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An effective Approach To Reading a Poem

Since a poem has the four qualtities identified and haltingly addressed in this post: it’s music, its imagery, its logos, and its unspeakable quality that I’ve reluctantly and insultingly reduced to its connotations, we can develop a strategy when we approach a poem that is consistent with the nature of poetry. We don’t need to become mathematicians, looking for precise and certain knowledge, but we also don’t need to become unbelievers, believing there is nothing to look at.

First, we can read the poem on its own terms but from the perspective of an observer. It is not, so far as I have been able to determine, possible to enter the heart of a poem on the first read. I suppose an experienced reader can probably tell garbage the first time he smells it in a poem, but the really great poets occasionally throw a garbage smell into their poems to play with us. For the rest of us, we need to take the poem as it is given to us and read it without judging it.

Then, when we are finished, I often ask myself or my class whether they liked the poem. This is, of course, an almost useless question except for this fact: that’s the question we are asking anyway most of the time. It’s usually the first thing we want to know about a poem: do I like it or not? So this seemingly useless question has a great value: acknowledging it begins a discussion about the poem.

After we’ve established that question (and it’s importance does fade with experience, but students and many of us readers simply don’t have that experience), then we can enter the important discussion about what we like or don’t like about the poem. We can test our impressions and see if we maybe missed the point, were hasty in our judgments, or hit the bullet on the primer.

At this point, the four qualities of a poem become quite useful. Why did I like this poem? Was it the music (rhythm, meter, rhyme, schemes, etc.)? Was it the imagery (similes, metaphors, hyperbole, apostrophe, etc.)? Was it the logos – something in the heart of the poem that spoke to me and into my own experience? Or was it something indefinable that I can’t get my head and heart around?

When we ask these questions we are examining what John Ciardi called The Sympathetic Contract in his excellent book How does A Poem Mean?”. “In addressing his subject,” Ciardi reminds us, “the poet takes an attitude toward it and adopts a tone he believes to be appropriate.”

When you read a poem, do you sympathize with the attitude and tone of the poet? That’s what we are asking when we say to our students or selves: “Do you like this poem?” After we’ve asked the more objective questions above about music, image, logos, and unspeakables, we can rather easily begin to explore the more subjective side of the question of sympathy.

How does this poet feel about his subject? Himself? His reader? Poetry itself? What does he seem to find valuable or repulsive? What does he respect or despise? What advantages does he seek or what disadvantages does he flee? What does he want to honor/dishonor? What does she want to be honored for? What or whose dishonor does he fear?

What are his attitudes toward his subject, poem, self, reader, art?

What is the tone of the poem? What feeling does it evoke? Is that feeling fitting to the subject of this poem?

Grab any two or three of these questions and you can have a wonderful discussion of a poem with your students, your family, or a small group of readers.

Here’s a helpful practice to keep it simple, especially for beginning readers of poetry or people who feel like they are beginners: be rhythmic in your discussion, like breathing.

First, read the poem, carefully, slowly, and, probably, a couple or more times. Think of this as inhaling.

Then begin your discussion with impressions, likes and dislikes, feelings, etc. Think of this as exhaling.

Then read the poem again: inhaling. It will be a little different from the first couple reads.

Then evaluate the poem by challenging your first impressions. Here you discuss objective things in the poem: the images, music, and logos. You’re exhaling.

Now read the poem again. You’ll probably be itching to do so anyway, because it’s still in front of you and serving as the focal point of the conversation. Make everybody wait until you feel the pressure to read is built up (you’re running out of breath); then read. You’re inhaling again.

Next, explore the more subjective elements like the tone, the poet’s apparent attitude toward his subject, his apparent values, feelings, etc. (see above): exhaling.

Finally, read the poem one more time. You’ll find it isn’t the same poem you thought it was when you started.

Now you have come back to that most practical of all questions: “Did I like the poem?” And now, having figured out why we like or dislike it, we have come to know a good deal about ourselves, the poem, the subject of the poem, poetry, the images used in the poem, and very possibly the poet himself.

Here’s an idea to turn the reading experience into a sort of contest with your students: Read a group of five or so poems that you have identified as finalists for the [School name] Academy Award in Poetry. Read each poem as described above, but with this qualification: at the end of the process, the students will be awarding to one of these poems the [school name] Academy Award. They can argue, discuss, etc. but in the end, each will vote for the poem they think should receive the prize.

Then have a ceremony in which the winning poem receives the prize and the people who voted for it present an acceptance speech on behalf of the poem. Unless the poet is still living. In that case, you might go ahead and invite him to offer an acceptance speech of his own. You never know!

Have fun!

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