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How to Read a Poem How to Read a Poem
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2013-04-05 10:38:39
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Poetry has been a very powerful thing throughout history.  The ritual dramas of all primitive peoples seem to have been recited and sung and acted out.  Later, the belief systems of ancient civilizations were memorized by priestly classes and in whatever educational institutions there were, the “way of life” was taught in poetic forms.  

In the Western tradition, we see that poets who claimed to be blood relatives of the great genius Homer (whoever he was) memorized his great long poems and held contests to see who could recite the verses perfectly.  They seemed to act out in some measure the action being recited, thus also crossing the line into drama, though each performance was restricted to one orator.  So far as we know, the format of recitation from the 6th century B.C. onwards, and were overseen by judges, who all had memorized the text, or, later, had authoritative written copies of it.   

There are many examples of poetry mobilizing a whole culture to take the shape that it does, or validating one that already exists, as in the cases of the Indian Mahabharata and the great poem of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.   

But in our era the case is quite different.  In the modern age, poetry has taken on a personal meaning.  And this justifies the following opinion of Martin Heidegger’s, where he states that: “poetically man dwells… .”  In my opinion, this means that only humans live poetically, and that means that all important things; all sacred things; all unexpected things, and everything that man experiences that other species do not, are in the realm of poetry.  This is a very potent claim, but I believe this to be true.  Given the state of poetry today, this seems a gross overstatement, but it is truly defensible if one considers that all forms of song are forms of poetry.  

It is easy to see this.  It seems that every young man who is smitten with a young woman is likely to burst into song.  There is the existence of “standards” in modern popular music, viz., tunes that are popular down through generations.  They subsist over time because they strike a note of sentiment and music that appeal widely to the general population.

So, there is no generic difference between what song is and does and what poetry is and does.  But since it seems only to engender songs of tender emotions it is not the same as the culture-forming function of ancient and medieval poetry.  A narrowing has taken place.  

Turning to the modern world, we find that, although epic and long narrative poems were written all the way through the 19th century, the 20th century has seen little of this.  And, though it was common enough in earlier decades to find people who made a living by reciting poems, nowadays the rule is that the author has first claim on the performance of his work.  In this process, the flowery delivery common in the 19th century has declined.  So, it is fair to claim that poetry now belongs to the poet, and that means that poems are thought of by the public as personal above all else. 

This is a great burden to bear for the poet, because few people are as good at reading as they are at writing.  Added to that, the abilities to deliver written words to an audience in a striking way is rare; I would go so far as to say that it is far rarer than the ability to write good poems, so the public is often disserved by how poetry is read aloud in the current day.  

It is also important to say that, in a general way, all the elements that have been thought for centuries to make up poetic diction have fallen into disuse, and plain speech substituted.   Rhyme, meter, metaphor, simile, alliteration, assonance, clear diction, emphasizing particular words, and the rhythm of the diction are just of some the things that have been cast away, so far as I have found in the many poetry readings I have attended.  Of course, one could blame it all on the Protestant Reformation of centuries ago, in which plain speaking was considered an element of morality, but it seems too far a reach for me.  I would prefer to say that poetry has exhausted itself in the English-speaking countries.  Therefore in my mind there is an impasse: I cannot find out why what is so central to the essence of humanity would just seem to die on the vine. 

Cast in this vein I have decided after long thought that the only curative would be to do what the freedmen in the United States did at the end of the reign of Black slavery, when they were freed from bondage, namely,  they put down their shovels where they were, and went to work to sustain themselves.  I have decided to do the same, and that is the only basis of the recommendations I will make on the subject of  “how to read a poem.”

The first thing is: practice reading the poem.  This seems so obvious, especially if you are the author of it, that it need not be said.  But I can attest, as an active consumer of poetry readings over many years, that this is not the practice today.  I first became acquainted with this tendency when, as a college student, I attended a reading by a New York poet.  His diction was so poor and mumbly that another member of the audience asked him a question after the reading was over whether his delivery was due to some speech defect or some special lesson he was endeavoring to give us, but the poet himself was unfazed, and responded that, no, he always spoke that way.  The questioner had been kind, but the poet was truthful, and gave a good reason for everyone to run away when word got out that he “read” his own poems.  

The second thing is to read the poem by recognizing that all poems have rhythm, and in fact probably have several different rhythms as one progresses through the body of the poem.  So, some sections may be somber, some playful and fast, and some merely matter-of-fact.  If the reader, and a fortiori, the poet himself, is not alive to this fact, then he should pursue another profession.  Reading aloud his or her poems is not his thing. 

Third, rhyme has more or less been dead in poetry circles for a couple of generations now, at least in the English-speaking world, and perhaps for good reason, viz., which is that rhyme wore itself out.  While Shakespeare could write an entire play in rhyme, we do not any longer consider it central to poetic diction.  Still, I am an advocate of serendipitous rhymes, i.e., those that occur midstream, out of the blue.  Such examples seem to wear well.  It is also a wonderful teaching instrument when young children are hear it and begin to play with it. 

Fourth, playfulness is very uncommon in poetry nowadays, as John Calvin would have decreed, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if poets became funny once in a while?  What passes for humor today in poetry circles passes me by completely.  These bits of humor are anything but risible.  Singsong sentences should be welcome from time to time, even nonsense rhymes, just to put a smile on the faces of the audience.  

Fifth, and perhaps most violated, is the idea that the end of a line means something more than just a signal that one should ignore it.  In fact, I take it that there must be a slight pause at the end of each line in order to emphasize the shape of the text.  Nowadays, this is apparently unknown.  If there was rhyme in the poem, end-rhyme that is, with whatever rhyme scheme one wants to conjure, the rhythm will be under the rule of the rhyme.  And that naturally entails that a pause, however short, is necessary to emphasize the relation between the words that rhyme.  

Recently I have seen quatrains that have been broken up in the middle of a sentence as though there were nothing to the quatrain, and the reasoning is that this is legitimate because it is new, and it relieves through variation.  Well, it is new, but it is decidedly not a quatrain any more.  The end of every line demands a very short pause; the ending of a quatrain a somewhat longer pause; and if the poem is broken up into sections, a pause longer again is needed.  Why?  Because otherwise the hearers cannot get the sense of the work, and it loses its right to be called a poem.

Sixth, metaphor and simile are of the essence of poetry, and should never be entirely lacking in what is called a poem.  They are not always brilliant, but even common speech contains many comparisons, so therefore a poem lacking any element of poetic diction cannot be considered a true poem.  

Last, I want to talk about meter.  Meter exists in all speech, but the meters of poetry have a lot in common with music.  That is, they are general throughout the poem.  The reader should use this to his or her advantage, and emphasize the meter, even allow a sing-song phrase or two to escape your lips, in order to demonstrate that poetry is the most important of the arts, and that is because it goes to the essence of things, and right to our hearts, and makes us dwell, sometimes, in grace. 

Three Basic Rules

There are three rules of reading out loud that should govern all the other rules.  They are: (1) The shape of a stanza should be, among other things, a guide to how it should be recited; (2) The rhythms and speed and intonations of the delivery of the words and phrases confer an overflow of meaning to the hearer.  I call this “lilt.”  Without lilt, you do not have a poem; and (3) the speed and diction should be appropriate to the emotions intended to be conveyed.  Also to be considered are the timbre and beauty of the voice intoning the poem.  It should help in many instances, but, if the truth be told, sometimes the content of the poem requires a suppression of this quality.  On the other hand, it is often important to sometimes infect the reading with playfulness of expression, but sometimes this is inappropriate.  

From all these considerations, one should divine that there is never a general rule that governs all poems, and one must have the ability to divine when to be playful and when to be serious in order to bring out the deeper meaning of the poem.  

The only negative lesson to draw from these consideration is that, if a reader reads every poem the same exact way, he of she is not worthy to be a reader.  The same holds for readers who lend no emotion to the audience when he/she reads aloud.

I have just used the word “aloud.”  The reason I did so is that I have followed the practice of handing out printed copies of the poems I am going to read or recite.  I have found that our culture is so bound by the written word that, in general, members of the general public, who usually have not heard poems —particular poems — read before, need to follow along to get the full force of what the poet/reciter is doing unless they have this crutch.  For many, without this crutch the performance could be no more than a whirl of words.

Perhaps it may sound self-centered of me, but in what follows I shall give examples from my own poems to illustrate how one should read a poem.  This is the case because we, the entire realm of the “developed world,” have not been part of an oral tradition for a long time.

Some few poets, usually well-known, will sing some of their verses.  If they have good voices, this is appropriate, for what is poetry but song?  If Homer could do it certainly we should not be embarrassed to imitate him. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  * *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

To come to the head of the matter, the rule is: the emotion to be conveyed must determine the way the voice is used.  The pace, rhythm, and intonation of the voice should combine to make the words come alive.  This is more or less a definition of what I call “lilt.”  If a reading has no lilt, it is not good poetry. 

Of course, the range of emotions that are addressed in poetry is technically infinite, but let us illustrate a few of these possibilities.  More would be tedious.  

The first type of mood is one of wonderment.  To bring it to the reader’s attention and feeling I render some lines from an unpublished poem of mine entitled: “Subjunctives for my Daughter and Son.”

Jouncing, bouncing, revolving in unencumbered song,
From the enveloping velvet of a deep summer’s night,
Flush with the incessant cadence of linnets
Exhaling their excess of life
To that shining midnight in winter,
Where we brush rime from our crystallized eyebrows —
And the wind in the trees, a hushed suspiration —
And the cathedral of trees, black planks, bending over us —
As we stand in wonder under an astonished moon,
Concussed by the beauty of the glowing earth,
Staring at the sight of the new-fallen snow lying plain
Upon the fields, throwing light up to the clouds,
White, in breathless silence, divinely bright
On this deep and holy night.

The second mood is despair.  For this I choose to use some lines from a long poem of mine entitled “Vincent’s Journey.”

Humiliated, irrelevant to the world.
He took a Decision with a capital “d”.
Fearing God’s nasty cachinnations, he rushed into
His Being towards Death, ran behind a dunghill
And shot himself nowhere in particular, making his own way
back into the Ground.
In that last letter his last words were: “Well, my own work,
I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered
On account of it, but that’s all right…”

The third mood is the halcyon.  Here is a poem of mine entitled “Sensations, Memories.”
The wind in the shade
The damp of the cellars
Those mornings in summer.

The air light, light as the brightness
Of the Sun, rising in fullness,
The fullness of being
Concentrated, clearer, whiter and hotter.

It could, at midday, bore a hole in the air,
Even quieten the rush of rolling waves
Down at the beach.

But before that, in shortening shadows,
Like gnats we had zigzag vigor and play.
Time slid by like the easy laughter
In the faces of our open-mouthed dogs. 

A fourth mood is that of rockin’ and arollin’ 
I choose lines from a very long poem, unpublished, entitled “Ars Poetica.  What Writing is Like, Section XVI.”
He taught me the words:

Flowing words, fouling words, liquid words, lilting words,
Cursive words, cursing words, grunting words, grudging words,
Implicit, explicit words, inexplicable words,
Dashing words, crashing words, angry, destructive, boom-bashing words,
Racing, razing, fazing words, tracing, hazing, grazing words,
Words that strut, shift gear, refuse to do what they are told, in other words,
Proud words!

He said: “Tell the words lest the world forget itself.”

Words that fly off and take on a life of their own,
Words that wrestle you to the ground,
Words that roll in the dust, in joy or in agony.
Words that rave, and starve, and crave.
Words that are the object of desire,
Words that lift us off the floor in admiration,
Infectious words, vexatious words, and words that are drunk and wise,
Jackhammer words, rat-a-tat words, words that break down doors,
And words that will lie in bed with you, and rub your tummy-bun.

Fifth, I wish to use some characterization to describe a person, who happened to be my mother.  Here are the first lines from a poem entitled:

“In Sunshine or in Shadow. One Hundred Lines for my Mother.”

Solipsistic self-centered catastrophist!  Vain self-dramatizer!
There you are, in front of the mirror, powdering and powdering, layer upon layer,
Zizzing ditties between your teeth like a kazoo,
Retelling stories to your understanding self about your admirable self,
Always the cynosure.
There you stand: the perfect mother for a poet!

Sixth, and last, here is short poem that exhibits serendipity, entitled “Ambush Charm.”

This street scene, its peacefulness suddenly pressing on your eyes —
This fond summer air that caresses your skin, heavy, seeming rose
on every side —
This black night bestriding, granting everything to you in buxom abundance —
This stillness, awaiting amenable sounds —
These rich presents have been waiting for you all along.


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Emanuel Paparella2013-04-05 11:35:42
Thanks for this informative piece on poetry Larry. I found particularly interesting the birth of poetry in symbiosis with drama and Dante's validation of an existing culture.

Alan2013-04-05 12:12:50
Thank you, another lesson for my class from ovi

Emanuel Paparella2013-04-06 08:53:00
"In my opinion, this means that only humans live poetically, and that means that all important things; all sacred things; all unexpected things, and everything that man experiences that other species do not, are in the realm of poetry. This is a very potent claim, but I believe this to be true….
Of course, one could blame it all on the Protestant Reformation of centuries ago, in which plain speaking was considered an element of morality, but it seems too far a reach for me. I would prefer to say that poetry has exhausted itself in the English-speaking countries. Therefore in my mind there is an impasse: I cannot find out why what is so central to the essence of humanity would just seem to die on the vine."

Larry, I reread your excellent peroration on poetry and this time was struck by the two above passages, about which I'd like to make some comments as a way of dialogue.

On the first one I couldn’t agree more with you and Heidegger. The reason for this agreement is the poetic philosophy of Vico which, as you know, is my forte within philosophy. I know that you are familiar with Vico and have even taught it; you know that Vico made a similar claim to the point that he considered rationality devoid of the poetic and the imaginative (what he calls fantasia) as a flawed kind of rationality.

Which brings me to the second passage with your bafflement as its conclusion. Perhaps I can be somewhat helpful in your search. I think you yourself have hinted at it when you mention the Protestant Reformation and its preference for simple “plain speaking” rather than the Catholic Baroque flourishing rhetorical way of speaking. You consider it a stretch;I consider it less so. As you know the Protestant Thomas Hobbes does in fact consider speech in a moral context.

Here is an anecdote that may bring us a bit further along in fathoming “why what is so central to the essence of humanity would just seem to die on the vine.” Many years ago I attended a conference at an MLA convention in Chicago. In it a logical positivist (whose name escapes me at the moment) went on tediously for a good half hour stressing the fact that we ought to remove all ambiguity from language and reduce it to a perfect, mechanical simple means of communication, almost a logical mathematical tool, never to be used ambiguously and for deception since “YES” is always an affirmation and “NO” is always a negation. At that point there was a loud interruption from the back of the room by somebody who shouted at the top of his lungs in a cantankerous and ironic tone: “Ye, ye, ye!.” There was laughter in the room but meanwhile the point had powerfully been made that the very tone of the voice can change even an affirmation to a negation and that an artificial mathematical language will always prove to be impossible with humans, albeit it may be possible between computers and robots and zombies.

Leah Sellers2013-04-06 23:12:39
Excellent, Sir.
Poetry is the harmonious and strident Music of Life's ebbing and flowing Pulse.

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