Getting to Know a Poem

January 9, 2023

  Here again is the post from two weeks ago, when something went wrong with the zoom link.  Fingers crossed that it will work this time.

This week I want to try something a little different.  Most of the poems I’ve posted here are ones I know well or at least know a little.  But what I’d like to talk about this week is that first encounter with a poem–what it looks like and feels like, how you decide to keep reading or skip it, how the poem take you in and you take it in.  So I’ve picked a few poems without reading them, and I won’t post them here, just share my screen during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion, and we can take them on together.

For me, the first reading is usually a kind of blur, a first encounter, a necessary beginning.  At first glance I know only what it looks like on the page–long or short, block or stanzas, long, medium or short lines.  When I begin to read I know almost nothing–maybe I can tell  whether it’s free verse or meter, what the voice sounds like, a little of what’s happening, and any vivid images.  As brief and superficial as that first reading is, I’m not going to read the poem again unless something pulls me in–the poem’s music, an image, a compelling speaking voice (voice of the poem, not the poet), language that sparks, lines that are taut, not slack (whether it’s meter or free verse), a surprising thought.  If I don’t find any of that, if the poem is spouting clichés, if it feels plodding rather than energetic, I’m already on to the next.

If something does grab me, I’ll read more slowly the second time, noticing the title and thinking about how it might connect to the poem as I go.  I’ll be paying more attention to the images, and to what the poem is actually saying.  Then I’ll read it another time or two, trying to get it whole in my mind.  Next I’m going to pay attention to where it takes place–in the speaker’s head, or in an external scene?  Does it stay in one place or move around?  And where is it in time–in present tense, a few moments?  Or  does it move from the present, to memories of the past, then back to the present?  Is it a sort of fairy tale or fable, where time is irrelevant?

Somewhere in here I’m going to look up any words I don’t know, or that I have a sense are used in a particular way in the poem.  And I’m going to look up other elements of context I think might be helpful.  Every time I do I’m going to read the poem again, seeing how the new information illuminates it.

Then I’m going to read it again, and read it aloud again, and probably read the book it’s a part of, and maybe everything that poet has written.  But for now let’s stick with one poem at a time.

So there are no poems here as examples.  Just think about your own reading of a poem, and maybe make some notes.  I’ll bring 4 or 5 poems I haven’t read to this week’s discussion, and we’ll trying going through these steps as we read them a first time and a second and a third.  I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Hermine January 9, 2023 at 9:52 pm

    I’m a very visceral reader, particularly in my first and early readings. It’s all about the feeling and sound/music of the poem that moves me, draws me in. There are also images that capture me and are so central to the poem…..I think for example of the two horses together in the same paddock in “Linda Gregg’s poem The Weight”…..or the images in Bishop’s sestina……

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