How to Read A Poem (II)

It can be a great deal easier with an accomplice. For one thing, all good poems have things you will miss the first time or the first ten times you read them. That’s why the poet wrote a poem and not prose.

To caricature, a poem is extremely condensed while prose is much looser. In a poem, the poet is trying to squeeze as much meaning into a single line or stanza as possible. The limitations of the poetic form are what make the poem possible, much as the limitations of a marriage vow are what make a marriage possible (cf. Wendell Berry, Standing By Words). In prose, you can say something and then spend a paragraph explaining what you just said – rather like I am doing right now.

So if you have an accomplice, you are pretty well guaranteed that the other person will see things you can’t see when you read the poem.

A second reason for reading with an accomplice is that it pretty well forces you to read aloud, which changes the experience. Even reading aloud alone differs from reading silently. Reading aloud with another person changes it even more.

By compacting so many things into so small a space, poetry cultivates a poetic faculty, thus refining the working of the intellect and imagination. Sometimes the poem will be obviously complicated, full of misdirections and secondary meanings. Other times, the poem will seem to be obvious but will be telling you a great deal more than you thought it was on the first read. Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” illustrates this second type.

Here’s an example of the first type:

Night Watch, By H.L. Hix Published in Poetry March 2oo8

As gestures to beckon geometry’s end
I post letters to my lost Mayan sisters,
solicit layers sussed from layers to test
history, push past parallel. Mystery
becomes you, Mother, as does the lust the rest
of us suffer, lust you must once have induced.
What perceptions I trust defy perspective.
I take my troubles scribbled, not erased.

On first read, this poem was very confusing for me. It didn’t have much of an impact on me emotionally either, at least not by way of some gripping image linking to my own epxerience. I tend to read a little more analytically, I think, so I see the logic of things like this sooner than I experience the power of the imagery. That’s a matter of degree and there’s no strength or weakness in it – just a starting point. My wife is much better at perceiving the images.

So my mind goes, perhaps too hastily, to the second last line because it is a simple statement, at least grammatically. I’m inclined to read a poem as a riddle and to derive pleasure from the quest as long as it promises reward. (I like John Donne. But I also like Chaucer, who gives God’s plenty to the questing questioner, but also writes simple and beautiful poetry for the reader who wants a good story. And I don’t always have time for a metaphysical conceit, as Donne’s tricks are often called).

Karen noted immediately that geometry is related to temples and lines (layers). She saw Mayan temples and even, possibly, Mayan sisters who had been lost in temple sacrifices. When she pointed that out, I realized that the whole poem is centered on geometry – even literally. There, right smack in the center, is that disruptive phrase: “push past parallel.” What?!

But then I look closer and realize it isn’t smack in the center. It’s a line up: 3 1/2 lines before and 4 1/2 lines after. It’s a little off center. Or is the last line, maybe, not exactly part of the poem’s natural form. Is it an afterthought? Those are the sorts of questions I ask when I read a poem. Sometimes I’m taken in for therapy afterward.

She posts letters to her lost Mayan sisters and then addresses her Mother. Why does she capitalize the M? The reader should form a hypothesis and then read the poem again to see if it works. Does she capitalize Mother because she is referring to the earth? Well, if she is talking about layers sussed from layers and maybe those layers have to do with the steps of a Mayan pyramid, then to push past parallel would take you into the earth.

And does mystery become the earth? Rather! Does “the lust the rest of us suffer” become the earth? And so on.

My point in writing these questions and reflecting on them is not to interpret the poem with you but to show the sorts of questions that can be asked when you read a poem that is obviously intended to challenge the readers interpretive skills. I read a line, I ask whether it is clear, I compare it with surrounding lines, I fearlessly and almost carelessly (who cares if I get it wrong) develop hypothetical interpretations, I suggest them to my wife or my paper or my mind or, now, my blog. I invite others to think through the poem with me.

By doing this every now and then I become better at reading poetry. I learn some of the tricks poets use. My memory is stretched and my “comprehension skills” are cultivated. My human faculties are being cultivated. That is always a good thing.

To read a poem like this with a class, simply go through the same steps with your students. Start with clearer works, like Robert Frost, but by middle school help them to see beyond the surface of a Robert Frost poem. Frost was a genius and a truly great poet. His work prepares the student for the more difficult poets who write without a clear surface meaning, like the one above.

By the way, on the next page, the same poet, H.L. Hix writes a poem every bit as skilled but with a clearer surface:

Beyond (A System for Passing)

To say how much I’ve missed you, I offer this,
at most mist, at least assorted letters, lists,
numbers I insist tell stories. I kissed you
last, Dad, in the casket in which you passed on,
to some next place, but last listened for your voice
last night, these long years after, will listen next
when next oppressed by blue-gray, as I am now,
as I, thus lost, am always by your absence.

Look at how effectively the poet uses the “st” sound throughout: last, kissed, oppressed, etc. I like that. I also liked how the beginnings of the last few lines echoed something from the previous lines (because a child echoes the father?): last listened…/last night; will listen next/when next; as I am now/as I, thus lost, am always.

Perhaps it is safe to suggest that the first poem is dominated by the imagery and the second by the schemes. Perhaps.

The ear finds pleasure in these repetitions and hidden echoes, and when the mind doesn’t notice them the soul does. Our joys and our mournings have a rhythm and until they are expressed musically they are incomplete and unformed. Perhaps the poets are our professional mourners and our clowns. They make great accomplices.

Maybe I’ll post a poem I wrote when I heard that my father had fourth stage cancer one of these days.

By the way, you can get the magazine I’ve been drawing these poems from at Barnes and Noble or almost any book store for $3.75. It’s called Poetry.

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