Faced with a daunting task, you whip out your sword and poke tentatively at the page. The poem rears back like a cobra and strikes, rapping your knuckles and yanking the blade from your numb fingers. Defenseless, you stand and accept the myriad of paper cuts dished out by the sneering paper.
Reading a poem isn’t that bad. Really. You are an adult now and can read a poem for pleasure instead of an English grade. Over-analysis has done more to turn people off poetry than any other educational mechanism. On the other hand, a lot can be gained from taking a look below the surface of a poem. Many poems have multiple layers of meaning that lurk quietly, waiting for your discovery. Polite, they don’t shove their deeper meanings in your face, but wait to be asked to reveal themselves to you.
The Quick Method
1. Look at the title of the poem. Spend a few seconds pondering what it says, and what it might mean. “The Sandbox” may hint at a story about childhood, but “The Day I Spent Digging My Way To China” implies a lot more is going on than idle scooping. Some poets like simple titles, sometimes deceptively simple. “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Others use them as flashing red light district signs to lure you in. “An Infinite Number Of Monkeys” by Ronald Koertge. Still others play on words and meaning. “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford
2. Read the poem. Don’t stop to analyze or look for hidden meanings. Just read it all the way through. Did anything stick in your mind after you finished? Did you find yourself smiling? Frowning? Shaking your head?
3. What were your first impressions of the poem? What was it about? What did you think it was about?
4. If anything stood out, or wasn’t understandable, circle it, underline it, highlight it. Read the poem again. Sometimes meaning builds slowly. There are several poems I read numerous times before the lightbulb finally went off. There are a few I never have gotten. I just enjoy them on the level I can, and move on.
5. Is the poem broken into parts (stanzas)? Is there a reason for the breaks? Are the breaks there to give the reader breathing room, or to enhance the appearance of the poem on the page? What kind of structure, if any, does the poem have?
6. Listen to the words as you read them. Look for patterns of words, letters, sounds, and meanings. Short, sharp words convey a different meaning than slow, languid words and sounds. Punctuation. Used or ignored? Same with capital letters. Is the poem in a recognizable form such as a sonnet?
7. What “tone” or “voice” is used in the poem? Public or private, first person narrator or distant third? (Compare Billy Collins to Ron Koertge to William Stafford in this)
8. Are there any allusions, symbols, or myths the poet employs?
9. Lastly, read the poem again, aloud if possible. Do your impressions remain the same, or have they changed over the course of your analysis?
If the poem makes you want to read more by that poet, then there is something going on between you and the poet’s words. Put down your sword, hold out your hand, and like a bird, the poem will land in your palm. Often, after it has flown, you’re left with warmth and the memory of something beating beneath the surface. Once in a while you’re left with something messier. Just wipe your hand on your pants and try again.
Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark.
An Infinite Number Of Monkeys
by Ronald Koertge
After all the Shakespeare, the book
of poems they type is the saddest
But before they can finish it,
they have to wait for that Someone
who is always
looking to look away. Only then
can they strike the million
keys that spell
humiliation and grief, which are
the great subjects of Monkey
and not, as some people still
believe, the banana
and the tire.
At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border
by William Stafford
This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
CELEBRATING MIDWEST LITERATURE, REMINDING MYSELF WHAT IT IS TO BE A WRITER
I don’t know if you know this, but Gyroscope Review’s three editors live nowhere near an ocean. Constance Brewer and I, the two founding editors, are firmly planted in what some consider fly-over country: Wyoming and Minnesota, respectively. Our Assistant Editor, Josh Colwell, lives near Pennsylvania’s border with Ohio.
I’ve been thinking a bit about this lately, and about the way literature from New York or Los Angeles might be embraced more quickly than that from elsewhere. I’m firmly planted in the heart of the Midwest, but let me tell you – literary tradition in Minnesota is strong. Its roots are deep. Most people know Bob Dylan and Prince came from Minnesota, but there are so many poets and writers who lived and still live here to celebrate: Robert Bly, Patricia Hampl, Phoebe Hanson, Bill Holmes, Louis Jenkins, Deborah Keenan, Freya Manfred, James Moore, Jim Northrup, Joyce Sutphen, Connie Wanek, James Wright, and more. We have Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, and Holy Cow! Press among other small presses. The literary tradition here is varied and rich.
And I recently reminded myself just how rich by visiting the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Elmer L. Anderson Library. My own road trip to the prairie this summer put me in awe of its inspiration, its space, its quiet that is perfect for the writer or the artist who wants solitude in which to work. I wanted to know more about the writers who sought ideas from that landscape and remembered that the exhibit at the U of M was still open. Off I went.
The Prairie Poets & Press exhibit covers more than just the prairie. It divides Minnesota into five regions: Superior North, Northern Prairie, Out West, River Valley, and Twin Cities. Examples of poets’ work from each area is offered, along with snippets of personal correspondence, marked-up copy, publication covers, newspaper articles, and photos. Robert Bly loomed large in the Out West section, shown with his old farmhouse and offering marked up bits of his work, covers from his little literary magazine that started in the late 1950s and lasted into the 1970s. Bly gave a reading a in 2015 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis as part of their Literary Witnesses program and I went to hear him. As I looked at what the exhibit displayed about Bly, I could hear his voice in my head, and appreciated his work as one of the poets who sought to move on from what has been called “old-fashioned verse.” In other words, verse that is less formal, uses plain language, does not rhyme, uses the poet’s individual voice. The definition may sound a bit familiar to those of you who have read our journal; that’s the kind of poetry we publish at Gyroscope Review.
Other parts of the exhibit that I especially enjoyed were the handwritten copies that came from the poets themselves that showed how they worked. My favorite was a page from one of Louis Jenkins’ notebooks that showed the same prose poem written twice, words crossed out in both versions, the endings entirely different. This little look into how poets work made my own messy notebooks feel a little more valuable, a little less like unimportant scribbling. And it reminded me how revision might take the writer far from the original idea.
And, of course, I paid attention to the number of small literary magazines that have come from this area. Robert Bly’s The Fifties (which changed names in subsequent decades: The Sixties, The Seventies). Dacotah Territory. North Coast Review. Since Gyroscope Review spans far more than just Minnesota thanks for our far-flung staff, I wondered if we would ever fit in an exhibit like this; maybe just a little?
After I had walked through the entire exhibit, feeling lucky to have either heard or worked with several of the poets mentioned, such as Deborah Keenan who taught at Hamline University when I was working on my MFA, I thought about how any landscape has potential to produce a diverse mix of writers. Any place where people feel rooted, inspired, and pay attention is a good place to make art, write poems, tell stories. What is it about Minnesota that created this abundance? What is it about the coasts that do the same?
Whatever it is, I celebrate these Midwest writers who came before me, who inspire so many, who put us on the literary map. If you’re anywhere near Minneapolis this summer, the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit just might give you a little something you didn’t know you needed. And if you can’t make it to Minneapolis, at least get to the prairie, where the vast sky and open land will encourage you to listen to yourself.