Discussion Guide

Telling it Slant

What are the different ways a poem can deal with death? How is a poem like (and not like) a song? In what ways can a poem re-use classic stories and traditions? This discussion guide offers suggestions for answering these questions and more. They are only suggestions. There is no right or wrong way to talk about a poem.   

read the poems aloud

Take turns reading one poem aloud. After the first reading, ask each participant to name a word or phrase that stands out. After the second reading, ask each participant to name an image that stands out. After the third reading, ask each participant to react to the poem as a whole. If you’ve passed out the issues ahead of time, ask each participant to choose a favorite (or most hated) poem to read aloud to the group. Introduce each poem by explaining the reasons for choosing it.


what are the poems about?

Almost every poem in this issue can be summarized in a brief prose statement or paraphrase; that is, you can say very simply what each poem is about. César Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White Stone” is a twist on the familiar question of what happens when we die—and on the fantasy of attending one’s own funeral. Here, the poet thinks about his future death as an event that will happen “on a day I already remember.” (A Thursday, in Paris, in the rain, as he imagines it. Strangely enough, the poet really did die on a Thursday and in Paris!) As if making his own death announcement, the poet says: “César Vallejo has died.” As you read through the poem, you can see that the way Vallejo imagines his own death involves playing with the tenses of verbs. This helps explain some of the unusual diction in the poem. How do you respond to this? What does it mean to imagine looking back on your own death as if such a thing could actually happen? Do you feel sad when the poet talks about people hurting him even though “he does nothing to them”? When the poet, in a bad mood, puts on the “humerus” bones of his body as if they were his clothes, what does this look like to you? Is there any humor in the poem? What feelings are you left with when you are done reading it?

Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White Stone,” Waldo Williams’s “What is it to be human?” Avot Yeshurun’s “Memories Are a House,” Marko Vesović’s “Immortal Instant,” and Anna Akhmatova’s “In Memoriam, July 19, 1914” are all, in one way or another, about mortality—and the latter two about war, specifically. Discuss these poems and read the accompanying translators’ notes in that context. What similar things are the poems saying about life and death? What different things? Which are you more drawn to and why? Can you relate to these poems in the context of what is going on in the world today Each poem demands its own way of writing, and the selection in this issue is just a sampling of the variety of forms at a poet’s disposal. Vallejo’s “Black Stone on a White Stone,” Rilke’s “Day in Autumn,” and Yves Bonnefoy’s “San Biagio, at Montepulciano” are all sonnets, a traditional fourteen-line form used in many languages. The term “sonnet” comes from the Provençal word “sonet” and the Italian word “sonetto,” both of which mean “little song.” The anonymously written “Song of the Birds,” translated here by Lydia Davis, actually is a little song: the words belong to an old Catalan Christmas melody, “El cant dels ocells.” Leopardi’s “To His Lady” is a canzone, an Italian form that also takes its name from a word for song; almost ballad-like, each stanza of the poem has the same number of lines. Can you imagine any of these poems being set to music? After looking carefully at these poems and reading them aloud, discuss how you think poems might be musical, and how they are also different from music.

Hafez’s “For years my heart inquired of me,” Imru ́al-Qays’s “Mu’allaqa,” Ibn al-`Arabi’s “Tigris Song” and “Baghdad Song” are poems originally written in “monorhyme,” a common form used for lyric verse written in Arabic, Persian, Latin, and Welsh: it simply means that the end word of each line has the same rhyme. Ho Xuan Huong’s lyrics are translated from classical Chinese and Nôm quatrains featuring seven-character lines, and the lines on the rape of Europa from Ovid’s Metamorphoses were originally composed in dactylic hexameter, which translator Daryl Hine calls “the most common of Latin measures.” The rhythm in Miroslav Holub’s poem, “Creative Writing,” arises from its being laid out in three-line stanzas. A number of the poems are in free verse, and have less predictable cadences but are still attentive to the sounds and rhythms of words. Francis Ponge’s “The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere” and the excerpt from Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut are prose poems—they have no particular rhyme and no intentional line breaks. Discuss why each poem might have demanded  its particular form, or why a poem might not have a particular form. What do all these choices express apart from or in addition to the meaning of the words themselves? What are the virtues and dangers of writing poems in form—and writing them without any form?

Hafez’s “For years my heart inquired of me” invokes four different religions and conveys images of mystical insight. Rilke’s “Day in Autumn” laments the ending of a golden summer. The anonymous “Charms for Love” is a wildly impassioned poem of yearning. In both “Tigris Song” and “Baghdad Song” by Ibn al-`Arabi, doves mourn their mates as the poet yearns to be reunited with his distant lover. Leopardi’s “To His Lady” finds that the poet’s lover doesn’t even live on this earth. Whom do you think the poet intended to read these poems? When you read them, which of your own personal experiences come to mind?

In contrast to the personal tone and immediate emotions of those poems, Yannis Ritsos’s “The Crane Dance,” Ovid’s “The Rape of Europa,” and the anonymous “Phoebus was gone . . . ” retell or depend upon stories from mythology. Do you relate differently to them? How do these poems make use of the mythological stories they retell? How do the poets put their own stamp upon the traditions they inherit? And what happens if you are unfamiliar with the stories from which these poems unfold? Is there a way in which these poems address the same concerns as others written in a more recognizably personal voice?


on further reading

Beyond the immediate question of what a particular poem means, there are other pleasures to consider: the textures of sound and cadence, the vividness of the images, and the general suggestiveness of words and phrases. On further reading of each poem, see if its various parts come together for you as a whole. Are there things a poem has to say that are not communicated in the form of a straightforward statement? What are they?

Originally Published: October 13th, 2009
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In