How to read poetry

May 26, 2009

Want to know how to read poetry? Treat it like you’re sampling perfume, says my friend Molly Cantrell-Kraig:

“It’s like an expensive fragrance: the high notes are what registers first, but as the fragrance adapts to the person’s chemistry and with time, the fragrance develops dimension and a fuller sense of itself.”

In other words, try first letting the poem envelope you with its sounds and its images. Sit with it. Come back to the poem and read it again, this time paying attention to how the poem makes you feel. Pay attention to the nuances in your reading, the patterns that emerge, the sense that emerges. And, finally, how does the poem change the way you look at the world?

In How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Edward Hirsch writes, “We activate the poem inside us by engaging it as deeply as possible, by bringing our lives to it, our associational memories, our past histories, our vocabularies, by letting its verbal music infiltrate our bodies, its ideas seep into our minds, by discovering its pattern emerging, by entering the echo chamber which is the history of poetry, and most of all, by listening and paying attention. Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”

C.S. Lewis suggested that “the true reader reads every work seriously, in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.”

A poet dreams of such readers.

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This weekend, the Los Angeles Times reported that award-winning poet Craig Arnold, who went missing in Japan in late April, is presumed to have died after a fall.

The American search team, established by his employer, the University of Wyoming after the official Japanese search was ended, tracked Arnold to the edge of “a high and dangerous cliff, and there is virtually no possibility he could have survived the fall,” according to a release quote in the Times.

According to the report, Arnold was fascinated with volcanoes and had traveled to Kuchinoerabu-jima, a tiny Japanese island, to visit the volcano there and was in Japan on a creative exchange fellowship and was blogging about his trip: Volcano Pilgrim.

Reports of his missing buzzed through Twitter a couple of weeks ago after he failed to report after his trip to the volcano.

Very sad news, indeed.

Here is a link to Craig Arnold’s page on the Poetry Foundation web site, which includes several of his poems.

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Gulf poets compete in Millions' Poet competition

Gulf poets compete in Millions' Poet competition

A couple of decades ago I had an idea for an all-poetry cable channel.  We would have talk shows hosted by and featuring famous poets, films about poets, live readings and workshops, and possibly even feature length movies, dramas, and comedies.  (Stephen Dobyns’ Saratoga Hexameter, would have made a good source for a mini-series.)

I shelved the idea after realizing the only way I could afford to develop The Poetry Channel was to develop my other idea — The Disaster Channel. “All disaster, all the time,” was the tag line; 24/7 of disaster coverage, disaster movies, and disaster reporting.  My wife said she would divorce me if I went ahead with that idea.  (The Weather Channel has since taken the best parts of the format to the bank and is planning to launch a separate channel this spring.)

I now see what my idea was missing: I needed a poetry contest reality show!  In the most unlikely of places, Dubai television personality Nashwa Al Ruwaini has launched Millions’ Poet, sort of a Gulf version of American Idol, in which Arab poets battle it out for 5 million United Arab Emirates dirhams (more than $1.3 million).  70 million viewers tuned in to see the finale, according to news sources. Amazing.

Here is what Nashwa Al Ruwaini says about it in an editorial that appeared in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Three years ago, when I devised the format of Millions’ Poet, it was with little more in mind than creating an entertaining, original, and youth-oriented television show. Now in its third season, with more than 15 million viewers each week, the show has become the Gulf countries’ most prestigious poetry competition and a platform for young male and female poets to voice their thoughts before a broad audience. Most unexpectedly, it has also helped spur some progress in the region’s attitudes toward women.

Read the full editorial here: Millions’ Poet

Here is an article about Saudi poetess Ayda Al-Jahani, who is featured in the editorial and who made it to the final four in this usually male-dominated competition: Ayda Al-Jahani

And a link to an NPR Morning Edition story on her: NPR

If anyone has links to English translations of Ayda Al-Jahani’s work, will you please comment below?  Thanks.

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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 01:  Carol Ann Duffy...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Poet Carol Ann Duffy was nominated for UK Poet Laureate yesterday. Here’s what she had to say about the position, which she had previously poo-poohed:

The appointment of a poet laureate can be seen, quite simply, as a spotlight on the vocation of poetry. I feel privileged to be part of a generation of poets in Britain who serve the vocation of poetry; writers who – in glad company with their readers – regard poetry as the place in language where everything that can be praised is praised, and where what needs to be called into question is so. Perhaps a better word than generation, for our community of poets, readers and listeners, would be family – or, as Ted Hughes had it, tribe. Doris Lessing, too, once described herself as a member of the honourable tribe of storytellers.

Read her remarks in full here.

Here is her poem, “Valentine”:

Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

Here.
It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Lethal.
Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

–Carol Ann Duffy
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