of reference within which to assess the student’s response to any given poem. In this light, the subtext of the confession becomes: “Don’t judge me (or grade me) harshly if my interpretation is off: I’m not an experienced reader of poetry.” Of course, this still allows the student to aim low in her/his interpretive performance, but it also gestures toward a willingness to at least try poetry, to step into some poems and poke around a bit. Ideally taking up this process would help the student develop sensitivity for the various ways there are to experience a poem and poetic language.

Because reading poetry, I’ve learned, isn’t always about interpreting poems, even though the urge to interpret or to intellectualize is often our default response to a poem. American poet and professor Billy Collins laments how relying only on this reaction can keep readers from the pleasures of poetry, from fully inhabiting the sensual experience of a poem. Rather than engage or challenge the senses, he says in his poem “Introduction to Poetry” (text / audio) the only thing many readers want to do with a poem is tie it “to a chair” so they can “torture a confession out of it.” Once it’s secured, he says, “They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” But interrogating poems to find out what they really mean isn’t any way to experience poetry. Granted, interrogation does get answers, but it gets them through violence: by provoking and manipulating the interrogated party. And being so worked over only injures and puts the interrogated on the defensive. It closes off potential pathways to understanding, kinship, and communion because violence, provocation, and manipulation are no grounds for a fertile relationship.

Hence Patricia Karamesines’ advice in “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem),” which rejects the sometimes violent disposition for epistemological certainty maintained by Collins’ interrogator-readers: the impatience to know all there is to know about a poem, to possess its secrets by interrogating and, in the process, possessing its language. Instead, Patricia favors communing with a poem on its own terms, inhabiting its environment with an ear to its movements, its silences, its breath. She favors developing a kinship with the poem and the poet by giving way to the poem’s language. In such encounters, she says, to read a poem “is not to know” or to possess the poem’s secrets. “To read / is to listen from your quiet place / to the teasing laughter of some new voice” as it rises from and trails through a poem as through “a forest,” stirring the sediment of desire and memory. “To read . . . is to stand with” this voice and “to move” as it moves, to let its sounding break across your soul, to let the desire aroused by the exchange shape your response to the poem, to others, to the world. But above all, to read is “never to know” the poem completely; it’s “only ever to follow what calls” when your pulse synchronizes with the poem’s pulse and the parallel movement evokes, among other things, desire, memories, transformation, language, kinship.

From this perspective reading a poem isn’t about being a skilled interpreter, which is what the student’s confession I’ve explored suggests. Neither is it about the attitude underlying that suggestion, which attitude Collins laments: that reading poetry means interrogating a poem until it breaks. No, it’s about moving through and giving way to the poem’s language. It’s about listening to how the poem speaks as much as to what it says, entering its structures of syntax and sound in order to get a feel for the space it creates, to begin filling that space with personal experience, and to be filled by the way that space interacts with the body and mind. It’s about seeing language not as a tool used only to leverage meaning into or out of an act of communication but as a dynamic environment our species inhabits, co-constructs, and explores as we move through, adapt to, and create our always changing world.

(Cross-posted here.)

3 thoughts on “Notes on How to Read a Poem”

  1. Very nice. I think it’s a very good question whether thematic, or even stylistic, interpretation is really a good way to build one’s capacity to appreciate (or create) poetry. Certainly I think it’s likely that our appreciation for poetry has been skewed toward that which responds well to our chosen methods of interpretation/criticism. Which is probably not an altogether good thing.

  2. I just interpret poetry unashamedly according to my own filter of experience and thought. OH well 🙂 I enjoy poetry that I enjoy. That’s what it is. Then figure out why I enjoy it.

    I struggle with the sort of trend that seems to be going lately–poetry that is purposely odd or whose sole purpose seems to be to interrupt conventions. Also, I struggle with really wordy, or epic, poetry. I like my poems short, potent, concentrated… images that are created elegantly with few words.

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