How to Read a Poem

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.

“One Art” is a poem about loss; Bishop starts small and continually enlarges the losses she experiences, beginning with inconsequential things, the door keys, the wasted hour, and moving up from there. But even as the speaker acknowledges that the losses are cutting deeper and deeper, she insists that they aren’t disastrous. Loss itself is the emotional truth in this poem, which intellect, through its various gyrations, struggles in vain to escape and deny.

In its final stanza, in an extraordinary turn, the villanelle becomes a love poem. By the poem’s structural logic, the loss of the beloved must necessarily be the greatest loss of all. The conclusion is the first acknowledgment that this final loss actually feels like, looks like, a disaster.

By forcing herself to write it down–” (Write it!)”–the author forces herself to face her loss. The activity of writing mirrors the psychological process of recognition, and the process of recognition becomes the emotional discovery of this poem. The reader overhears what the poet is making herself acknowledge. Rather than the villanelle’s being a container into which a poet pours previously worked out thoughts and feelings, the form itself becomes a way for the writer to unearth those feelings.

Poems can be accessible in different ways. Some may carry meaning that seems readily apparent at first but that deepens the more you attend to them. But even poems that seem initially resistant, even inscrutable, will reveal their secrets after study and reflection.

I say that one should turn on a lamp and read a poem in the middle of the night because poetry is a solitary, intimate, and passionately private communication from a soul to another soul. Remember that poems demand an attentiveness to language and values that requires concentration. But if you invest something of yourself in the daily reading of poetry, you will find this simple act rewarding, even necessary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that poetry is “what will and must be spoken.” It is a secret that can no longer be kept secret, a way of knowing. Whenever a poem enacts what it is about, it creates a way for itself to live dramatically inside the reader. The great poem is the message salvaged from a wreck and sealed in the bottle. Take the time to go down to the dunes and search for that bottle. When you find it, bring it home, because it is now yours. This haunted and haunting message was meant for you.

FromNew Age (Nov.-Dec. 1998). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (8 issues) from Box 1949, Marion, OH 43305-1949.

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