how to process poetry
December 4, 2004 7:33 PM   Subscribe

How do you read books of poetry?

Poetry seems a little dense to plough through in one go, a collection at a time. My gut tells me to open up a book, read a poem, and place the book back on the shelf. What am I missing with this approach? Presently, I have Frost and Yeats collections on my shelf.
posted by tomharpel to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I'm reading poetry, I'll usually carry a collection with me, and whenever I have a moment (like on the subway) I'll open it to a random poem and read. That establishes a moment for the poem, which is, of course, a moment in itself. Mileage will vary by poet, of course, but it's worked for me with Yeats. That's me, of course. What you should do is listen to your gut. You need to read the poetry on your terms—that's part of the experience. What are you missing with your approach? (This is a tough subject on which to generalize, so bear with me.)

If you're absorbing each piece successfully, you shouldn't be missing much. I suppose if you want to get a feel for the writer's evolution and growth as a poet, then chronological order would be the way to go. If you just want to read the poetry, then there's nothing wrong with taking each piece individually, in an arbitrary order. Each piece was (probably) approached individually by the poet; why shouldn't you do the same? As you progress your comparative instincts will get a feel for the patterns and themes developed within the poetry.

Also: re-read. Read ten Yeats poems, then go back and read the first one. Read some Yeats, then some Frost, then go back to Yeats. Just read and absorb, re-read and absorb some more. You're not missing out on anything by reading in whatever order you choose; you're building the experience with the same bricks no matter which way you do it.

Hopefully some of that made sense.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 8:19 PM on December 4, 2004

It depends, of course, on the poetry, but I'm fond of the "pick up the book, look to see what catches my eye, then read it out loud" approach. This works especially well with anthologies, and is possibly the only way to make sense of Chaucer.

By reading poems out loud, I get to really hear the language. It also slows me down enough to have a better chance of grokking what is going on.

I can take some practise to read poetry out loud decently. Hearing it helps. Caedmon has a number of inexpensive tapes and CDs of poetry being read, like this one. Poetry Speaks has gotten rave reviews this year. Public libraries often have a few of this kind of thing around.
posted by QIbHom at 8:28 PM on December 4, 2004

Quietly, at home, with distractions (hopefully) at a minimum. When I read poetry, I usually only read for about an hour -- sometimes that means I get through one poem, sometimes that means I get through ten or twelve. I just find that after an hour or so, it's harder to concentrate on implications, metaphors, et cetera.

I also happen to read pretty fast normally, so I have to force myself to slow down when I'm reading poetry.

And if I'm alone, I'll often read it out loud to get a better sense of the rhythms, vowel sounds, and the like.
posted by Vidiot at 8:32 PM on December 4, 2004

In a coffeeshop, wearing a black turtleneck. Near the front window.

Just kidding. I usually just read one or two at a time. Depends on the poet, really.
posted by keswick at 8:37 PM on December 4, 2004

it depends very much on the poetry. i could spend hours with a diverse anthology (i'm thinking rattle bag for example), just reading stuff for fun, at random. for something more serious, try leaving the book in the bathroom - that gives you time for a poem and a little contemplation....
posted by andrew cooke at 8:41 PM on December 4, 2004

one word at a time.
posted by crunchland at 8:45 PM on December 4, 2004

Pretty much what Vidiot said, all of it: only a few at a time, and self-consciously slower than I'd otherwise read.

Also, as to the order: it really depends on the book -- if it's an anthology or a single author collected/selected works, I feel free to skip around to whatever catches my eye, but if it's a singular work, I'll try to read it in the order that the poet presents the work.
posted by .kobayashi. at 9:04 PM on December 4, 2004

Damnit, crunchland, you stole my joke.
posted by Iason at 10:41 PM on December 4, 2004

Thank you crunchland. (g)

Seriously, for me, it depends on the poet. Some I can read for hours on end, others I'll take in one work at a time.

Epic works, once you get into the language, are better imo, read as you would a book of prose.

Collections of shorter works I'll read one at a time, savoring the imagery of each line as it's painted in my head.

Which can often lead to creating images of my own to go with the particular piece.
posted by kamylyon at 2:35 AM on December 5, 2004

My general strategy is to browse randomly through a book for a while, if nothing catches my eye within a few weeks, I put it on the shelf and move on, planning to return in a couple of years.

When I do get a book where things jump out at me, the fun starts. Then I begin reading systematically, taking about 30-45 minutes with each poem, rereading, looking for the structure, tensions, etc. If I finish the book this way and am still in love with the poet, I find her next book and keep moving forward.

In my experience, this is the best way to acquaint yourself with a poet's voice and concerns. Sometimes you spend a little while reading closely, other times months can pass. I read Paul Celan and Emily Dickinson this way and can honestly say these were some of the best reading experiences of my life. Also, it's a great way to have a shelf of books that you plan on returning to without feeling terribly guilty about it.
posted by felix betachat at 5:43 AM on December 5, 2004

Ah, two other things:

When you're reading this way, it helps to have collections that are arranged chronologically, not according to an editor's whim.

Also, good literary biographies are very helpful.
posted by felix betachat at 5:47 AM on December 5, 2004

What poetry I read is usually reasonably light, playful stuff (Parker, Cummings, that sort of thing). I generally just keep them in my bag and read why the opportunity arises, however sometimes these opportunities let me read for quite a while (train journeys); I don't find this a problem, though it does take a little waking up to reality again when you're done. I often find myself subvocalising the poetry. Sometimes this improves my experience, sometimes it doesn't.
posted by fvw at 12:49 PM on December 5, 2004

there's nothing wrong with reading a poem at a time ... i think it takes several readings to get everything if the poet's good ... so you're not missing anything by doing it one poem at a time
posted by pyramid termite at 5:39 AM on December 6, 2004

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