Thursday, April 11, 2019

Eating Poetry: How I Read and Appreciate Poems

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

These lines come from "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand. As a whole, the poem is pretty surreal and disturbing, but this opening stanza sums up how I approach reading poetry. When I read a poem, what I want to do is simply take it in, and allow whatever joy it can offer me as a reader to fill me up. I read poetry solely for pleasure, and not to analyze, criticize, or otherwise tear apart each stanza. This may seem strange for someone who majored in English, but I mostly avoided poetry courses in college, and I think that is why I still have such a love for it today.

Billy Collins, my favorite contemporary poet, has a poem entitled "Introduction to Poetry," which expresses his frustration with poetry students who "want to tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it" while Collins would prefer that they "...waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore." I also like to appreciate poetry at the surface level, and allow the deeper meanings to wash over me without having to agonize over each word. As I think about the ways I approach a poem in order to gain this appreciation, it becomes clear that there are three main ways I connect with poetry: through its sound, through its use of language, and through its resonance with my emotional experiences.

Rhythm and Rhyme

I have come to some of my favorite poems purely by my sense of sound. Often, the rhyme and rhythm of a poem will appeal to me and engage me before I have any idea of what the words are saying. My father read "Casey at the Bat" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" to me when I was less than ten years old. I knew little about baseball, and nothing at all about gold mining in the Yukon, but both of these poems have such wonderfully playful meters to them that it's impossible not to get caught up in them, even if you're not catching every word.

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.
[Casey at the Bat]

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
      I cremated Sam McGee.
[The Cremation of Sam McGee]

The rhythm and rhyme of these poems has become so familiar to me that I've read them again and again as I've aged, and their words have also become easier to comprehend and appreciate because of how often I have been exposed to them.

In college, I had a similar experience with some of the poems of William Butler Yeats, which I did briefly study in an Irish literature class. To this day, I don't really understand a word of "The Song of Wandering Aengus," but I still love the way it sounds:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

And if nothing else, there is always the fun exercise of singing Emily Dickinson's poems to the tunes of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and/or "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and/or the theme from "Gilligan's Island." (Try it with "'Hope' is the thing with feathers" - it's so satisfying.)


Another thing that will draw me into a poem is the way it plays with words and structure. Though there are many poems by e.e. cummings that go right over my head, he is also the author of some of my favorites. My favorite of his for playing with language is "anyone lived in a pretty how town." At first glance, this poem sounds like nonsense:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

But as you slowly take in each stanza, it becomes clear that this is a poignant meditation on the lives of anonymous residents of a typical American town. I couldn't articulate exactly what a "pretty how town" is, nor do I have any idea why cummings included phrases like "up so floating many bells down" or, later in the poem, "dong and ding" and yet, as a whole, I instinctively understand the mood the poem means to convey. In this poem, cummings's experimentation with words brings artistry and universality to mundane daily life.

Another cummings poem that I really like, "in Just-" plays with language and the arrangement of words on the page:

in Just- 
spring          when the world is mud- 
luscious the little 
lame balloonman 

whistles          far          and wee 

This poem includes wonderful descriptions for the season of spring - "mudluscious," "puddle wonderful" -  and the way the words dance across the page also evokes a feeling of springtime joy and excitement. Again, I'm not sure what it really means to be a "goat-footed balloonman" as he is called near the end of the poem, nor could I explain the meaning of "far and wee," but the poem evokes spring beautifully, and I love to read the poem each year as the seasons change.

Another poet who plays with words and structure in a similar way is Douglas Florian, author of collections of poetry for children about seasons, animals, insects, and other favorite topics. His poetry is a bit more accessible than cummings, but equally as satisfying.

Emotional connection 

The third way I connect with poetry is through emotion. Poems that reflect experiences I have had or circumstances I have gone through tend to become favorites. One such poem is "Lanyard" by Billy Collins, in which he riffs on the idea of a child giving his mother a lanyard as a gift, as though it might make up for everything she has done for him. I first heard the poem in 2004 when Collins gave a reading at Vassar, and I very much resonated with the child's point of view, and connected to the poem through the nostalgia I associated with making lanyards at Girl Scout camp. Now, as a parent, I view the poem through the mother's eyes and see reflected in the lanyard the art projects my own children make for me. Collins, in general, writes very relatable poetry, giving new insight into ordinary everyday events.

Another poet whose work resonates with me on an emotional level is Edna St. Vincent Millay. I started reading her as a teenager, when relationships with boys were often at the forefront of my mind. When I experienced my first break-up, her poem “Time does not bring relief; you all have lied" (also called Sonnet II) reflected my feelings:

There are a hundred places where I fear   
To go,—so with his memory they brim.   
And entering with relief some quiet place   
Where never fell his foot or shone his face   
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”   
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

This seems a little melodramatic to me now, but the melancholy feeling this poem reflected to me as a teen has been replaced now with a strong sense of nostalgia for more innocent times. And these days, others of her poems with a more positive outlook appeal to me. One example is "Afternoon on a Hill":

I will be the gladdest thing  
    Under the sun!  
I will touch a hundred flowers  
    And not pick one.  
I love the way this poem expresses the thrill of being outside on a beautiful spring day.

Another example is a sonnet from her collection entitled Fatal Interview, which includes the following beautiful stanza:

Love in the open hand, no thing but that, 
Ungemmed, unhidden, wishing not to hurt, 
As one should bring you cowslips in a hat 
Swung from the hand, or apples in her skirt, 
I bring you, calling out as children do: 
"Look what I have! - And these are all for you."  

This is my favorite poem of all time, solely because of that final image, which appeals to our memories and impressions of childhood to explain the purity of the speaker's love.

Advice for Reading Poetry

I have come to appreciate all of these poems on my own without any specialized knowledge or guidance. Even if you have been made to feel that poetry is beyond your reach, there is no reason you can't overcome that roadblock and find some poems that speak to you. My advice is simple:

  • Don't panic. One of the wonderful things about being an armchair reader of poetry is that no one is going to grade your analysis of any poem that you read. Maybe one poem in an entire collection speaks to you - if that's the case, enjoy that poem and continue your search for more in another volume. There are many poems which are beyond me, and which I don't want to work to decode. So I don't read those, and I don't worry about it. 
  • Start small. A lot of short poems pack a big punch, and even poems that are ostensibly for children can be excellent gateways into poetry appreciation for adults. Shorter poems tend to feel less intimidating, both because they won't waste much of your time if you don't like them, and because their meanings are usually pretty easy to grasp at a glance. 
  • Read poetry aloud. Much of a poem's meaning comes from how it sounds. Reading poems aloud, even just to yourself in a quiet room, can make them seem less mystifying. Recordings of authors reading their own work (which can often be found on YouTube) can also help you become attuned to the way they intended the poems to sound, which can also help elucidate their meanings.
  • Don't give up. Poetry can take time to appreciate; even if it's not clicking for you after trying several poets, this does not mean that you are in some way defective as a reader. If you are person who loves the written word, there is a poem out there somewhere that will make sense and become important to you. You just have to have the patience and perseverance to keep looking until you find it. 

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