Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

41 thoughts on “Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

  1. Reading a good new original poem is like viewing a new good original painting. It challenges yourself to bring your own experience and perspective into an artist’s viewpoint, and we have to force ourselves to come up with that answer to the question, “What does it mean?” A good original work of art, whether a poem or a painting, will mean something completely different from one person to the next. Thats what makes it beautiful and timeless.

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    • Yes, and “what does it mean?” to experience the painting, the poem? And on a different topic, but just comes to mind, how do we lose this ability to experience as we go through the formal education process? The one that’s always asking us to explain everything, to explain the experience away?

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      • Ah therein lies the magic question regarding the MFA experience. Is the over-analytical educational process sterilizing the artist out of true passion and desire? IS it really all about the ” process” rather than the product itself? So then what? What are we experiencing then in the art? Does the artist fail without proper puppy papers and ass-kissing? Is that why “outsider art” became so fad a few years ago?

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        • I don’t know. I wrote this some time ago, having to do with the working artist, or writers who work. “Ship out!” Rexroth told Ginsberg. And that discussion continues. What to do. Maybe there’s an impression that being involved in certain occupations somehow excludes writing potential or experience or value. It doesn’t have anything to do with it. The question is how to be free, free of it all, work stigma, critical inflection points, feeling the need to publish, to be recognized, or to act something out to shock – but nobody’s shocked anymore, are they? certainly not by literature, so why bother with that? Stoner was somewhat shocking. I doubt that a really great writer can come from today’s academy. But who knows? I just said it doesn’t matter. Certainly though, be free of teachers. Be free of boundaries (outsider, insider, upsider, downsider, apple cider, hard cider, blind sider, sidewinders).

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  2. What is great about poetry is that every new piece opens up a new world, but not one as strictly bound as in prose. With poetry, every person experiences a different world, and even one person can experience more than one world in the same poem after revisiting it several times.

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  3. I have come to enjoy poetry through Leonard Cohen. Whilst Cohen is not everybody’s first love, he does however bring out great feeling in me. I am new to this field but enjoy it so much. Thank you for your post, it was enlightening

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  4. I can say that I like the poem only when I understand it. If it invites me to think about too complex issues, I do not bother reading it. Maybe it shows my reluctance to contemplate serious issues, I don’t know, but I believe that poetry has to be pleasurable.

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  5. With just 26 letters there is the power to cause conflict, to show loving spirit, to argue a point, to reflect on beauty and so much more. Every person capable of interpreting the alphabet, has a voice. What is most fascinating is how the letters are jumbled together to form words. Just the right word at the right time.
    Peter Cook and Dudley Moore showed that art was in the way it was and how it was presented, by their unique interpretation of 6 Bottoms.

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  6. Sometimes us poets can only write how we understand. In any art form, it’s not up to the rest of the world to always understand at first glance the intent. But I daresay I find a modest boredom lurking about “some” new age writing styles. It’s akin to “See Spot run, Spot chases dog…. and” off to sleep I go. Poetry has to have nerve and pulp. Even if delicate.

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  7. Interesting topic. Poetry can be difficult to gasp after any amount of reads. Sometimes I give up fairly easily – other times, I find it is best to persist. It is really rewarding!

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  8. Great post, thank you. Muriel Rukeyser (who would be turning 100 in just a few days) in her “The Life of Poetry” wrote this:
    “Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these— the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives—the attitude of poetry.”

    Her treatise on why poetry is necessary is as relevant and necessary today as it was in the 1940s when she first published it. Went out of print for a long time, revived by Paris Press 18 years ago, thankfully.

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  9. Poetry is a beautiful thing. Some might not suit you and might even bore you. The thing that matters is if the poem made you think a bit more. That’s what I love about poetry. Poetry enables writers to open up and readers to dig deep (if they are in the correct mood for the intake of information and they have the ability to be open).

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  10. Reading this post reminds me of Marianne Moore and her poem “Poetry”. She writes “Reading it, however with perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all a place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise, if it must , these things are important not because a high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because so derivative as to become unintelligible, the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what we cannot understand”.

    I’m also reminded of Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…..but all they want to do is tie a 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.” 😀

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