First Encounters

January 25, 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 in the past 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 takes 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, that first encounter is usually a kind of blur, a necessary beginning.  To begin with, I know only what it looks like on the page–whether it’s long or short, block or stanzas, uses long, medium, or short lines.  As I begin to read I’m listening first for the poem’s music, whether it’s meter or free verse.  Then I get a sense of its voice, and I notice vivid images.  I’m trolling for something that will make me want to stay. 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, 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.

There are no poems here as examples this time.  Just think about your own reading of a poem, and maybe make some notes.  What draws you in?  What keeps you out?  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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  • Reply Annie January 25, 2023 at 6:48 pm

    This exercise sounds fascinating to me. I do have an expectation that a poem should captivate me quickly into the process. But then I feel guilty and even foolish when I study with a class a poem I discarded previously and realize what I “might” have missed if I hadn’t revisited. Still, one only has so much time.

    Your process of “First Encountering” a poem is well organized and thorough. I am going to try it out tonight.

    • Reply Sharon January 25, 2023 at 7:40 pm

      Thank you. The same thing happens to me. Sometimes I argue with a poet for years before I see things from a different angle.

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