A Room Full of Snakes and a Very Big Bird: How To Read A Poem

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Agnes playing with leaves, Calderstones, September 2016

How do you read a poem?

Many of us, readers and non-readers, seem to believe that knowledge, expertise, years of practice are needed to understand those human artefacts we call poems. A world industry has evolved to promote that  view.

Attentive readers will have noted how I have slipped from ‘read’ to ‘understand’.

‘Bah,’ as D.H. Lawrence may well have said (don’t  have time to check this morning) ‘the mind understands and there’s an end to it.’

Is reading poetry an art? Is it a skill? It is certainly true that, as in almost all human actions, practice helps. We can talk about that another time. But for today, because the question arose for me yesterday, I ask myself what does a novice need?  Look at the picture of Agnes playing with leaves. That’s what we’re aiming for today. Get the feel of poems. Gaze at them a lot. Chuck ’em about.

Here are 9 tips for reading a poem:

1. Enter the room

If you said to a snake-fearer, ‘Enter this room with a snakes in it…’ your snake-fearer would probably say, ‘No thanks.’

That’s what most people say to reading poetry.

But you are reading this. You are over your fear enough to have looked in this place for help. You are in the room with a live poem!

And here it is, chosen because it was the first or second grown up poem I ever read, and it came to mind in conversation yesterday. I was ten  when I found it in Palgraves Golden Treasury, which I’d been given  for my birthday. Almost every poem in the book seemed incomprehensible, though I wasn’t yet old enough to be afraid of them. I simply couldn’t get into them at all, and despite its lovely name, the Treasury seemed to me like reading an engineering manual, or Chinese. But I could read this one, I thought, and it was about something I could picture. And it was short;

                             The Eagle
                             He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
                                                                             Alfred, Lord Tennyson

(Note to self – need to write a separate post on  how to choose a poem)

2. Read it aloud

Poems are songs and it is good when they pass through your body and out of your mouth. You want to feel the rhythm, not by counting syllables, but by tapping your feet or fingers. Often, in poems, the rhythm does something, I mean, it makes something happen, and you want eventually to know what that is, so you need to get into the habit of feeling it.

Read the poem aloud, as slowly as you can. Where there is punctuation, take a pause. In this poem that is easy because the commas and semicolons come at the line endings. That means you only have to think in one dimension, which is helpful for a beginner. Later we’ll come to poems where the line-endings and punctuation work together in a different way.

3. Check how you are feeling

Poems are messages, communications, from other people’s hearts and minds. As with any human communication, you need to be aware of  how you feel as it unfolds. In this poem, as I read it aloud, now, as I write, I feel exhilarated at the end of the first three lines, ‘Ring’d with the azure world he stands’, but I feel afraid  at the end of the poem ‘And like a thunderbolt he falls.’ I thought he might be a very dangerous creature. And he felt quite close. ‘Thunderbolt’= Aiieee.

One of the things that has been so wonderful about running Shared Reading groups, or listening to other people telling me about their Shared Reading groups, has been seeing how  often people who are new to poetry are astonished and delighted by the strong feelings they feel when they recognise themselves in a poem.

But I didn’t see myself in this poem when I was ten. I only felt something like (and it was a feeling,  not words) ‘I get it!’ then I felt the feelings of the poem, which are:  wow, and then, agh. Which may be something close to what Tennyson may have wanted his readers to feel.

Don’t get stuck on, or too attached to, these opening feelings: reading is a dynamic exchange, a live unfolding. You want to be free to go with whatever the flow of this day’s reading turns out to be.

4. Read it aloud again

Check in, see if anything has changed, see if you see more as the  mental film of the poem unfolds. Try to notice something you didn’t notice before. I notice ‘hands’, because eagles don’t have hands, they have claws. Humans have hands. When you’ve noticed something,  have a pause and think about it.

5. Believe the poet  did what s/he did on purpose

You might say, ‘Ah, it only says ‘hands’ because he’s got to find a rhyme for ‘lands’…’

And if you said that, I’d say, ‘Well-noticed! they do rhyme, don’t they?’  But I’d try to persuade you that even a half decent poet could either find another rhyme for ‘lands’ or have put the word ‘claws’ and found word to rhyme with that. This poet chose ‘hands’, on purpose, because he wanted to put the word ‘hands’ (with all their associated human powers of action perhaps) in our minds. Why?  Perhaps because this poem is not simply about The Eagle?

6. Read it aloud again.

Reading the poem is the reality of it. Go back to it as often as you can. In this respect reading a poem is a meditation. You wander, which is natural, and then you say to yourself, now go back to the poem.

7. Notice things

You started by noticing a word, (‘hands’) so now notice another in line two.

Poems work in 3-D, up and down, back and forward, as well as in a linear, narrative fashion. Having seen the human word  in line one, you’ll have noticed the human word in two: yep, it’s ‘lonely’.

This adjective, ‘lonely’ (yes, it’s good to know some technical words such as ‘noun’ ‘verb’ ‘adjective’ and  ‘enjambement’. You don’t need them. But they can be useful, just as a Guide to Snake Markings could be useful in the Snake Room. More of this another day)…

This adjective, ‘lonely’ is a human word. Yet  it’s used to describe an inhuman landscape. The eagle is about as far from human settlement as it is possible to be, in fact, he seems almost a god, ‘ring’d with the azure world, he stands.’

(I’ve suddenly thought of the American Eagle and have no idea if there is any connection and don’t have time to look it up, but if I was reading this poem with more than minutes at my command I would now Google the American eagle, its dates, whether Tennyson was interested in the USA etc. But these things are merely facts. I don’t need them to read the poem. If it was just me and the poem, locked in the room, I’d simply note the god-like loneliness of the eagle with his head  ringed by ‘the azure world’.

Why world? When azure refers to the blue of the sky?

8. Let the questions proliferate

Reading a poem is like entering a room full of snakes and like meditating. (Also, sometimes,  a bit like a more or less controlled bomb-explosion. But we are not exploding today. As far as I know.)

9. Aim for flexible stretch, poetry as pilates

As you read you are moving between modes: sometimes being afraid, not knowing, not understanding. Sometimes you are saying to yourself, ‘Back to the poem’, and breathing and reading and feeling rhythm and feeling unnamed feelings. Sometimes you are asking lots of questions: questions which arise from your core, like bubbles in water or sparks from a fire. They don’t necessarily need answers. They need dwell time, space. They need to be asked. ‘Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.’ Think about your core. How are you feeling now?

Time and word count are up for today – finish this one tomorrow. Then back to Spenser.

3 thoughts on “A Room Full of Snakes and a Very Big Bird: How To Read A Poem

  1. Heather April 25, 2017 / 8:55 am

    Thanks for this……No.3 Check how are you feeling…….this is the key that can begin to unlock a scary-looking poem. I have seen people being astonished by feelings that have emerged after initially having said things like ‘I don’t get this’.

  2. drjanedavis April 26, 2017 / 5:28 am

    Yes, you are right. Feelings are the first stage of human response – thoughts seem to arise from them – you have a gut-response (a feeling) then you work out what you are going to say… It’s important to for Shared Reading group leaders to be able to model that – oh, this makes me feel… – so that new group members can see this is not an intellectual exercise (though experienced group members and leaders know people are going to relax in to thinking their own thoughts, which is much more than an intellectual exercise).
    ‘I don’t get this’ is is often the right response. I suppose they key is staying in that place, without sticking to it or letting it feel like failure. It has to be understood as a state from which ‘getting it’, in some way, might be achieved.

  3. A C.M.H.P., H.V. April 26, 2017 / 8:42 am

    Hi Jane, tried tip No 2. In reading yesterday (Locking yourself out, then trying to get back in. Raymond Carver.), found it very helpful.

    Good blog.
    Seems to be doing you good.
    Carry on.
    A C.M.H.P., H.V., X Set Hair Rha…

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