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How to Read A Poem (III) Getting Started

Let me simplify: a poem consists of three elements to a greater degree than prose:

  • Music
  • Images
  • Something I haven’t been able to name yet. Maybe I’ll call it immediacy for lack of a better term.

I’m talking about that deep, mysterious connectedness that poems have because a word will carry a meaning for the reader that is based on his own experience with that word, but it won’t atomize or isolate the reader. I think Ezra Pound was talking about this when he coined the term logopoeoia or something like that. The word or phrase carries an immdiate impact to the reader but not one that is derived from the meaning of the word. It’s almost as if the word has a life of its own (of course, all words do) and the poem uses that dynamism in the word to get at the reader.

That is one reason why most poetry can’t be translated.

So practically, when you read a poem, pay attention to the imagery (tropes) and the music (schemes). The imagery appeals to the imag-ination. The music appeals to the senses. Both appeal to the soul. When they work together you have a good poem.

Prose also has imagery and music, but it is not defined by these qualities the way poetry is.

When you teach children to read poetry, begin by simply reading to them. Use poems where the music is obvious: nursery rhymes, ballads, etc. As they mature, teach them what the poets are doing. Let them try to imitate the schemes and tropes. Discuss. Imitate. Sing. Enjoy.

Protect them from lousy poetry if you can, but at least give them some good stuff. Be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking the sentimentality of late 19th and early 20th century moralism led to good poetry. It led to sentiment and syrup (the name I might well give a book of poetry on that age) and it is harmful to a child’s moral development.

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