How To Read Poetry, Part 2.
May 22, 2014
You talkin’ to me?
It’s my second visit to the pages of Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone by Annelyse Gelman. As previously noted, I’m not using this blog to talk specifically about the poetry – although it’s exceptionally fine, especially if you like poetry with a young, hip, thoughtful approach to things. To reiterate, all I’m trying to do – for now, in this “Absolute 101, Starting-From-Zero” poetry series is talk you through what it is I do when I’m reading poems. The further into the poems I get, the harder I find it to determine between my conversation with this particular poet, and the skill-set I’m using to get something out of them.
The important thing, for now, is to get that conversation started. What I feel like saying next, to an audience of people who are reading poetry because they want to read poetry, and not because they’re required to, is totally antithetical to the way that I was taught poetry at school: you can’t have a conversation with someone who isn’t talking to you. This is, I think, a particularly important part of the “I don’t get poetry” feeling that comes up so often. At school, you’re not required to like or to understand the poetry you encounter, just to anatomise it; and you’re exceptionally lucky if you happen to come across a poet who happens to be talking to you.
For me, in the final two years of compulsory education, the only point at which we “really did” poetry, it went like this: Moniza Alvi was not talking to me. Carol Ann Duffy was not talking to me. If anything, Simon Armitage was talking to someone who was in every way my opposite at that point in time. Grace Nichols wasn’t talking to me directly, but I overheard her say something interesting, and wanted to join in the conversation but found I had nothing to say in return. John Agard was telling me to shut up and listen, and I like that, and I think he was right when he seemed to be telling me that what I had to say about this didn’t matter: I was the audience, he was the storyteller. Sassoon – no. Wilfred Owen – more like it. He was talking to an outspoken kid involved in anti-war demonstrations, but he was a teacher: older, giving me big lessons, sources to cite in arguments. Only Tom Leonard and John Cooper Clarke had actually picked up the receiver and expressly dialled my number, and I think we spent about half a lesson with each of them.
That’s how I’d characterize it now. At the time, there were just weeks I had something to say in the classroom, and weeks when I drew bracelets all the way up my arm in gel pens. So how do you figure it out? Reading poetry is difficult, and it isn’t like reading anything else. It’s particularly difficult to read when you’re tired and distracted, and I, I’m afraid to say, am both. It’s difficult to read because the language is active. Now, all of language is active all of the time: that’s what language is: the attempt to shape and shepherd life, and to express and agree the experience of inhabiting the world. Poetry in particular though is active in a different way, engaged in exploring how language makes meaning, and what it’s possible to make the world mean: that’s necessarily crude, but I hope it communicates.
Poetry is always to some extent “language about language”, and about the relationship between language, thought processes, and the world we live in: it’s about the possibilities of communication, and ways of manipulating what’s happening in somebody else’s head. It can, therefore, seem (or even be) oblique: connections aren’t necessarily made explicitly, or using the same codes we use when we talk. Poems are separate little sites of language; they’re made of words in the same way that new cities are still made of buildings and streets,but you’re dropped into them without a map, and have to find your own way around them, even set up your own life there, with your own preferred back-streets and shortcuts.
So: I’m tired, and I want to give Gelman the attention she deserves. It’s a book I’ve been randomly assigned to review, and I know nothing about it. With this poet in particular, I’m extremely lucky. I can feel from the shape of the poems on the page that there are complicated and clever things happening in the longer poems, but there are clever and funny and and simple things happening in the short ones.
Let me state that again: start with the short poems. I push myself to concentrate through the seven little stanzas of the poem “Selfie” for no more particular reason than I’d rather be clicking through selfies on Twitter than working; I laugh out loud for the lines:
Make your bed
once in a while. stop eating in your bed.
Stop hitting yourself.
That ought, I hope, to be the end of a misconception right there: this is the twenty-first century, and you can put The Simpsons in a poem if you want to (“Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”). This is the big secret behind poetry: it’s not an “international conspiracy of horses arses”, it doesn’t have to be obscure and elitist; it’s not just rich white men holding conversations with Shakespeare by way of arcane references to William Blake. Sometimes a 22-year-old kid is thinking about Twitter and The Simpsons, and trying to make other people who think about those things laugh.
Start with the short poems – and just read them. Read every word of every line, and read it again if you think you figured out the grammar maybe half-way through: but don’t worry about it if you didn’t. As you’re reading the poem, don’t ask explicitly, “what is this poem about? What is happening here?” Just read every single word: it’s a poem, not a riddle. It’s awake and it’s doing something. Let the poem happen to you.
At the moment, everybody’s talking about “Mindfulness”. Lady Gaga stopped smoking by being “mindfully” taught to drink a glass of water. The dominant discourse is about a version of “mindfulness” that serves an aspirational social model – but it’s still useful to reading poetry. Read every word of the poem, and notice what it made you feel. It’s really simple and sounds daft: but if the poem is talking to you, it will make you feel something. So, just notice the way that you feel. You don’t have to pursue those feelings in any way at this stage. With Gelman, “Selfie” made me laugh. “My Legacy” made me laugh and nod along. If the poem you just read didn’t make you feel anything at all – didn’t even make you feel confused, like you didn’t understand yet but want to know more – it’s okay to throw it away. I bequeath you this: you have the right to walk away from a poem and never think about it again. That’s fine. You’re not thick, the poem’s not rubbish – necessarily. The poet just isn’t talking to you.
So: once you’ve read a poem, and noticed how you felt about it, read another one and do the same. And another one: for as long as your concentration hold out, and there’s no rule about how long that’s going to be.
By the end of a second sitting with a book, I’ve always figured out whether we’re going to be great friends, this book and I, or whether we’re going to have a passionate falling-out, or whether I think it’s interesting and clever but doesn’t move me. Reading poetry’s not an instant process. Spend time reading a few poems and building up a feeling for them. Then try to be aware of it every time something about the poems – a line, a word, an image, or something superficially unrelated that the poem prompts comes into your head over the following days. Annelyse Gelman reminds me of my brother, an episode of Star Trek, and a conversation about raising children that I had with my friend David on a train at the weekend. She makes me smile.
Later on, I’ll try to work out why and how.
Give the poems space to breathe. Give them your attention. Listen to see if you’re interested in what they’re saying, whether you understand from the outset or not; and if you want to, you can walk away.