Discussion Guide

Outside In

Is there a right way to read a poem?

The latest issue of Poetry includes our sixth installment of a series called “The View From Here,” which features essays by poetry lovers who exist outside the “poetry world.” Like scientists gathered around a table and squinting at a specimen, they perceive the form differently depending on their angle.

For contributor Helen Fisher—who is, in fact, a scientist—poetry provides insight into her area of study: the neurology of human romance. Examining love poetry across eras and cultures, she discovers family resemblances. Many poems, for example, assert the idea of “special meaning”:

As you fall in love, you begin to regard your beloved as special, unique, unlike any other. “Juliet is the sun,” Romeo exclaims. The Indian poet Kabir writes: “The lane of love is narrow—there is only room for one.” And in The Jade Goddess, the twelfth-century Chinese fable, Chang Po says to his beloved, “Since heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I will not let you go.”

These echoes support Fisher’s research, suggesting the universality of certain features of romance. Do you like this view of love? Do the repetitions enforce love’s own “special meaning” by asserting its similarity across societies—or challenge its uniqueness for the same reason?

For economist Stephen T. Ziliak, poetry likewise serves as a means to an end. “Horace helps me relate to abstract mathematical theorists,” he writes, adding later: “Perhaps it’s the economists who can learn the most from poets about precision and efficiency, about objectivity and maximization. . . . Poets can help to fix the economy.” (Personally, we couldn’t agree more. We’d like to see beleaguered financial firms hiring poets by the peck. Down with villainy, and up with villanelles!)

When you read poetry, do you seek to relate it to your professional life, as Fisher and Ziliak do? Do you possess clear goals—and do you imagine goal-oriented reading would enhance or detract from your experience?

“The View From Here” offers perspectives not only on why, but also on when and how to read poetry. For fiction writer Daniel Handler, huge tomes of collected poems prove too daunting. But, he writes,

. . . even with a standard volume—you know, about eight years of work for some poets, or a week and a half for Charles Simic—there are only so many poems by a single poet one can read in a sitting. I read two or three poems by Campbell McGrath in a row, and I’m infused with joy at the enthusiasm of his breadth. I read seven or eight, and it is truly admirable that he can maintain a consistency of tone and yet always be surprising. Ten or twelve and that just might be enough Campbell McGrath for a little bit, no offense. Eighteen poems without a break and, seriously, Campbell, shut the fuck up. What to do?

Handler’s solution: seizing a moment when he’s doing nothing better than, say, waiting for his wife to primp for a party. Like a makeup sponge under water, a poem can swell to fill up that time. Artist Madeleine Avirov likewise finds that poetry is greatest in small quantities. She folds poems into her pockets and goes on walks at sunrise. Then she stops, pulls the papers out, and reads the lines aloud.

What are the patterns of your own poetry reading? Do you sit in a chair that’s too big for the room, as Handler does, or stand on a hilltop, like Avirov? Do you wander within a Selected, or mow through a Collected? Or do you take different ways on different days? If so, do you find that changing your approach affects your experience of poetry?

Scheduling poems is as dicey as scheduling doctor’s appointments: what should be a brief encounter can last hours. And readers can’t always judge the time needed based on what the poem looks like. One of the most expansive poems in this issue, for example, is also the narrowest. In Jill Alexander Essbaum’s  “Would-land,”


not yet bludgeoning.
But some light gets blood going.

The subtle rearrangements and refinements of sounds—from “sunlight” to “some light,” from “yet bludgeoning” to “gets blood going”—forbid quick passage through this poem. Essbaum writes:

Do not strike me, Heart.
I am, too, tinder.

These lines, similarly complex, tangle the reader in branching meanings. They’re united by a metaphor of wood (“strike,” “tinder”) that threatens to transform into another figure entirely. Can you hear, just behind these lines, their alternates? “Do not strike me hard. / I am too tender.”

The poem concludes:

I needn’t watch for fox.
They do not congregate at dawn,

But I would,
were I one.

Here, it’s ambiguity that slows us down. On the one hand, Essbaum is saying she would congregate at dawn, if she were a fox. (But whom would she congregate with? The other foxes wouldn’t show up.) On the other, she’s saying she would watch for fox if she were a fox. (Again, a fruitless, i.e. foxless, venture.) On the third hand (or perhaps we should start speaking in terms of paws?), she’s saying she would do all this if she were not a fox, but one—one person, lonely and alone. In this poem, that’s exactly what she is. Her intentionally hobbled articulation suggests how hard it is not only to congregate, but also to express the need for congregation.

One imagines Handler thinking all this through while his wife puts on shoes and coat and so forth, and then talking about it with her, and as the discussion expands beyond expected bounds, missing the party entirely.

Originally Published: January 3rd, 2011
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In