Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Coolest Month

In honor of the beginning of April, National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to shelve the sequence of posts on dialogue for the moment and get you started on poetry. You wouldn’t want to feel left out.

You know something’s in trouble when it gets a month. National Poetry Month started in 1996, and, like all one-month dedications, it’s simultaneously a celebration and an awareness campaign. It’s no secret that people read less poetry than prose here in the US and in many other places, that, in fact, many people openly hate it. The reasons for this aversion are many and not really what I want to focus on in this post. Suffice it to say that one thing a poetry month can do for you is get you acquainted with poetry, so that, should your distaste come from unfamiliarity, you can discover a whole new kind of writing you can enjoy.

Sadly, most people know very little about poetry. As a kid, someone read you Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, and maybe some light funny or uplifting verse. You might have read “Jabberwocky” or maybe something by Ogden Nash. It was enjoyable, and as an adult you find yourself jamming to Lenny Kravitz, but you’ve never even thought of poetry since then, or only long enough to laugh at a dirty limerick your college roommate recited one drunken night. If so, you associate poetry with children and humor, and feel you’ve outgrown it. You turn to it only in the form of greeting cards on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.

Perhaps you were lucky enough to get a second round at school. Your education began with Shakespeare’s sonnets (you read a play or two, but you didn’t think of them as poetry) and went on to the Romantics. You read Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge (maybe). The Brownings. You found “How Do I Love Thee?” You heard a fly buzz when you died. Poetry ended with Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. The last poem you ever read was probably by Maya Angelou. If so, you associate poetry with rhyme, love, pain, and the past. You rather like it, but in a remote way, the way one likes hoopskirts and powdered wigs or any sort of costume that transports one to a different era. You are probably of the opinion that “no one writes good poetry anymore.” You might have taken a class in college where they made you read The Wasteland, and that did you in. You found it abstruse, distasteful, a chore to plod through. You didn’t “get it.” You would no more take another class on modern poetry than you would sign up for spa treatments at Guantánamo.

Poor you! You are, like, totally missing out. Poetryjust like proseis a vast smorgasbord of styles and topics only a tiny corner of which gets taught in schools. Most of it is geared toward adults, and there is just as much or more poetry written now than ever before, and in different styles. Contemporary poets continue to write in rhyme, or don’t; they write about love and pain, but also about pop culture and joy and the full gamut of human, animal, and cyborg emotion. There are poems about what happened yesterday, today, and tomorrow. There are easy poems that read almost like prose, and funky ones that challenge the way words can signify. There are short poems and long poems. There are poems you will love, and poems you will hate. You can’t really say you “hate poetry.” It’s sort of like saying you “hate food.” You may hate pickles, or melons, or squid, but certainly you love many more foods, pizza and pineapple and fluffy white rice.

So, now that everyone’s talking about poetry, do yourself a favor and figure out what’s going on. The good news is that things have changedyou’re already where you need to be, the Internet. There’s a lot of wonderful, free poetry to be read online, if you know where to look. Do stay away from amateur sites like, which will only confirm your worst suspicions about poetry by avalanching you with the unfiltered aches of every twelve-year-old girl with a keyboard and a router. Go to professional, controlled sites that upload via editorial review. Two excellent sites are and is great. It’s run by the Academy of American Poets, and it’s a comprehensive site where you can spend hourshell, yearsclicking from one poet/poem to another and another. They provide you with bios and other supplemental/explanatory material to enhance your reading of individual poems and help acquaint you not just with the poets but with schools, movements, and other matters concerning poetry. Of course you know they are running special Poetry Month events, so perhaps a good place to start would be here. is also awesome. It’s more direct, if you’re intimidated by the volume of a site like features a new poem every day, with information on the poet and the publisher. It’s a great way to figure out what hot new books you might like, or what journals publish the kind of poetry you enjoy. If you don’t like the poem one day, return the next and find a whole new one. If you like it, get the book or the journal, and find more.

Sadly, I don’t recommend a trip to your local library or bookstore as a first step. In my hood, what’s there is more of the same stuff you got in school, and little of it. You’ll find a collection of children’s verse, a collected verse of someone really, really dead (I often wonder why people seem to think being dead is a prerequisite to being a poet), and a book on friendship poems à la Hallmark all on the same tiny shelf covered with dust in the back of the store, and likely at “gift book” prices. Better to figure out what you like first online, and then go to a physical store if you prefer, although you’ll likely have to get a special order anyway once you’re there.

Then what?

Learn to read poetry. Most people don’t realize that reading poetry is different from reading prose, that even an avid prose reader needs to make certain adjustments. If you’re of the “I just don’t get it” school of thought, you probably read a poem just once. While it’s possible to “get the gist” of some poems on a first read, one does not read poetry for the gist! The joy, the art of poetry lies in its layers of meaning. One doesn’t simply read a poem, one experiences it. You’re supposed to mull it over, like an experience or memory. Think of it, if you prefer, like eating a piece of delicious cake. A first read is sort of like just having one bite; to truly savor your piece of cake, you’re going to want to eat the whole thing, from the tip to the frosting. Never scarf down a poem. It will cause indigestion.

How to Read a Poem, in 5 easy steps:

  1. Read it for the topic. Who is speaking? What is this poem about? What happens in it?
Not all poems have a “topic.” Narrative poems tell a story, and are therefore a bit easier to figure out at this level. But most poems have stuff in them, people and things engaged in actions. Identifying the basicswho, what, when, whereis a good beginning.

For the sake of elucidation, let’s use Anthony Hecht’s “A Hill,” published a couple of days ago at Poetry Daily. As you can see on a first read, this is a narrative poem. It tells a clear story: the speaker, whom we assume is Hecht, is in Italy walking with some friends when he has what he describes as a “vision.” Suddenly, all the clutter of the market scene in which he is currently located fades to a stark, empty hill. That’s enough for a first read.

  1. “Unpack” it. Take it bit by bit and understand how it means what it means. What is its meaning, its theme?
This is where most people give up. The second reading should be much slower than the first. You should go stanza by stanza, line by line, even word by word if necessary. I had the rare pleasure of being in a workshop with Maxine Kumin. It was she who taught me the idea of “unpacking.” A poem is like a suitcase; it has everything you need inside, but you must open it, unfold the things inside it, and hang them up before you can use them.

In Hecht’s poem, the first stanza is very cluttered, full of things to look at. In particular, these lines create a vivid picture of movement and confusion:

A small navy of carts. Books, coins, old maps,
Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints
Were all on sale. The colors and noise
Like the flying hands were gestures of exultation,
So that even the bargaining
Rose to the ear like a voluble godliness.
                        In sharp contrast, the lines describing his “vision” are stark, empty, and very quiet:

The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
In the last stanza, he is relieved when the “vision” breaks and he is “restored / To the sunlight and [his] friends.” He reveals that, although he did not recognize it at the time, the hill of his vision is a memory of a hill in Poughkeepsie where he used to stand alone as a boy in winter. We can surmise, then, that the adult Hecht has largely forgotten the loneliness and fear, the emptiness of this childhood moment, symbolizedvery traditionallyby winter. In the midst of the color and confusion of his new life abroad, in sunlight, surrounded by friends, the forgotten loneliness of his past makes a sudden appearance, and it is so painful that he doesn’t even pause to think about it, until ten years later, whenboth moments overhe realizes the meaning of his vision. The poem, therefore, is a kind of meditation on fatehow could that boy, alone and afraid on that hill in winter, have ever guessed that one day he’d be in Italy, surrounded by friends, and light, and noise? What fear and sorrow could he have avoided had he known? The poem also questions the nature of happiness, how even in the midst of it the painful past can intrude, how, in a way, we never leave our lonely hills behind no matter how far we travel. Both sorrow and happiness are transitory in this poemone day you’re a lonely boy on a hill in Poughkeepsie, and another you’re a famous poet in Italy. There’s more going on herethe fact that what triggers the vision are “books, coins, old maps, / Cheap landscapes and ugly religious prints” also speaks to the theme of time and value, but I think I’ve made my point about what more you can get from a second reading.

  1. Look for form. How many stanzas? How many lines per stanza? What kind of lines does the poem have (short, long, end-stopped, enjambed)? Is there a rhyme scheme? Read the poem aloud to better hear its sound effects.
This poem has three stanzas, dictated by content. The first contains the cluttered scene in Italy and the description of the vision; the last the revelation that the vision is a childhood memory. The lines are regular but not metered, and there’s no rhyme or fancy linguistic acrobatics.

  1. What is the function of the form? Does it make you read the poem in a particular way? What is the relationship of the form to the content?
The poem’s form is conversational and content-driven, which kind of suits the mood“hey, I was walking, and this funny thing happened.” The one strong use of form is the short middle stanzait makes you pause and think, stay on the lonely, cold hill for a little while. That pause is crucial to feeling the same way Hecht doesalone, kind of afraid, unable, for a moment, to figure out what’s going on.

  1. React to it. How does it make you feel? What does it make you think? What parts of it elicit such responses from you?
This last part of reading a poem is highly personal, but I’ll give it a shot. For one thing, it makes me feel rather sad and afraid, while at the same time hopeful, in a way. It’s not a love poem, which a lot of people have trouble with. So used to Mother Goose and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the strictly casual reader of poetry is often turned off by a poem that neither makes you laugh nor sigh romantically. Most poetry is pretty serious, however, and this is a pretty serious poem. I don’t really want to think about my cold hills, or have them come up on me suddenly in the middle of shopping, but there’s a value to this confrontation with life’s instability, and I sure appreciate being able to experience it vicariously through Hecht instead of in the middle of Dadeland Mall. I’m particularly chilled by how the vision starts, the “clear fretwork of shadows / From huge umbrellas [that] littered the pavement” like the beginning of Creature Feature or something. The possible gunshot the boy Hecht hears is also more than scary, and I can “totally relate,” as my students would say, to that feeling of two moments collapsing into each other like this. Maybe next time I’m on a cold hill feeling lonely, I’ll think of shopping in Italy.

By far the saddest of the uninitiated has to be she or he who would like to write poetry, but yet is little acquainted with it, who thinks that poetry is poetry simply because it rhymes, or who thinks that poetry can only be about love or passionate emotions. For some reason, although there are few readers of poetry, there are many, many people who want to write it. If you’re one of them, your first step has to be to stop playing around and get seriousstudy living poets who are publishing now, and learn to appreciate poetry on an adult, well-read level. Ironically, poetry is extremely suited to today’s culture. It doesn’t require the hours to read a novel does, or even the near two you devote to a film. It’s instant gratification, and we love that. This silly way of thinking of poetry as child’s play or as something only few people can do, like touching the tip of your nose with your tongue, is ridiculous. This month, while you’re stuck inside waiting for the Easter Bunny, take out your old copy of The Wasteland and figure out what all the fuss about April is about.

1 comment:

  1. PS Check out this great "kit" for studying poetry:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...