Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Art of Reading Poems

As writers, we read poetry for pleasure and to better understand the craft; however, the work of reading a poem often requires great diligence. I've joined another poetry group that is more focused on analyzing the techniques and building of poems. Monthly, we gather in a small group to critique how a poem works. We are given an assignment ahead of time, to look at varying aspects of how poems are built i.e. rhythm or beat, imagery, metaphor, structure, themes, etc. Essentially, we review the poems that members bring to discuss/debate what the poet is attempting to do with the poem, and whether or not it is working. This group was organized by David Kosub, through the participation of members from the Planet Earth Poetry reading series. The blog for our group can be found at:

I attended my first meeting last week, and found the experience highly engaging. Initially, we brought these poems as curious readers, looking to the group for help in gaining a clearer insight into these poems, and asking the questions: What am I missing? What point is the poet trying to make? Where is the poem going? Why is this poem not accessible? We observed the rhythm of these poems, and quickly slid into the leaps of metaphor, first debating over whether the poet's intent was to be literal or substituting for a larger theme, such as the interpretation of Ted Hughes' poem, Poor Birds.

In the boggy copse. Blue
Dusk presses into their skulls
Electrodes of stars. All night
Clinging to sodden twigs, with twiggy claws,
They dream the featherless, ravenous
Machinery of Heaven. At dawn, fevered,
They flee to the field. All day
They try to get some proper sleep without
Losing sight of the grass. Panics
Fling them from hill to hill. They search everywhere
For the safety that sleeps
Everywhere in the closed faces
Of stones.

We wrestled with this poem. At first, we read the poem literally, seeing the birds as doing their bird-like activities. Then one member brilliantly pointed out: I see soldiers. The meaning of the poem instantly turned, as we began to pull out War images of front-line soldiers, and the emotions and actions associated with battle. This revelation occurred in many of the poems we were critiquing, and as a group we became elevated in our discoveries as somewhat novice readers.

Unlike my participation in our Waywords poetry group, we are not working on our own poems, but doing collective work to understand the poetry that is existing in the world by either esteemed or not-so-familiar poets.

I admit, I don't usually have enough time to commit to reading poems, although my book shelves are stacked with poetry simply waiting to be read, understood and appreciated. This group lends the opportunity to return to these poems and dissect them. After all, if a writer doesn't understand what other writers are doing, how can they model or improve their own work? Or have an intelligent discussion about literature and what they are attempting to do on their own? With my wine glass in hand, a gas fire blazing nearby, and notebook on my lap, I relished in the company of writers and the nostalgic atmosphere of being part of a 'study group' of sorts.

The group discussion was open and respected, as we all brought our different views and interpretations to the table, and bounced them around the living room. Often we will bring our pre-determined views and life experiences to a poem and, although it useful, it is not always easy to then carve away our own biases and see the true message of the poem, or accept the poet in their intent. Still, once the reader 'gets it', it is easier to develop a clearer opinion about the poet's intent and be able to understand why or why not we favour a poem. I look forward to our next meeting of poetic minds.

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