In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clintonâ€™s administration) â€œto 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 educationâ€ (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 canâ€™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 â€œthe lives of all Americansâ€ and that â€œaffects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and developmentâ€ (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 â€œthe worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,â€ two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought Iâ€™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 Patriciaâ€™s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem â€œIntroduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).â€ (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 â€œInterpreting poetry is not my forte.â€ The studentâ€™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, â€œHey, youâ€™re looking at poetry,â€ several other characteristics give this studentâ€™s language the quality of a poem, things that exist in the statement independent of the way Iâ€™ve represented the line on the page. The tâ€™s, pâ€™s, nâ€™s, and râ€™s that hold the vowels in place and run the tongue from syllable to syllable. The aural interplay between the first syllable of â€œinterpretingâ€ and â€œisâ€ as it slides into â€œnot,â€ a connection that underscores the studentâ€™s lack of confidence as an interpreter of poems. The statementâ€™s dynamic rhythm structure that rushes the tongue through â€œinterpreting poetryâ€ then slows it down to emphasize and give force to the idea that interpretation is not the studentâ€™s forte. The internal rhyme of –ing and –try that calls attention to the statementâ€™s first two words before that attention gets shifted to the slant rhyme between these two long eâ€™s and the final syllable of â€œforte.â€ This slant rhyme overturns the expectations we may have for the coupletâ€™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 Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve described, by spending time with this studentâ€™s confession since s/he spoke it those years ago, by entering into and exploring its landscape, Iâ€™ve become acquainted with its inherent poetic qualities, which are less a matter of the studentâ€™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 languageâ€”its sound and syntactic structures, for instanceâ€”that, as the saying goes, can sometimes make us poets even if we donâ€™t know it. As unintentional poetry, then, this studentâ€™s statement becomes a bit ironic, as if s/he were saying, â€œPoetryâ€™s not my thing, but that doesnâ€™t mean I canâ€™t admit to it by speaking poetically.â€
My response to the confession at the time it was confessed was much less involved. As another student in the classâ€”one who took the study of poetry seriouslyâ€”I heard the statement as an out, as if this student had said, â€œDonâ€™t expect much from me when it comes to these poems: I donâ€™t get poetry and, honestly, donâ€™t care to learn how to get poetry.â€ 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 studentâ€™s response to any given poem. In this light, the subtext of the confession becomes: â€œDonâ€™t judge me (or grade me) harshly if my interpretation is off: Iâ€™m not an experienced reader of poetry.â€ 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, Iâ€™ve learned, isnâ€™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 â€œIntroduction to Poetryâ€ (text / audio) the only thing many readers want to do with a poem is tie it â€œto a chairâ€ so they can â€œtorture a confession out of it.â€ Once itâ€™s secured, he says, â€œThey begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.â€ But interrogating poems to find out what they really mean isnâ€™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 Karamesinesâ€™ advice in â€œIntroduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem),â€ which rejects the sometimes violent disposition for epistemological certainty maintained by Collinsâ€™ 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 poemâ€™s language. In such encounters, she says, to read a poem â€œis not to knowâ€ or to possess the poemâ€™s secrets. â€œTo read / is to listen from your quiet place / to the teasing laughter of some new voiceâ€ as it rises from and trails through a poem as through â€œa forest,â€ stirring the sediment of desire and memory. â€œTo read . . . is to stand withâ€ this voice and â€œto moveâ€ 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 â€œnever to knowâ€ the poem completely; itâ€™s â€œonly ever to follow what callsâ€ when your pulse synchronizes with the poemâ€™s pulse and the parallel movement evokes, among other things, desire, memories, transformation, language, kinship.
From this perspective reading a poem isnâ€™t about being a skilled interpreter, which is what the studentâ€™s confession Iâ€™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, itâ€™s about moving through and giving way to the poemâ€™s language. Itâ€™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. Itâ€™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.