How To Read Poetry, Part 1.
May 12, 2014
I often get asked, by students early in their careers or by friends outside of the English department, “how do you read poetry”; people claim that they don’t “get” it, that it’s too hard, that it doesn’t make sense.
A friend recently challenged me: “if you believe in free university education, why do you accept a wage? Shouldn’t you just teach for free?” That’s not an argument I wish to pursue – I have my reasons – but I have very much enjoyed thinking about new approaches to academic knowledge and skill-sharing that could indeed broaden the reach of the academy to those who are being priced out.
In response, then, to my dear friend, with whom I hope to disagree several more times over coming years, I’ve decided to live-blog the process of getting to know a collection of poems that is completely knew to me, and which I’ve been asked to review for THE LAKE, a contemporary poetry web-zine.
I’m going to explain every step in the process of forming an opinion about a book whose author I’ve never heard of before, so that hopefully, the way that I read poetry might be communicated to anyone reading along all the way. In the end I’ll post a link to the review. As far as is humanly possible, there will be No Spoilers: an explanation of my process, how I decide what I think about the book, not a detailed investigation of the book itself – because that’s the skill I’m starting with.
Welcome to How To Read Poetry!
LESSON ONE: TAKE YOUR TIME.
Getting to know a completely new poetry book, by a writer who is completely new to me, is always a bit like learning to read for the first time, all over again. There’s a whisper going through my mind about the sins of judging a book by its cover, but I certainly always form a bond with the object first of all, like a child who knows that this is the cupboard that stories come out of, but can’t yet operate the key. Like a child, too, who would instinctively put the object into their mouth to work out what it was years before they knew to trace the individual letters and sound out the words, I always sniff a new book. More rewarding, perhaps, when the “new” book is actually quite old, but there’s always some sort of association to be forged by this process. Books printed on thin, acidic paper for example always remind me of chip paper – it’s a homely-and-exciting sort of a smell.
Other books form relationships between themselves, and either appeal to me or put me off. A facsimile of the first edition of Just William that I had as a child, for example, smelled depressingly of petrol from the outside, but reassuringly of sherbert once I buried my nose in the leaves. New books, I have found, often smell of sherbert, which is something they hold in common with the letters that J.H. Prynne wrote across the Atlantic in his small and immaculate hand to Charles Olson in the 1960’s. I was so moved by the sweet-shop scent when I encountered the letters that I even wrote a poem about “Sniffing Jeremy’s Writing Paper”.
When I have finished sniffing a book – although I confess, it’s something I’ll continue to do intermittently throughout our acquaintance – I crack it open. I’m not precious about the spines of my little volumes of contemporary poetry, so many of which are stapled together between barely-thicker sheets of card anyway. If I fall for a poem, or take strongly against it, I’m going to want to get to know it inside-out anyway, and that will mean folding the pages back so that I can give it my full attention, making pencil notes in the margin and sometimes drawing little illustrations: I’m rather pleased with the tampico-smoking horse I recently drew on Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger to illustrate the absurdity of the proposition to an MA class.
Once the book’s open, then, I start to wander. Flick through the pages, looking for interesting shapes, phrases that jump to the eye of their own free will. I run my eye over the contents page, looking for titles that make me laugh or smile or think something, old or new. If there’s a title I like I might flick to that poem, again just cast my eyes over it, see if my bond to it is strengthened by anything in the object on the page.
And often, for a first meeting, that will do.
Of course, as I go to put the book down, a poem usually jumps out and grabs hold of me, and I have to sit immediately back down and give it my full attention.