Friday, September 10, 2010

to whom it may concern

It has come to my attention that there are those who would rather get Oprah Winfrey tattoos on their eyeballs than read poetry. Or have better luck understanding the tax laws than a few lines of verse. Do not fret or feel ashamed. Nay, neither forfeit nor scream. You are not alone. As a matter of fact, lean in . . . I have a secret.

I am not the world's biggest fan of reading poetry, either. In college, I avoided it like Lohan avoids rehab. Like Sasquatch avoids telephoto lenses. Like publishing opportunities avoid me. In short, be assured, you are not alone. But be also of good cheer. I bear middling news of reasonable tidings. It's really not that bad. Once you get used to it. It took me a long, looooooooooooooong time to figure this out so perhaps my experience can save you from further heartache. Here are some simple tips to make poetry reading more enjoyable for the resistant and averse.

1] Relax. They are just words. Words that relay thoughts and express feeling. You do this all the time. We are surrounded by, full of, bombarded with, moved through words. The advantage of poetry is that these words are carefully chosen and wrought with meaning. Which is to say, in most cases though not always (I'm looking at you Lewis Carrol), poems can be more sensible than everyday yammering if only we could just relax.

2] Take it slowly. Just as the words were carefully chosen, you can carefully read them. They are not going anywhere (oh gorgeous aspect of ink and paper) so take a deep breath and begin. Line one . . . "This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels," ("Seascape"--Elizabeth Bishop) ahh . . . so nice.

3] Trust the poet. I have found that folks don't trust poets to write in comprehensible ways. Perhaps due to the fact that many poets do not write thusly. You will know within a few lines if a particular poet is writing for you. If not, dust off your feet and move on, there is likely little there for your enjoyment or edification anyway. I am of the opinion that poets should almost always be writing for you. But a "you" that is prepared to trust her and also follow tips 1 and 2. So take Bishop's line--what are we looking at? what is she showing us? It's no trick, it's a seascape. Read the rest of the poem. No tricks . . .trees, fish, lighthouses . . . all above board and honest and, best of all, oh gorgeous aspect, is the magnificent way we are being treated to the poet's view.

4] Open your mind. So we have let the poet speak to us in slightly different (poetic) ways yet she has not battered us with snarky language or left us to sink on our own. And now, having spread out the panorama, having allowed us and even compelled us to behold the scene, now she will add meaning to beauty. In this case, Bishop has led us to a lighthouse and given it a metaphorical twist. Relax--metaphors are your friend. All she has done is personify the lighthouse for the better conveyance of the poem's meaning or, because meaning is such a heavy word and largely unfigurable, call it the point--that which the poet would like us to see or that moment at which she is probably good with us seeing whatever we happen to, to reach a point of our own. With an open mind, one or the other point is bound to resolve.

5] Ignore the sense of dumbfoundedness. A poem read calmly and without fear will never have been a futile exercise. You entered a work of art. You felt your way around. You saw interesting things described in unique ways. So you think you still missed the point. That's just fine. Most of us do. (Only some of us have made careers or dedicated obnoxious hours to squeezing meaning from words like so much sourness from a beer-sopped bar-rag.) Besides, in many cases, the purpose of poetry is to open-up possibilities, to raise questions, to incite thought. This seems to be the case with Bishop's poem. Because where do we end? Our personified lighthouse is in a state of uncertainty. He is a bit dumbfounded himself. He knows what heaven is NOT like, but as for what it IS like he can only figure in vague terms: "something to do with blackness and a strong glare" and it will not be until he actually enters that darkness that "he will remember something strongly worded to say about the subject." [Italics my own.]

6] Rinse and repeat. You've read a poem and it was not that bad. But still, a dull ache is pulsing behind one of your eyes and there are dishes to do and litter to scoop and plans to be made and now the pulsing ache is behind both eyes and you're out of Tylenol. So shake it off. Cleanse the old palate. Walk away. Clear your mind. Then read it again. Not now but later. With a more careful eye, a more attuned ear. Perhaps next time around substitute "heaven" with "poetry." Perhaps poetry is not what you expected it to be, maybe it's "something" on the tip of your tongue, "something" not just yet but soon, if you relax, take it slow, trust the poet, and open your mind, you will be able to understand, to put into words--something you knew all along but only "remember[ed]" just now.

[No representation is made that the reading of this poem or any of the implications drawn from such reading are the readings of other readers specifically though not limited to those: with higher degrees, with better poetic sensibilities, who know Bishop meant nothing close to what has been here stated. So there.]


  1. Thanks Hannah. I am glad you think so. It helps to have someone in love with reading poetry (is that a fair assessment?) concur with these little tips. I feel a tad unqualified in this regard--after all, I am a pretty sucky reader of poetry. Shhh.

  2. Jonathan,
    Do I have your permission to print this out, photocopy it, and hand it out to my students (high school freshmen)? They seem to see poetry as this secret labyrinth that only those with "vision" (drug-induced or otherwise) can navigate.

  3. John, permission granted, if you think it will help.

  4. I believe your feeling of being unqualified is unfounded. =) You treated this matter quite admirably - also coming from someone in love with reading poetry, if I may modestly say so myself. Even after years of being closely acquainted with poetry, I still find myself at the worst of times distrusting the poet instinctively or not looking past my dumbfoundedness and on to what the words are saying.

    One (or more) of my professors cemented the importance of 'clarity' and 'precision' in writing as well as reading. In many ways, as I'm sure you can imagine, this has aided and abetted in how I look at a piece of writing. It is also an incessant mantra that both delights and torments me. I have also tried to learn the value of this mantra in conversation, i.e. when attempting to explain poetry to someone who is confounded by it, approach it in a clear, simple, and precise manner. I'd say you did a decent job of that with this post. In salute,

  5. Thanks Rachel. And well said. Perhaps I distrust myself.