As an English teacher, poet, and author, I have the responsibility to not only you and your parents but also to the language and its literature. It is my firm belief that of greater importance than the content of the literature itself is your belief in your own capabilities as readers and thinkers about literature. It is not always the poem which changes your life per se (though sometimes it is) but the ability to notice the poem and appreciate it for what it is that results in an appreciation for its offerings.
This is especially true for Poetry, a genre which has not been taught with much pedagogical consistency among educators. Even the term “Poetry” eludes many teachers. This is problematic on several levels. First, if we teachers are uncertain about what Poetry is, how can you understand what it is? Second, what messages about Poetry are we sending to students about the genre? Third, what are students’ reactions to these messages? If you’re a student, do you often struggle with what poems actually are? I hope to clear up some misconceptions for you here, and to offer a strategy to help you do what poems require — immersing yourself in the language itself.
Poetry is the art of the language itself, as indicated in Lewis Putnam Turco’s reference work, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics. Poetry is the most exacting and purposeful use of language in all of its aspects (sounds, images, ideas, and typographies; these are really only four aspects a reader needs to notice). When you read poems, all you really need to do is to notice these things. Don’t worry about what the poem means per se; immerse yourself in noticing these aspects. That’s what you need to do if you want to get more out of Poetry: immerse yourself in the nuances so that you notice each individual poem for what it is and what it offers.
Noticing takes time. It also takes practice. It often requires you to slow down and ruminate on possibilities. In our fast-paced society and in our fast-paced classrooms wherein more is crammed daily and rigor is often synonymous with timed exams, taking the time to notice all aspects of language may seem counterproductive. However, it is not. When you take the time to notice the language itself, notice the sounds, images and rhetorical figures, ideas, and the ways the letters and words are arranged visually on the page, you start to see relationships and patterns. You understand how the poems’ ideas may start in one place and end someplace completely different by the final line. You see that there is a connection between the sounds and the images presented. You see the play with language unfolding, the relationships between different aspects. You begin to see the art of Poetry.
Poets, after all, are hypersensitive writers attune to the nuances of language. We are an exacting lot. For us, language is the medium and message; there is no separation of content and structure since they are interdependent elements. Whether writing in formal verse (metrical and measured language) or in prose (non-metrical, unmeasured language), we are mindful of the subtleties of human written communication.So the right word, the right sound, the right punctuation, the right spacing, the right idea all must function as would a symphony. Each poem is a symphony of language that starts in one place and ends somewhere different.
So what comes next is a plan for you to help you read Poetry a little differently than you might have before. It is born out of my work as an educator for fifteen years and as an award-winning poet with two books of verse from reputable small presses. I tell my students that I do not just love reading Poetry; I love writing Poetry. I am both consumer and producer of this stuff, so I am in a unique position to help them learn how to get more out of the poems they read.
The advice that follows is not just good for students. It works for anyone wanting to engage with Poetry differently than in the past. I welcome you to try this method and to let me know your thoughts.
Someone gave you a poem; what the heck do you do with it?
So when you meet a poem, do not read it like you would an essay or a novel or a lab report. You need to get to know the poem first, right? You just met, so you cannot hope to really and fully and deeply understand this poem, can you? Spend some time with it. Make sure it is quality time. How does one do this? There are only four aspects to notice/ways to spend quality time with a poem you have just met:
- Ideas and their progression from beginning until end of the poem
- Sounds and their patterns and repetitions
- Images and figures of speech, including rhetorical figures
- Typography, or the way the words, phrases, and clauses are visually organized on the page
Take stock of each of these. Feel free to do so in the order that makes sense to you, but do NOT flit from one aspect to another. Make each exploration meaningful and intentional. You must mindfully engage with this poem if you are to get to know it better. It is important that you engage with these fully and independently at first. Consider each of these as a date with the poem. You don’t have to rush in to a commitment. In fact, I would recommend to you that you try to do one of the aspects very thoroughly and then set the poem aside. There is no need to rush it. Spend some time with each aspect.
Click here for the PowerPoint: noticing-introduction
Noticing the Poem’s Typography/the Way It Looks on the Page
This is perhaps the first thing you notice when reading a poem, but it’s important to take stock of what is there. Is it broken into short lines or long lines? Are there multiple stanzas? How many? Will these divisions also signal divisions in Ideas or Images? Does the layout of the poem affect the way you are inclined to read it? How so? Does it disorient you a little? If there are no lines in the poem, meaning it’s classified as a “prose poem” what does that make you think of? These are all valid questions about the poem’s visual aspects. When reading a poem we cannot overlook our first impressions of it. Usually, the way it looks is connected to how it unfolds.
Noticing the Poem’s Ideas
This will be the aspect of Poetry you need to slow down with the most. Noticing what the ideas are, acknowledging what the clauses are conveying (notice I wrote clauses and not the lines, since you must read from the beginning to the first stop either clearly marked or implied grammatically). An idea is a sentence, so it is essential that you track the ideas. If there are no sentences, then what? Look to phrases. If no phrases? Then words. If no words? Then letters. By slowing down and considering what has been written, by paraphrasing it for yourself to acknowledge that you understand what its essential claims are and how they shift/turn by the end, you will better understand the poem’s movement/trajectory. I usually tell students that it is important for them to paraphrase beside each clause as an acknowledgement that they see the ideas for what they are, not necessarily what they mean. This also prevents students from misreading poems since the final judge of what a poem “means” is the poem itself. I cannot tell you how many misreadings of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” there have been because students are not slowing down and paying attention to what the words on the page indicate. To avoid misreading, make sure that the first thing you do is clearly and accurately restate each clause for yourself.
Noticing the Poem’s Sounds
Notice sounds and repetitions of sounds. Reading the poem out loud is not necessary to do this. In fact, when students are sitting in class, and I ask them to read a poem, my first inclination would be to NOT read it aloud. Developing your abilities to hear the sounds without actually hearing them aloud is an important step in learning how to read poems. You can certainly look for repeated letters, visually noticing the repetition of consonants and vowels. Scan the poem for these patterns. You might be surprised by what you notice.
Noticing the Poem’s Images/Sensory Details/Rhetorical Figures
Pretend you are the Elevated Language Tracker 9000, the newest and most advanced system of spotting what metaphors, sensory details, and rhetorical figures are in the poem. Mark all of the ones you can find. The image is so important, the mental picture that’s created from concrete images, that many schools of Poetry have focused entirely on it. How those mental pictures unfold across the poem is essential, too. Remember that the image born from language is a creation of your mind and the words of someone else. The more specific and clear the words that make the image, the clearer that image in your mind. Once you notice all of them in the poem, not leaving anything out, you can better understand how the poem is unfolding. Revisit your ideas. Revisit sounds. Are there connections? Now you can start coming up with your ideas about the relationship between aspects of the poem.
As you continue to practice noticing these aspects of Poetry, you will become better and better at immersing yourself in language. You will start seeing connections more readily. You will start to make ideas about how the poem is unfolding. This will take a lot of practice. In short, you will really start to know this poem and appreciate it for what it is.
Reading a poem may frustrate you times, and you will most likely find out that certain poems are just plain strange or difficult or difficult for you to fully comprehend let alone appreciate. But that struggle is good. It means you are engaged with Poetry, that you are caring enough about the language to give it time and space. It means that you are engaging in a relationship with the genre that is meaningful and important. If you abandon a poem too early, you will never be able to access or appreciate its power and beauty. You will throw up your hands and leave Poetry not because “Poetry is stupid” but because you refuse to persevere in noticing. Refusal to notice these aspect of Poetry is a refusal to be engaged in what poets agonize over and so thoughtfully arrange in their work. It is fine to be confused and to set a poem aside for awhile, but it is not fine to give up, to quit doing something because it is hard. You do it because its difficulty will make you a better reader and thinker. Reading Poetry can do that for you.
Now, it is also fine to not know what the poem “means.” As Archibald Macleish wrote in “Ars Poetica,” “A poem must not mean but be” and what you are doing by practicing noticing Poetry’s aspects is practicing what is most important in reading the genre — immersing yourself in language. Often as a teacher, I am conflicted in the teacherly demands on you in regards to Poetry — there is the assessment coming up and the pressure sets in. However, the realities set in sooner or later and what you must do is develop this reading skill to the point where you can write the organized paragraph or essay, if need be. However, this is not what reading Poetry is about. What you need to understand is that an explication or a literary analysis or a whatever task is set in front of you is not the point of reading Poetry, but it is the demonstration of your engagement with the skill and the genre.
The big picture is this: learning how to read Poetry will change your life, opening up ideas and connections with language that will enrich your mind. Written Poetry itself is a record of life, our language in its most exacting aspects passed on from generation to generation. The genre renews and is renewed by readers and writers of it.
This is why your immersion in Poetry matters. By reading it, you are keeping it relevant by reengaging in the play with words and sounds and mental pictures, engaging in their symphony as an audience member. Maybe it will inspire you to want to write poems, too, as it did for me. But it does not need to do this. Just because you read it well and can appreciate it and have your life affected by it, it does not mean you need to write it.
I hope that as you engage with reading Poetry, you apply this method. It is not the only one, but I have found that it works well. If you use it, and you choose not to engage with Poetry after practicing this noticing for an extended period of time, then that is fine. Your reading life will have been enriched anyway by the experience, since you will have a new way to approach reading, simply by noticing. You will have become a more mindful reader and thinker, more attune to noticing language and its possibilities.