It’s been interesting. Not only have I learned a fair bit about writing poetry, and about the poets themselves (to say nothing of the various things they actually wrote about), but, when I was reading our fifth poet’s book (‘Ani’ by D’vorh Elias) I also stumbled across a valuable little trick to help me read poems.
The trick has two components. Firstly, you have to read each poem three times or more, instead of just once. Of course, I’m not talking about limericks, but poems that, at least in my eyes, are worth the effort of reading. So the way I look at it now is that every poem I come to is three times as long as what I see printed there. I used to read a poem only once and then move on to a different one, or usually a different poet, if it didn’t immediately give my brain some kind of orgasm, and certainly so if I didn’t care for it, or if it was just too dense or obscure or not self-explanatory enough. But now I reserve any judgement until I’ve actually finished reading it. Meaning for the third time.
On the first reading, like everyone, I try to get as much of it as I can, in all its aspects -- the content, the wording, the feeling, the rhythm, the form if any, even the poet, the poet’s outlook and frame of mind, and so on. In the struggle to put it all together I inevitably come to a line or two that don’t mean much of anything to me, or that could mean any number of things depending on how they’re interpreted, or that just seem to be sloppy poetry or sloppy logic, and so I skip over them and get back into the solid poetry.
The second reading makes up for the slowness of my first reading. And I’m a very slow reader. Of anything. But especially of poetry. As a consequence, by the time I get to the end of the poem, concentrating on what I’m reading at each moment, I’ve forgotten a lot of the bits and pieces that came before. So I use the second reading to put the poem together into one thing, with the full extent of it’s meaning visible all at once, beginning with the title. And it usually works well. I may try a little harder at the one or two meaningless lines but the important thing is to feel that I have now read the poem.
The third reading (or second if the poem is a limerick) has one function, to fulfill the second component of my trick: This is where I get into those two lines, motivated by the knowledge that this poet has worked hard on every word and has put nothing in that isn’t necessary and has already taken out everything that isn’t. So I study them. I analyze them. What could they possibly mean? What are the different possible meanings, and which of those could have something to do with this poem? Usually, after a while, I realize that there is one word or phrase that refers to something else in the poem in a way which I hadn’t noticed before. When I see that connection, I try very hard to put all the other words and lines I hadn’t understood into the newly redeveloping poem in my mind.
And at this point the poem opens up. Where I had thought I understood it before, now I really see what the author was saying, the whole picture, and that picture is nearly always astonishing. Why is it astonishing? Because it’s something new for me. I had earlier put the poem together out of things I already knew. I had created a hodgepodge of my old memories, my old ideas. Mine. Not the poet’s. But when I finally force myself to see the poem through the poet’s eyes, I see a NEW thing. I see this thing for the first time in my life. This entire vision of the poet’s, the life that is expressed in the poem. Some, or even all, of the parts may be familiar to me, but the whole situation is something I’ve never experienced before. No doubt it was just as new and overwhelming to the poet as well, and that was the impetus to put it into words.
I’m not saying that the lines or words should be analyzed until they are understood logically. Although that’s my tendency because I love to analyze things. But no, at least for me the big revelations have usually come from an intuitive understanding, not a logical one. Nothing wrong with that. Intuition is simply visual logic. You end up understanding the line just as clearly, only not in words. And actually I think visual, intuitive understanding is much more likely to allow you to put the whole thing together in your mind at once than is linear, logical understanding. But in either case it’s the clear understanding that’s important, and that allows the whole poem to gel in your mind in exactly the way it gelled in the poet’s. Or at least in a similar way, and certainly for you a new way.
This isn’t the only way to get something of value from poems. A common way of looking at ones which don’t seem logical is to simply use them to spark images, feelings and intuitions in the reader. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of poems that are written with that aim in mind, words and images strung together in pretty ways. Modern Art. But I want there to be depth beyond that, hopefully of a kind I’ve never experienced before.