Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: “How do you read a book of poems?”

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

“How do you read a book of poems?”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

That’s what my friend Michael asked in an e-mail he sent me today. Michael is a major reader, devouring books in astonishing numbers, across genres and centuries, and he is a thoughtful reader whose note asked important questions about reading poetry.

So he asked how I read a book of poems. “Do you read it straight through or dip into it now and then? Do you read it with pencil and paper, taking notes, or just immerse yourself in it? Do you go back and read specific poems or the whole volume? My dilemma is how to retain something of the language, beauty, images, sounds, etc. that make poetry so wonderful.”

My first response was, “aaaah.” What poet is not heartened, cheered, thrilled, by the thought of readers out there who want to know how best to approach our work? Who want to bring themselves to it with their most careful attention?

How do you read poetry? I can answer only for myself. As a poet I have been gratified to have many people tell me they read my first collection, “Afterwords,” straight through. Unlike many poetry collections, “Afterwords” has a strongly narrative line, and I have been glad to know that it has so often been read start to finish. I think that a reader gets it in a different, maybe better, way reading that way because it is very specifically “about” something, the illness and death of my husband and the reimagining of my life in the shadow of that loss which has the element of time.

My second book, “Container Gardening,” is a more typical collection, with thematic sections, but with an overall relatedness among the poems that may be subtle enough to be apparent only to me. I can picture it being read piecemeal, though again, I hope it is sometimes read cover to cover.

I obsessed over the selection of poems to go into my books and their order. I think that’s almost always the case, with choices being made carefully, often in consultation with editors, fellow poets, and trusted readers. Which poems group together most cohesively? And then, which one builds on the mood of the one before? Which gives the reader a breath? Which complements or varies the length, the sound, the shape? The results of those decisions can be seen only by the reader who takes in the book as it was put together to be read.

As a reader, though, I have to confess that, though I ultimately end up reading front to back, I often start with the box of chocolates approach, paging through for a favorite I’ve heard or scanning the table of contents to see if there is a poem calling out to be looked at first.

I don’t read poetry--or fiction either, for that matter--with pen and paper in hand, although I often leave little bookmarks in both at pages I know I’ll want to revisit, maybe read to someone else. I think Michael’s word is the perfect one here: “immerse.” Poetry is as much about sound as it is about content. In order to really get it, you do need to immerse yourself in it, free yourself from distraction and give yourself up to the words.

Most of all, as a reader, I want to be alone with the sound of the poem. Immersed.

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