On Reading Poetry

I’m in a Writing Workshop class right now with 14 other people.  Whenever you put a group of people together, there’s always someone short of social intelligence (rumor has it that if you can’t identify that person, then you ARE that person).  Of the 15 people in class, I am the only one working on poetry–everyone else is working on a short story.  In fact, there is a disdain for poetry coming from these very vocal people:

“I can never figure out why the apple can’t be an apple.  The writer says it’s an apple, I believe it to be an apple.”

“I excel at missing the deeper meaning of things.  If it’s deep, I’m sure to miss it.”

This next one is my favorite.  Read it out loud in a high, screechy voice with a touch of whine to hear what I heard.  “I don’t even try.  It’s too hard and I never understand it.  What’s a person supposed to do with it anyways?” and then repeat the above quote after counting to ten.

High quality…this discussion on poetry…high quality.

But the truth of the matter is that poetry is hard.  Not all of it, but as a genre, it is more often a brain activity than escapism (like fiction or movies).  When we see a poem that’s 16 lines long, we think that we can read it quickly, get it, and move on with life in a short matter of time–like a youtube video.  But, like a Rubics-Cube, there is a system or a method that makes poetry accessible if the reader is willing to invest the time.  Here are the steps:

  1. Read the poem slowly.  Not painstakingly slow but not skim-scan-speedy like a lot of people read.  Pay attention to the tone of the words and the type of verbs that are use.  Read the sentences like you would a sentence–don’t pause after everyline unless there’s punctuation because it can break up the thought so much that you lose it.
  2. No go back and read the poem one stanza at a time.  What is actually happening in that stanza?  Are there any words that don’t fit the description or action that would suggest a deeper meaning?  Is the thought in the stanza a continuation of the previous one or something new?
  3. Go back a third time and read the poem one line at a time.  How does that line stand on its own?  Does it feed into the next line?  What images come from that line?
  4. By now, you are getting pretty familiar with the poem and should be able to identify the tone (attitude and emotion) presented.  This helps in getting at what the writer may be communicating.
  5. Finally, most poems come down to an epiphany or an emotion/experience.  Which is it in this poem?  What universal idea is the poet communicating?  What meaning does it have in your life?

There you have it.  Easier said than done, I know.  And yes, it does take practice.  So, being a teacher and all, I will walk through a poem by Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets because one of his goals is to show people that poetry is accessible and worthwhile.  I will be writing about his poem titled “Introduction to Poetry.” Click on the link and go read the poem.  It isn’t spam and I can’t reprint it here without permission or a lawsuit.  Really.  Go read it.  Thanks.  And now for my thoughts.

  1. An initial read reveals an “I” and a “them” in some sort of instructive setting–we can assume a college classroom because Collins is a professor.  Looking at the title as a part of the piece, he is obviously introducing poetry to a class.  This poem is his desire and their response.  Simple enough.  Let’s look at each stanza.
  2. The first stanza compares reading a poem to observing slides without a projector.  You have to hold it up, look closely, and try to identify the objects in the picture.  The biggest thing with looking at slides this way is to get the big picture, as details would be nearly impossible.  The key sense is vision.  The second stanza is only one line but Collins challenges his students, now the reader (tricky huh?) to listen to the poem like we would a bee hive.  Does it hum?  Is it loud?  Just a little buzz?  What sounds come from a poem?  Rhyme and rhythm affect a poem.  Is it sing songy or does it feel like you’ve taken too much allergy medicine?  What is the poet trying to communicate with the sounds?  The third stanza says to watch a mouse work his way out of it.  What is it mice work out of?  C’mon, use your thinker.  A maze.  A maze, generally speaking, is considered a type of…think back to my rubics cube comment earlier…some are flat and come in different piece counts…rhymes with nuzzle…if you said puzzle you are right!!  The best way to make it through a puzzle (poem) is piece by piece (line by line) instead of digesting the whole thing at once.  Just like a maze when you don’t have the end in sight.  Again, use your eyes and brain.  The following stanza challenges us, I mean the students, to use the sense of touch.  Feel around the poem–what sensations are there?  The fifth stanza takes us on an experience by mentioning waterskiing.  I hate waterskiing because I ‘ve never been successful at it.  But for most people, it is a fun activity.  My wife for one loves it.  Poetry should be a fun challenge worth tackling, waving to the spectators in that moment of success.  The last two stanzas have drastically different verbs and images–being tied to a chair and tortured as if the poem were being held hostage.  People are so bent on finding the deeper meaning that they beat the poem up trying to find it rather than just using the senses (and sense) to experience what the author is presenting.
  3. I’m not going to go line by line because the post is getting long, but many lines are simple commands or desires for reading poems. (I want them to waterskii)
  4. The tone in the first half is exploratory, fun, adventurous, and maybe even a bit scientific.  The second half is brutal, harsh, painful, and destructive.
  5. So what is Collins’ experience?  That students want so much to have the answer that they miss the journey.  Slow down, have fun, read what the poet is writing instead of treating it like a pinata.  This idea can be applied to life in general instead of just reading poetry.  If we aren’t taking the time to see what’s around, listen to the sounds of our days, feeling flower petals and weed pricklies, then we are just tying life to a chair, demanding it give us joy and meaning.

So there we have it, an introduction on reading poetry.  I’ll work on some more poems.  Until then, check out poetry180.


4 thoughts on “On Reading Poetry

  1. Like the post and the poem, I tried reading like you suggested.

    Your last comment on experience struck a cord with me, so often I see students rushing to get the “correct” answer and not aware of how they got it or as you say the journey to the answer. I worked with an ELD teacher last year who was constantly telling his students it didn’t matter if what the answer was but how they arrived at the answer. So often with kids learning English we just nod at them or help them with the answer, this takes away their power as learners. Jeff would say that kids will change their answers by watching your face and body language, even if they were correct the first time, they don’t trust themselves. He did a wodnerful job of getting his students to slow down and to think about what they were doing, the process they were going through to get the answer. It’s too bad that in this testing climate the answer is the main goal of so many, not the journey.

    THanks for the post. Good luck with the rest of class.

  2. I LOVED reading this poem. Thanks for the link to it. Unfortunately, I’m now caught up in a world where poetry primarily revolves around Mother Goose. I’m not complaining. I’m thankful that Sonlight actually does seek to introduce our little ones to great literature, to include poetry. “Favorite Poems of Childhood” is a pretty good resource for their ages. But it’s been ages since I enjoyed “grown-up” poetry, and I confess, it’s not something I reach for during my few minutes of free reading time. Reading your post (and Mr. Collins’ poem) reminds me of the fact that I truly do enjoy poetry, and I miss it.

  3. Great explanation, and thanks for the link to the Collins poem. That “tied to a chair” analogy of his is spot on. It’s actually reassuring to know that I’m not alone in my exasperation.

    I’ll be back. 🙂

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