How do you read poetry?
I ask because I’ve made a discovery, I think. I have always read poems as individual entities. I read them one at a time, out loud, and interrogate them until I feel I have a grip and can move on to the next. This makes reading a new book of poems, or a new poet, very slow, not least because I get weary, and can end up reading a whole novel between each poem as solace. Or, I can have several books of poems on the go at one time, dipping in and out of each as my nerve allows. I’d never thought of reading a book of poems in the way I’d read a novel or a text book.
About half way through university I discovered that reading a text book quickly, without puzzling over every little thing actually aided my understanding. I’d read them as if I was doing so just for the fun of it, right to the end, stopping only to look up the meaning of ‘teleology’ for the umpteenth time. I’d then take a break and start again for a ‘close’ reading a couple of days later. It made the most enormous difference to my student life because second time around it was like having a conversation with an old friend. I read cookery books the same way: the whole book, often in one sitting, before attempting the recipes which, miraculously, feel like a breeze. But it took an interview with Louise Glück on her book Faithful and Virtuous Night to make me even consider the possibility of using the same technique with poems.
“I thought I’d never resolve the issue of this structure, never be able to give shape to these poems,”
she said. And went on: “which usually means there’s a piece missing, as was true here. […] I had thought that the long poem would be a whole that moved roughly chronologically from section to section, but it seemed lifeless when I put it together that way. I tried rearranging the sequence but that wasn’t the answer. [… the] shape didn’t really find itself until the end – when I wrote prose poems, which I’d never done before – they were written in a tide of exhilaration at the thought that maybe I could finally finish the book.”
This intrigued me so much I bought Faithful and Virtuous Night. Yet I still tried to read it in my usual way, labouring over every poem. And I didn’t get it.
The first thing about a poem that makes sense is, usually, the sound:
‘I ordered this, this clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it’*
‘The spinner fluchters,
but falters not
in its bee-line for the shore,’**
Both these have strong rhythms (read them aloud), and imagery (second sense maker), but I couldn’t hear Glück’s rhythms, or see her vision. For example:
‘It came to me one night as I was falling asleep
that I had finished with those amorous adventures
to which I had long been a slave. Finished with love?
my heart murmured. To which I responded that many profound
awaited us, hoping, at the same time, I would not be asked
to name them. For I could not name them. But the belief that they
surely counted for something?’
When I read poetry the question: “What makes this a poem?” is always in the back of my mind, but here the question started wailing at me like a starving hyena. And I couldn’t begin to answer it. I kept reading: another, then another, always trying to make sense of one before moving on to the next, until I wanted to throw the damn book out the window. But I had ordered this, this clean cool book, paid for it out of my ever diminishing bank account, and Glück is a prize winning poet, I needed to work it out.
I gave it a break.
Then I remembered the problems she’d had putting it together, and that it was more than just one poem after another, so I tried reading it as if it were a novel. And by the time I came to the end I felt it. I heard her rhythms, and, thus, had some purchase. By the end of my second reading I was faintly in love with the poems’ personae, and Glück’s writing.
Trying just now to find an example to show how unrhythmic the poems were I struggled. So from now on I will read any new book of poems like a book, not just a bunch of random verses, without trying too hard to make sense of its individual elements.
So, I ask again: how do you read poetry (if at all)?
Leadhills: desolate, but lovely.
*From ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’ in Ariel by Sylvia Plath (my favourite poem ever).
** From ‘Fishing at Spiggie’ in Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield.