Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Read a Poem (& Why)

Cover by Gustave Doré

In just under two weeks, I will be conducting a poetry appreciation class, entitled "How to Read a Poem (& Why)" (not a very original title, but to the point, and a tad better than last year's "Poetry: Mystery and Magic") for a local lifelong learning program. This will be followed a week after with the first meeting of a new poetry discussion group at the library, called "3 Poems By..., which will focus on 3 representative poems by one particular poet, this time round Emily Dickinson. And a week after that, I'll be speaking to a class at the library and information service school on topics a tad arcane for general interest.

After that, my calendar is relatively free for the next 49 or so weeks.

I've mentioned the poetry appreciation class in passing previously and a number of folks asked me to elaborate, so here goes. The class consists of a general introductory "lecture" wherein I prat on for 40 or so minutes about essentially what poetry means to me and why it is important in people's lives, even folks who only encounter it a handful of times in their lives. Two basic texts that I found very helpful in preparing are both entitled "How to Read a Poem", one by Molly Peacock and the other by Edward Hirsch. They help a great deal with the how part of the program and Peacock is also very strong with the why. I use a few poems to illustrate some points in the introduction and open the lecture with James Wright's The Jewel. This year I'm going to try and tuck in some Issa haikus based on Robert Hass's reading and may also use Billy Collins's poem Introduction to Poetry to illustrate how not to read a poem. I heavily stress that poetry is not about answers, it's about questions, usually the big ones, to which there are no pat answers, hence the frequent refrain "oh, poetry, yeah, it's great, but I just don't get it." The great poems are a constant rephrasing of the big questions. As the great haiku critic, R. H. Blyth, said: "Poetry is never in the answers but in the questions - or rather between question and answer, between the known and unknown." I try to reassure everyone by hammering this home a number of ways and then follow with a single sheet handout of tips on how to read a poem.

Then we'll just plunge into the poetry.

I've prepared 10 or 11 poems for discussion and base what I do on the tried and true method of book discussion groups: I prepare between 5 to 10 open-ended questions based on each individual poem and use some of these to get the discussion going. Once the ice is broken, I simply guide the discussion of each work to help elucidate and provide clarity.

Since this is my second year doing this program and there is a slim possibility that there might be one or two folks in the class that where in it last year, I'm thinking, based on Elvis Costello's tour of a few years back (the one when he brought out a spinning wheel with 70 or so songs from his catalog and spun it on stage to create the evening's set), I may let the class choose which poems to do. Previously, I had a prepared order because I chose some poems with shared themes and imagery (in Auden's case borrowed imagery, in the kindest sense of the word). I'll have to see how that goes. I also have some video and audio to break up the monotony of me and that seems to go over well with the older crowd.

Here are the poems:

Some of these poems have subtle relationships (the first two), others more direct (the next 3, plus the last of that group of three and the next poem), the next two subtle again (with the Kenyon harking back to the 2nd group) and finally two unrelated individual poems. If past experience is any measure, we'll get through 4 or 5 poems. If I was to do them in order, and I still may, this would probably be the order I would do them in. I have video for the Frost (Voices and Visions), Donal Og (in John Huston's excellent film adaptation of James Joyce's story The Dead), and the Auden (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and audio for the Bishop. There is audio available for some of the others but it just doesn't have the "sparkle" that video brings; the Bishop I love, however, since she laughs at her own poem while reading it.

Here is the recitation of Donal Og from The Dead, to give you a taste:

Yesterday, I did a brief post for the birthdays of William Carlos Williams and Ken Kesey and a friend, WF, from across the pond sent this little poem by Richard Brautigan, a Issa's Untidy Hut regular, concerning WCW's birthday (or maybe not):


"September 3 (The William Carlos Williams Mistake"
I had severe insomnia last night with
the past, the present, and the future detailing
like: Oh, the shit we run through our minds!
Then I remembered it was Dr. William Carlos
Williams' birthday and that made me feel better
-----until almost dawn.


---------September 3rd is not
---------Dr. William Carlos Williams
---------birthday. It is the birthday
---------of a girlfriend.
---------Dr. William Carlos Williams
---------was born on September 17th, 1883.

---------An interesting mistake.
Richard Brautigan


Hmn, it's amazing how this man's mind worked and how he found poetry in the most minute things.

I'm happy to report that I've received over 100 haiku for the Basho Haiku Challenge. The great response has sparked still more manic ideas on my part, so keep the haiku coming and pass the word on to friends. More about the manic ideas later.

This week's smash from the past is Lilliput Review #77, from March 1996. Hope something grabs you here.


Zen American Style
If you don't want
to hear
anymore talk
about the void

then say hello
to the trojan horse
Mark Hartenbach

You can't drive the seagulls
away by pointing
toward the horizon
Tom Riley

insatiability rewinds old sorrow and records lust over it
Sheila E. Murphy

from poems for Leecia written when she was little
-----------------If in sleep
-----------------beside you
-----------------I should
-----------------"Shiva" --
-----------------will you answer
-----------------with just "Mama --
-----------------go to sleep now?"
-----------------Sylvia Manning

the saddest lines
are hunting
joy in every island
Richard Alan Bunch



till next time,


Charles Gramlich said...

I find poetry to be a lot like science. You have to have a high tolerance for ambiguity in both fields. YOu have to be comfortable with saying, "I don't know,"

Jim H. said...

That Billy Collins poem is wonderful! And of course as a huge Brautigan fan I like the WCW poem. Thanks for brightening my day!

Mr. Gramlich: yes.

Anonymous said...

Glad you found the Wright poem in my pages. Tangentially related to your post, I once mused on a few ways to read not single poems, but books of poems...

Your class sounds like great fun. I'm sure you get many suggestions. I'll just say it is sad not to see any Romantic poets in there, particularly since beginners tend to love the smaller Keats ("To Autumn", maybe) and Shelley ("Ozymandias")?

Personally, the first poems I generally give to people who say they have become interested in poetry are "maggie and milly and molly and may"-- like you-- and "ozymandias" and "Spring and Fall"...

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, I'll second Jim's "yes" - your comparison to science is both interesting and something I hadn't thought of.

In the class, I do make a remark about science. While saying we understand poetry in a different way, a visceral, emotional way, I note that both religion and science understand reality in different ways - religion has faith, science has experience - and of course like poetry each has it's limitations.

I say "I don't know" an awful lot.

Jim, glad you liked the Collins and of course the Brautigan - I'd be a liar if I said I didn't think of you when my friend from Italy sent the Brautigan poem along.

This bud's for you!

Chris, well thanks very much for the poem and the links and the suggestions. I'll be mulling those over (Wordworth is my fav romantic, but the others would be more appropriate).

I played through and read your wonderful a few ways post, left a comment, played around a bit and ultimately linked to your blog.

I'd very much urge other folks to do the same.

Great work.