How to Read A Poem

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

I first began a blog in 2008. It wasn’t this one. Back then I had no idea what I wanted to do with this whole blogging thing (still don’t, but I’m getting closer to the idea). I have about four separate blogs, a ridiculous mess, and I’m putting things into order. For the next few posts on this blog I’ll be transferring some post that were written in 2008, and posted elsewhere. 

In 2002, I had taken a poetry course with a teacher named McDowell at Portland Community College. I actually dropped the class. That had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with me. The following post is from notes I had taken while attending his course. I can’t take credit for all the information, and if I had his full name I would post it here. If anyone happens to know his full name send it my way, and I’ll update this and credit it properly. The notes were all taken by me (by hand even) and they are also adapted into my own language and examples, but the ideas are McDowell’s.

HOW TO READ A POEM

  • Read it all the way through.

What if you don’t get it? Its form is strange, the language isn’t familiar, the imagery is abstract- forget about it- don’t stop reading. Just let it go and read it all the way through from beginning to end- try to relax your mind and just read.

  • Read it again but this time read it out loud.
Poetry like plays are meant to be heard. There are always exceptions to every rule and form but just go with this one for the purpose of the exercise. Of course, some poets may feel that their poem is meant to only be read but so much poetry is meant for the mouth, the sounds that the words make can sometimes reveal meaning that the quiet mind may have missed. I hated Shakespeare till I had a very passionate theatre professor teach a course on Shakespeare. It was an acting course, but he could not impress more that Shakespeare was meant to be heard not read. Once I began reading it out loud slowly without attempting to “Act” it I finally began to understand much of the language.
  • Word by word
A trick in writing poetry is the idea of taking away- Imagine that the poet’s first draft is filled with tons of words swimming aimlessly on the page, with each reread the poet scoops out each unnecessary word that may take away from or slow down the meaning of the poem. There is a definite art to this and I am often awed by the work of a clean and crafted poem. How does the poet find the perfect word or image to convey a thousand meanings or one single thought or idea where so many others end up writing three sentences to try and say the same thing? So what’s this mean? If you don’t know a word look it up. That word, that one word could be a secret key in the telling of the poem besides it can help increase your vocabulary.
  • Look for the Imagery
I love imagery. For me it’s what grounds the poem. The poet is putting the reader right there in the place of the moment, the feeling and the action- read this bit from Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral”
I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
To me that description is so vivid- I can see her hands, her face and also get an idea of the kind of woman she was in life. I’ve never considered myself to be a poet or much of a reader of poetry but the type of prose writing I enjoy reading and writing are often filled with the vivid imagery.
  • Read for Organization
Who is speaking? Who is the poem addressing? Is there a pattern? What is the pattern, does it have anything to do with the meaning? What is the tone? How are all of these elements put together? Take the puzzle apart.
I’ll be honest with you, this is pretty much where I stop and my mind decides I’ve had enough of breaking the poem apart. Unless forced by a grade, I’ve often neglected this part of the process, but if you love poetry and you want more out of the poem going through this process can be very rewarding. When I read the Death of the Ball Turret Gunner  by Randall Jarrell with these questions in mind I felt like so much was revealed to me. I knew the poem was about war- but after reading it with these questions I saw the birth in the poem the purely sad and tragically empty affects of an individual position within a war and what it does to a body. The visual image of there being so little left a person physically that what is left can be washed away with water. That’s powerful.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in it’s belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
  • Read for Technique
The craft of the writer. Metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, meter, rhyme scheme, adaption, adaption of sound to sense and use of symbols.
If I didn’t get through step five you know for sure I didn’t get through step six unless assigned for a course. My mind fought this process until I took a course with David Biespiel at Portland State University. As a teacher he had a way of making poetry come down from it’s lofty elitist cloud of flutes and angels, and stand on the ground in dirty work boots and a human voice of any color, any gender, any class, and suddenly I could see technique. If you happen to live in Portland, Oregon and have the money and the time I recommend taking a course with him at The Attic (or any of the teachers there) or if you are a student at PSU and he is teaching a course you should take it. He has a wonderful way of removing the fear out of the poem. “Poetry is for the working class”.  He’s a pretty great poet too. Still, that doesn’t mean I am such a disciplined reader that I always look to find the techniques, but if you want to explore your poem at this level like I mentioned in the above step you can make some very rewarding discoveries.
    • Read it with all the above– I’m just going to quote McDowell’s bullet point here:
  • Often a poet will go through dozens of drafts of a poem before allowing it to be read by anyone else, much less published. Dylan Thomas often went through 80 or 100 drafts. You can be assured that if you are alert, you’ll gain more from another reading. Poems aren’t like newspapers, to be read once and then tossed into the recycling bin. Each year you’re a different person; you’ll find that when you return to poems read years before, the good poems will seem to be telling you exactly those things you learned in the interim; they’ll seem like different poems. Every poet, every age, every country, every emotion, every climate, every language, every temperament produces different types of poetry. If you don’t like a poem, do it the justice to find out what about it you don’t like, and then move on to a different kind of poem.
I’d just like to add: if you want to figure out why you don’t like a poem take the time to figure out why you don’t like it, but if it doesn’t appeal to you don’t strain yourself to find out why- maybe you just don’t like it. If you are new to poetry find a poem you like and put your love into discovering why you love it, and then if you go on to be a lover of poetry maybe one day you will stumble across that poem you turned away, and perhaps this time you will see it differently. In the interim maybe you’ll learn some new things that make you feel that you want to put your energy into finding out why it doesn’t appeal to you or maybe you still just don’t like it. What I’d like to emphasis is don’t let go of the idea of poetry even if you’ve read a hundred poems and you never liked them maybe somewhere out there is a poem with your name on it. Remain open to the art form, one day it will speak to you and to you alone.
Speaking of difficult poetry I’ve often struggled with Sylvia Plath stumbling over her metaphors. Most of the time I feel I miss the meaning, but even getting one poem is incredibly rewarding to me so I’ll leave you with one I “got”.
Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

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