How to Read a Poem

Remember that the magic lies beyond the words

| May-June 1999

Read a poem to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a lamp and read it while you’re alone or while someone sleeps next to you. Read it when you’re wide awake in the early morning, fully alert. Say it over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture—the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us—has momentarily stopped. This poem has come from a great distance to find you.

The great poets Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan compared the experience of reading a poem to finding a message in a bottle. Imagine that you have gone down to the shore and there, amidst the debris—the seaweed and rotten wood, the crushed cans and dead fish—you find an unlikely looking bottle from the past. You bring it home and discover a special kind of communiqué. It speaks out of a solitude to a solitude; it begins and ends in silence. Now you must decipher it; what is it saying?

A certain kind of poem teaches you how to read it. Poems communicate before they are understood, so don’t be anxious if you feel as if you don’t understand everything right away. Don’t go symbol hunting, as we were so often taught to do in high school literature classes. Let the poem work in you as a human experience. Listen to the words and pay attention to the feelings they evoke.

Here is a poem that I have returned to again and again because I have found it instructive and emblematic. It combines deep feeling with a powerful organizing structure.

“One Art” is a villanelle, a French form whose structure is rooted in Italian folk song; it came into American poetry late in the 19th century. Bishop’s poem sounds natural and is deceptively informal, given its formal structure: 19 lines divided into 6 stanzas, turning on two rhymes and built around two refrains. The first and third lines rhyme throughout, as do the middle lines of each stanza. Bishop modifies the traditional form, since the first refrain—“The art of losing isn't hard to master”—repeats exactly throughout the poem, whereas the second refrain modulates around the word disaster. As it turns and returns, Bishop’s verse becomes a model of stability and change, repetition and variation, circularity and progressive movement forward.

Do you have to know it’s a villanelle to appreciate “One Art” as poetry? No. But knowing what kind of poetic animal you're dealing with can give you a clue about how to read it.

1/30/2010 5:08:36 AM

I wrote poetry and will write poetry in the future because I HAVE HAD TO. It comes out of my body and my soul as a way to allow the inside of me to become outside of me. I have always read poetry my others in my life. We used to sit around the dining room table as children with our parents and read something before or after the family meals. I would most always choose to read poetry. My favorite all time poet is ferlinghetti. He was never as famous or well known as e.e.cummings. Their style of writing with no commas, periods, capital letters and the spacing of words that in itself was part of the poem was similar. ferlinghetti somehow just spoke to me more completely. Poetry Slams of today are simlilar to the Beat Generation Poetry Readings and the 1960's Happenings. Everyone must keep their voices out there and continue to read and write poetry. ALL our voices need to be heard.

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