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6.3: Reading Poetry

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  • Reading Poetry

    Tea Time, Poetry, Coffee, Reading

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    Muriel Rukeyser says in The Life of Poetry that in order to successfully read a poem, we must give a poem “a total response.” This means giving it all of our attention, taking it in slowly, reading it several times. It means listening to the poem openly, without judgment, and without projecting our own assumed meanings onto it, but rather as Ruykeyser writes, coming “to the emotional meanings at every moment.” As she explains, “That is one reason for the high concentration of music, in poetry.”

    To come to emotional meanings at every moment means to adjust and react to the way a poem takes shape with every word, every line, every sentence, every stanza. Each poem creates its own universe as it moves from line to line. It is a universe that Ruykeyser describes as the “universe of emotional truth.” So how exactly does one listen with his or her emotions?

    Reading is one of the most intimate forms of connection we can have with someone. We take their words—their breath—into ourselves. We shape the words with our own bodies and, too, give them life with our own breath. Reading poetry, we breathe in what a poet breathes out. We share breath. The words and their meanings become part of our body as they move through our mind, triggering sensations in our bodies that lead to thoughts. And through this process, we have experiences that are new and that change us as much as any other experience can.

    Poetry is a condensed art form that produces an experience in a reader through words. And though words may appear visually as symbols on the page, the experience that poems produce in us is much more physical and direct. The elements of poetry permit a poet to control many aspects of language—tone, pace, rhythm, sound—as well as language’s effects: images, ideas, sensations. These elements give power to the poet to shape a reader’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience of the poem. Because form and function are so closely intertwined, it is impossible to paraphrase a poem. When I was an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport, my first poetry teacher Anthony Piccione used to say, “A poem is what a poem does.” This is why we must read poems with full concentration and focus more than once. It is why we must read them out loud. It is why we must be attentive to every aspect of the poem on both ends: as a writer, and as a reader.

    Readers come to the page with different backgrounds and a range of different experiences with poetry, but it is how we read a poem that determines our experience of it. By “read” I do not mean understand or analyze, but rather, the actual process of coming to the poem, ingesting its lines, and responding emotionally.

    Be a Good Listener

    Jackrabbit, Rabbit, Listening, Still

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    I’m willing to bet that all of us have heard someone described as a “a good listener” in our lifetimes. Well, what is it that makes someone a good listener? List the qualities we associate with good listening skills and share your experiences of people who demonstrate these skills. In contrast, what makes someone a “bad listener”? How can we relate these concepts to reading a poem?

    Being a good listener requires many of the same traits as being a good reader. When we listen to someone speak, we listen to their emotions and ideas through meaning and tone, body gestures, and emphasized words. We do not judge. We do not interrupt. We may touch the speaker’s arm to express care. We certainly use facial expressions and gestures to let the speaker know we are listening and understanding, that we are advancing emotionally alongside them with each turn of the story. Before offering advice, condolences, or other reactions, we as listeners try to see their perspective and its complexities from their side. We take our identities out of the equation and place their concerns in the middle of our attention.

    Every poem has a speaker that seeks connection with a listener. A poet seeks to create an emotional experience in the reader through the poem’s process, just as if a friend—or stranger—were telling an intense story. Unlike a person speaking, who can use the entire body to gesture, poetry has only a voice to rely on to speak. Yet the poem seeks to speak to a reader as if it had a body. The poem uses rhythm, pauses, stresses, inflections, and different speeds to engage the listener’s body. As readers, it is our role to listen to the speaker of the poem and to embody the words the speaker speaks with our own self as if we are the ones who’ve spoken. We as readers identify with the speaker, with the voice of the poem. We listen with what John Keats called a “negative capability,” meaning we are capable of erasing our own identity and ego in order to imagine what it is like to take on another. Although Keats used the term to apply to the writing side of poetry, it is useful to consider the concept in terms of the reading side of the equation, as well.

    A big mistake novice readers of poetry make is assuming that they can get the meaning of a poem by reading it just once. Since a poem is condensed language, the meaning reveals itself slowly, unfolding a bit at a time after multiple readings.

    Like individuals, each poem’s speaker speaks from a place of perspective, a place which can be physical and/or psychological. As we as readers move word to word, line to line, we must allow the universe of the poem to take root in our imaginations as if it is the only universe that exists. When we are open to the words’ music and meaning, the poem has the potential to envelop our entire being and body.

    Note

    Poet Emily Dickinson expresses how she can tell if something is poetry in one of her letters: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way."

    A poem is structured differently from prose as poems are mostly structured around a line rather than a paragraph (poets can also write prose poems that use paragraphs). What this means is that, as a reader, you pause briefly after reading a line and moving onto the next line. Sometimes, poets might break up a sentence midway between lines. This is called caesura and poets use this to emphasize the meanings of words either directly before the line break or on the following line. Seeing how a poem is visually laid out is as important as hearing it read as contemporary poets might work more with the white space of the page to emphasize meaning.

    Poets break up lines in a poem into stanzas, the equivalent of paragraphs in prose. Often, a stanza has a meaning that is distinct from other stanzas. Understanding why a poet has chosen to group lines together in stanzas is important in ascertaining the meaning of the poem at large.

    Note

    A big mistake novice readers of poetry make is assuming that they can get the meaning of a poem by reading it just once. Since a poem is condensed language, the meaning reveals itself slowly, unfolding a bit at a time after multiple readings.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Adapted from Naming the Unnameable: An Approach to Poetry for New Generations by Michelle Bonczek Evory, sourced from SUNY, CC-BY-NC-SA

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