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How to Read a Poem
August 17, 2012 7:01 AM   Subscribe

Curious about poetry, but don't know where or how to begin? We've reprinted the first chapter from the book "How to Read a Poem" by Edward Hirsch. Its 16 sections provide strategies for reading poems, and each section has plenty of links to examples of poems in our archive to illustrate the points.
posted by Think_Long (34 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Slowly, and with gravitas.



"The weight"



"Of Oranges."
posted by clvrmnky at 7:30 AM on August 17, 2012


Read through line breaks. Is that one of the rules? It should be.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:34 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I must say that is some ornate prose there on the subject of poetry, boy-howdy! Author could borrow a trick or two on language economy from a decent contemporary poet.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:38 AM on August 17, 2012


Rip it out.
posted by LionIndex at 7:50 AM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dammit. LionIndex beat me to the DPS ref.
posted by eoden at 8:08 AM on August 17, 2012


Begone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!
posted by mjklin at 9:50 AM on August 17, 2012


We need to stop acting like poetry is inherently this mysterious or difficult thing. We also need to stop shoving the motherfucking Romantics at kids too young to look past the difficulty of old, weirdly-worded poems. And I love E. E. Cummings, but when you show him to people and start talking about Modernist poetry they're going to assume that all modern poetry looks like him, because they aren't born inherently knowing the difference between "modern" and "Modernist".

As a young writer I assumed I hated poetry and that poets were chumps. Then I had a teacher introduce me to poems that didn't suck and what do you know! Turns out poetry rocks after all. I've gotten plenty of middle and high school kids enthused about poetry by starting with Richard Siken and motherfucking Stephen Dobyns, who is the man (seriously that is the best poem). Avoid the obscene stylists at first, get 'em into the swiftness of language and the beauty of a good poetic twist, and you'll have the suckers hooked for life.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:05 AM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


I teach poetry in University, although it's not part of my research. My general take is that the fact that students want their teachers to make poetry easier, more comprehendible, more accessible are rather missing the point. It's my job to make poetry more difficult.

In that sense I agree with Rory Marinich: start with poetry that is relatable instantly. And read the damn thing aloud. I like to start with Ginsberg's "America," with Ginsberg reading and Tom Waits playing the background music. America I've given you all and now I'm nothing. My mind's made up there's going to be trouble Yes, there sure is.

Then I can start with all that apostrophelyricconsonanceenjambment bullshit.
posted by Catchfire at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


When I was a preteen, my mom gave me a book of poetry called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. It had William Carlos Williams, but also a bunch of other poets I've never seen anywhere else.

I really loved that book. It contained a poem called "How To Eat a Poem". That's all I really came in here to say.
posted by Night_owl at 11:03 AM on August 17, 2012


We need to stop acting like poetry is inherently this mysterious or difficult thing.

It is for me. I just don’t get it. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, but I skip poems even when they’re embedded in a story. With rare exceptions, poetry and dance are two art forms I just don’t connect with.

I have found that I do much better with poetry read aloud, where on the page it means nothing to me. This is strange because I mostly don’t like hearing stories read aloud.
posted by bongo_x at 11:23 AM on August 17, 2012


relatable

please no.
posted by washburn at 11:25 AM on August 17, 2012


...as in "please no, do not use this particular word."
posted by washburn at 11:26 AM on August 17, 2012


:'(
posted by Catchfire at 12:02 PM on August 17, 2012


I do not believe these instructions will be of much use to someone who's having difficulty relating to contemporary American poetry.

The page linked to is brimming with a woo-woo crypto-mystical waltz of abstract nouns and faux-common-man-speak. Hirsch's bullet points are a set of putative tips really designed to console his peers that they tried, oh they really did, to reach out to the yahoos, yet again. But somehow the yahoos jest don't get how "the lyric poem seeks to mesmerize time" (for fuck's sake, Ed...)

I agree with Rory that perhaps the worst thing done to students who might otherwise like to read poetry is to throw Keats and Shelley at them in 10th grade.
posted by aught at 12:38 PM on August 17, 2012


please no, do not use this particular word

It's only 47, after all.
posted by rory at 12:43 PM on August 17, 2012


bongo_x: Then you should read some of the aforementioned Stephen Dobyns. One of my biggest honors as a budding poet myself was to have a poem published in a journal that once also published Dobyns.

Here are a couple of Dobyns' poems:

Yellow Beak
Pursuit

But he really shines in poems like Cemetery Nights. Even people who don't get poetry can get into Dobyns and for that matter, others writing in a more conversational vernacular, like David Kirby.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:43 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops. Meant to include a link to Cemetery Nights.

These essays are definitely a little thick on the woo-woo for my taste, too.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:45 PM on August 17, 2012


> Read through line breaks.

Do not to this. Those breaks are there for a reason (assuming the poet is any good).
posted by languagehat at 2:01 PM on August 17, 2012


Aargh! Do not do this. (For the first time, I want an edit window.)
posted by languagehat at 2:02 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Do not to this. Those breaks are there for a reason (assuming the poet is any good).

They are there for a reason, but that reason may well be unrelated to how the poem is to be read aloud. (for example: concrete poems)
posted by juv3nal at 3:17 PM on August 17, 2012


Eh, concrete poems are a whole different thing (and not really my thing). I assume the comment was made about "normal" poetry. And in normal poetry, no, line breaks are not unrelated to how the poem is to be read aloud.
posted by languagehat at 3:57 PM on August 17, 2012


Hmm, I am continually surprised by how tough our crowd is around here.
posted by Think_Long at 4:25 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Eh, concrete poems are a whole different thing (and not really my thing). I assume the comment was made about "normal" poetry. And in normal poetry, no, line breaks are not unrelated to how the poem is to be read aloud.

Eh, ghetto-ize concrete poetry if you like. It was just an easily illustrative example, but there's lots of not-strictly-concrete-poems that employs techniques that aren't apparent through an oral/aural reading (acrostic poems, visual puns).

What I was trying to get at is that to say "never read through line breaks" is about equivalent to "always read through line breaks." Enjambment, for instance, is often used to encourage reading through a line break.
posted by juv3nal at 5:03 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hirsch, like most books on how to read poetry, is writing for people who are at least college-age and want to know all the words about how to read poetry. Who want to pass a test on poetry. Who want to be able to explain to other people that they don't know what prosody is.

Here's how to read a poem: Get someone who loves poetry to read it aloud to you. Listen to a woman crippled by Parkinson's recite some lines of "Porphyria" from childhood memory so that the horror of it whacks you across the face. Read a poem every day and toss out the ones you hate. Write down the ones you love so they can't get away. Lose a poem, and find it again and recognize it by a line you didn't know you liked ("a green thought in a green shade"). Memorize a poem that doesn't make sense, like Sharon Bryan's "Sweater Weather," or Carroll's "Jabberwocky," and recite it as fast as you can while you're going to sleep. Listen to rap. Listen to Patrick Stewart recite Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and realize just how lecherous it really is. When you don't understand a poem, look it up online and realize the jackasses who write term papers for free know less about poetry than you do. Get all bent out of shape when you realize that the fourteen-line poem you love so much actually rhymes, has meter, and is a sonnet, which you didn't know for years. Notice you really love vilannelles, no matter what anybody says. And then, one day, you can read a book on how to read poetry and it won't hurt you much.
posted by Peach at 7:37 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bah. Villanelle has one "n" and two "l"s and that's what I get for writing stream-of-consciousness because my consciousness can't spell "villanelle"
posted by Peach at 7:39 PM on August 17, 2012


Rory Marinich: We need to stop acting like poetry is inherently this mysterious or difficult thing.

Poetry is a mysterious and difficult thing. Poetry can make your mind bulge and go all oogity boogity. Poetry can shut your thoughts down and trigger a discordance of emotions. Poetry takes language and twists and pulls it until you see through it into something else, something other. The world is made plain in its weirdness by knotted poetry. Mystery and difficulty are fun in games and poetry is playing games with language. Embrace poetry like it's the child who's returned after spending a decade in the arctic jungle.

Later there will be time for questions.
posted by Kattullus at 8:17 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


A good poet don't assume the line breaks are pauses, as much contemporary verse actually intends to create a spilling effect through their line breaks. Don't just assume they represent pauses is the thing. Not in reading American verse since Whitman, anyway.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 PM on August 17, 2012


"A good poet doesn't assume," that was meant to say, for languagehat above. Yes, any good poet uses line breaks in a meaningful or functional way, and is conscious of breaking the line on particular words or phrases--but for god's sake don't assume you have to pause pointedly on every line break, like you're reading Robert Frost or Maya Angelou or a church hymn or something.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:22 PM on August 17, 2012


Sorry, one more edit, "Porphyria's Lover," which is a poem, not "Porphyria," which is a disease. Nasty poem.
"And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirr'd,
And yet God has not said a word!"
posted by Peach at 8:28 PM on August 17, 2012


Reading poems is good because it teaches you words like "concupiscence." Which you would only otherwise learn if you were forced to read St. Augustine's Confessions.

And for goodness sakes, read through line breaks when appropriate;
and don't when not.
posted by Catchfire at 9:20 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


> What I was trying to get at is that to say "never read through line breaks" is about equivalent to "always read through line breaks." Enjambment, for instance, is often used to encourage reading through a line break.

> but for god's sake don't assume you have to pause pointedly on every line break

OK, maybe we're not really disagreeing. I understand "reading through a line break" as pretending the line break isn't there and reading the passage exactly as if it were prose. This is not a straw man; people (especially actors, for some reason) often do this, and it drives me up a wall. A poem is not an editorial or a Tennessee Williams speech; it's a poem. Don't hurry through it and don't try to milk it for effect; read the words and pay attention to how they're organized and laid out, dammit.

Ahem. I get carried away. Anyway: of course you shouldn't "pause pointedly on every line break," and I know that's not a straw man either—I've heard people do it that way, though usually people whose primary exposure to poetry came in grade school. You should pause exactly as much as the feel of the poem and of the lines in question tell you to, which may be a barely perceptible amount. My point is that it should not be zero.
posted by languagehat at 7:50 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


These essays are definitely a little thick on the woo-woo for my taste, too.

Speaking as a published poet, and one who studied (not very happily as it turned out) with the aforementioned Stephen Dobyns (I actually went to grad school in Syracuse to work with Hayden Carruth, who promptly retired over some tussle with an "asshole Dean"), I've observed the poetry essay woo-woo is often there to spackle over the fact that a lot of people write pretty good poetry but have absolutely no idea how they did it, and in fact find thinking too hard about how they did it actually makes it harder to write more really good poetry, yet their status in academia expects them to explain it anyhow. So they lean back on semi-mystical abstraction and hand-wave it all away. Academia is a weird and often destructive place for people who practice what is often necessarily an intuitive art.

The other unfortunate thing that frustration over justifying one's own writing practice sometimes does is to factionalize sub-genres of poetries, so that you get people like Stephen telling his students that John Ashbery -- John Ashbery! -- is "not really poetry, and also he reads in a really annoying voice," or people like Joan Houlihan relentlessly attacking Language and other avant-garde poems in whatever popular online journal it is she writes for. (It kind of reminds me of how fundamentalists think gay marriage ruins marriage for all previously married people, the way some mainstream poets seem to think avant garde poetry threatens the entire body and history of Poetry.)

All that said, Stephen generally does have a great talent with language (his novels are very good too, and in many ways better as novels than his poetry collections are as poetry) but he leans way too heavily on narrative, and little ironic narrative twists, in his poems for my taste, like the poems are notes for surreal short stories he didn't have the time or patience to write out. But he's a really nice guy, and threw fun drunken parties at his huge house back in the day.

Final note is that if you really like Dobyns' poetry, you might also like a couple old friends / classmates of mine who write in a similar vein -- Joel Brouwer and Karen Volkman. They are both very good too, even surpassing their teacher.
posted by aught at 10:17 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Poetry is a mysterious and difficult thing. Poetry can make your mind bulge and go all oogity boogity. Poetry can shut your thoughts down and trigger a discordance of emotions. Poetry takes language and twists and pulls it until you see through it into something else, something other. The world is made plain in its weirdness by knotted poetry.

Well yeah, but there's no mystery or difficulty to being moved by poetry. It's surprisingly easy, and poems exist which even children who're just learning how to read can be touched by. Kids assume that liking poetry takes practice, practice, practice, and that's true for SOME poetry, but those are the poems you go to once you're starting to push out and expand your palette.

re: line breaks, they're structural and therefore crucial to how a poem works, but they're such a versatile tool that poets can do just about anything with them. My favorite poems are the ones which use line breaks like a slip-n-slide: you start reading and slip down down down because the breaks give you no stopping point, and every end gives you a giddy rush that takes you down some more. The poems whose line breaks serve to break the poem to neat pieces bother me, and I've had a devil of a time finding classical poetry where the rhyme schemes and line sequences don't jar me out of the poem's meaning. But then you have writers like Cummings, who could simultaneously write classical-form rhyming sonnets and render them so cleverly that you didn't notice the rhymes unless you consciously looked.
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:40 PM on August 18, 2012


languagehat: I think I was using "reading" in more of an actor's or performing poet's sense of it than came across. Couldn't agree more about the significance of line breaks-just please don't linger on each one with a monotonous, pregnant pause when reading it aloud. Unless you're reading a cowboy poem or something deliberately sing-songy. I think we're in near total agreement here. But I understand your reaction--I'd react the same way myself if I'd read my original comment the way you did. Probably with less self-restraint.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:03 PM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


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