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.)

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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.

Continue reading “Notes on How to Read a Poem”

Commemorating Mormonism and/through Poetry

One-hundred eighty-two years ago today, Joseph Smith officially organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since then, as most of you know, it has grown exponentially. A flourishing culture of arts and letters has accompanied this growth.

As you may also know, April is National Poetry Month. Inaugurated in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, this month is intended—among other things—to raise the profile of poetry in American culture.

My intention with this post is to commemorate both of these events by announcing a new website—my newest online venture—that explores the intersection between Mormonism and poetry. The website: Fire in the Pasture: Mormon Poets / Poetries / Poetics. Here’s a little bit about the site (from the About page): Continue reading “Commemorating Mormonism and/through Poetry”

Poetry in Print — April 2011

After four years of preparing this bibliography of poetry by Mormons in print for National Poetry Month, I thought I might have discovered most of the poets and books out there. However, this year I’ve discovered several more that I missed, and began the process of looking back through the Mormon journals to see who I may have missed.

Continue reading “Poetry in Print — April 2011”

Introduction to the Mysteries

(or “¦ How to Read a Poem)
by P. G. Karamesines

First, kiddo, disperse that obvious shadow:
To read is not to know.  To read
Is to listen from your quiet place
To the teasing laughter of some new voice.
Listening requires aptitude for not knowing. Continue reading “Introduction to the Mysteries”

Psalm & Selah: new poetry from an old source (an interview with Mark Bennion)

I’ve always loved the story of Abish. I love it because it’s about a woman–a righteous woman, a woman with a name–who makes a big difference through her small acts of righteousness. I also love to tell people it’s my favorite scripture story and watch for traces of panic while they try to figure out who I’m talking about. That’s how I knew Mark Bennion was the kind of poet I could relate to. When I picked up my most recent Irreantum and found Bennion’s poem about Abish (and her father) I was intrigued and, while Bennion’s work is not the only poem written about her (Emily Milner’s poem featured in Segullah is an especially nice one), it brought new relevance to an old story. Bennion has a collection coming out in June from Parables Publishing and he graciously agreed to tell me more about it! Continue reading “Psalm & Selah: new poetry from an old source (an interview with Mark Bennion)”

Weekend Poetry: excerpt from Orson F. Whitney’s “Love and the Light”

So by now, most of you probably are aware of the origins of the name A Motley Vision. But the excerpt there is only part of Whitney’s description of the Grand Canyon, and because I wrote a senior thesis on it (and other instances of red rock poetry), and because I’m also (slowly) working on a Mormon-themed critical essay on it, I have the full description in my possession. Here it is. Enjoy!

Excerpt from Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland
by Orson F. Whitney

Chief among the sights compelling
Mingled awe and admiration,
Far along a great gulf opened,
Monster-jawed, as though devouring
In its wide voracious vastness,
In its Saturn-mouth, unsated
As the hungry deeps of Sheol,
Storm-stuck, down-hurled cities, temples,
In its fell maw crusht and crumbling.

Cleft and sundered Earth there yawning
O’er abysmal dark Perdition!
Fancied so the spelled beholder,
Halting on the marge precarious
Of that ghoul-like gulf appalling.

Savage scar on face of Nature,
Weird and terrible as Hades;
Gaping wound in God’s creation,
Awful, dread, beyond description,
Beggaring imagination. Continue reading “Weekend Poetry: excerpt from Orson F. Whitney’s “Love and the Light””

Weekend Poetry: “To Eve–with Emapthy across the Years”

This is the first poem I remember reading in The Ensign and liking. It also appears to have been part of the last set of poems for the last year of the Eliza R. Snow contest, which ran during the 1970s and ’80s and ended in 1992. I read this poem as part of a sacrament meeting talk a few years ago.

It’s not the best poem. It contains no amazing images or turns of phrases. It’s structure is simple and rather loose. It ends a bit tritely. And yet even as corny as that ending couplet is, I find it comforting in its patience and surety. And the poem served me well when I was struggling to write a talk on women and sorrow.

To Eve–with Empathy across the Years

By Shirley Adwena Harvey

Ensign, July 1992, 49

You laid the garment aside
And stood to rest stiff shoulders–
How pleased Abel would be
At touch of the soft, supple leather.
From the door you could see the fields,
Quiet in midday sun.
The harvest had been good
And the flocks were fat. Continue reading “Weekend Poetry: “To Eve–with Emapthy across the Years””