Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reading Poetry

I remember sitting in the AP American History/English Block class I took my junior year of high school, not even trying to contain my skepticism over the symbolism Mrs. Aragon was berating me for not understanding in a poem. I remember thinking - if it is so obvious, why am I not getting it? And what if I see something differently from the teacher? Did each poem get written with some kind of key or legend that students just weren't given (and if so, where could I get my copy)? Understanding the poems of early Americans came with a certain amount of ire, and, well, boredom. As much as I love violets, I still would rather hike through the woods on my own and come across one than read another word of Wordsworth or Longfellow trying to describe them to me.

For a long time, poetry and I - we were through. It felt entirely too academic, and too saturated in historical and mythological references that I never thought I'd entirely grasp. Nobody had to know that I never read any.

At the same time, I have always paid great attention to song lyrics. Sometimes I like songs because of the words, forget the music part. Somehow I had created a mystical divide between song lyrics and poetry, thinking poetry was something dry and academic while song lyrics could be emotional and personal. I'm not sure where the desire to read poetry came back.... somewhere around the time I read The Anthologist and when I started writing for my own entertainment during National Novel Writing Month.

I started devouring poetry again, often reading the collected works of a poet. Mark Strand. Carl Sandburg. The Black Mountain poets. Mina Loy. Emily Dickinson. There wasn't any rhyme or reason to it, but for some of it, I did use the poets mentioned in Baker's book (which I obsessively created an index to). And I found that I could almost always find a poem or two that I really connected with, that touched me on a deep level. It seemed worth it to me, so poetry and I are back on, tentatively.

Without tests to take, without well-meaning teachers instructing me as to the meaning of a poem, here's how I think about it.

1. I skim a volume first. If I'm not finding little tidbits that I resonate with, I put it aside. I am even pickier about poetry than I am about novels. I don't usually care to read long-form poems (although some have won me over, Ginsberg) or dedication poems, and frequently am turned off by poems inspired by art, war re-enactments, or flowers. What is that, 80% of poetry? 90%?

2. If it something I'm feeling into, I skim, then I go back and read more carefully. I find a poem can rarely be fully appreciated in one sitting or one time through.

3. Once I find one I really like, I often read it out loud. It just seems that poetry should be heard, even in my own voice. The last volume of Margaret Atwood poems I read, The Door, included a CD with the poet reading some of her writing, which was a huge asset.

Who is your favorite poet? Do you have anything to recommend to me?

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