September 2009 Discussion Guide

Engaging the Senses

This discussion guide provides suggestions and questions to get readers started exploring the September issue of Poetry. The questions provided are by no means definitive but provide context for the poems’ engagement with the themes of love, death, and selfhood.

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read the poems aloud

It seems simple, but hearing a poem read aloud helps to deepen understanding and enjoyment of poetry, even for seasoned readers. It slows down the reading process and allows us to savor the language in ways reading silently does not.

A good way to start a conversation about the poetry in the magazine is to choose a favorite (or least-favorite) poem from this issue to read aloud to the group multiple times.

Once you’ve settled on a poem, have the group read the poem silently, and then have different participants read it aloud to the group.

After the first reading, ask participants to name a word or phrase that stands out (in a good or bad way). Why did these words or phrases stand out? What about them grabbed your attention?

After the second reading, ask participants to think of other poems similar to this one. What other works—classic or contemporary—does this poem sound like?

After the third reading, ask participants to say what they think the poem is about in one sentence. Is it possible to paraphrase? Why or why not?

listening to the speaker

When reading the different poems in this issue of Poetry, it soon becomes apparent that the “I” speaker can shift quite a bit from poem to poem. The first three poets in this issue offer great examples.

In Samuel Menashe’s group of poems—“In Your Face,” “Tempus Fugit,” “Here Now,” and “Psalm”—the first-person speaker is presented quite differently from the speaker in Dan Beachy-Quick’s “Museums” or the speaker in Belle Randall’s “Cast-Off.”

Menashe, the winner of the Poetry Foundation’s first Neglected Master Award, has a tricky speaker who offers up riddles (see “Here Now” and the lines “I am your son / You are my daughter” in “Psalm”). How do you explain how the speaker can be both son and father to the same person? Do you think Menashe’s riddles can be solved? How is a poem like a riddle? How is it not?

The speaker in Beachy-Quick’s “Museums” is tricky in a different way. He begins the poem by attempting to remove himself from it (“Must I, in this question I am asking, include myself / Asking it?”). Later, he says that the word “I” did not mean “me” and refers to himself in the poem as “*I.” What is happening to the speaker’s identity when he shifts from the standard “I” to “*I”? What are implications of the asterisk?

In Randall’s “Cast Off,” the “I” is buried even deeper. The poem is actually written in the second person (hence the repetition of “you”), but there is a “daisy-dotted ‘I’” also mentioned in the poem. Where Beachy-Quick’s speaker merely considers banishing the “I,” Randall’s narrator has done it. How would the tone of her poem change if the first person voice replaced the second person? In your opinion, which point of view would be the most effective for this poem about finding an identity? Why?

As you continue reading the issue, play close attention to the speakers in each poem and try to discover what is unique about each one.

poetry of the senses

Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what poems are “about” when you first read them, but sometimes what they are “about” is, first, engaging the senses. A great poet of the senses is David Harsent.

The first section of his poem, “Red,” is a feast. Consider the “juices swamping,” “gristle in the gap between her teeth,” “a morsel in your mouth,” and more. As you continue reading, notice how your senses of touch, smell, and hearing are engaged.

Harsent isn’t just playing around, though. He is working in a tradition. He mentions a “fairytale” and a “classic noir” in the poem. What parts of the poem are like a fairytale? A film noir? How do these other art forms engage the senses?

love and death

Certainly the question of love looms large in poetry, and in this issue poets take fresh approaches to the subject. So fresh, in fact, that the word “love” doesn’t even come up in either Desirée Alvarez’s “The Order in Which Things Are Broken” or Colin Cheney’s “Half-Ourselves & Half-Not,” even though they are clearly romantic  poems. What other words besides “love” do the poets use to let you know that they are, in fact, love poems?

Notice the structure of “Half-Ourselves & Half-Not”—how is the bond between lovers shown in the form?

Now compare those couplets to Alvarez’s lines “the loose spooling of two / people fast unravels.” Do you think Alvarez and Cheney have opposing views of love in their poems? How do they diverge and overlap? Alvarez writes, “the body forgets fully what it knew.” Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not? Are there any hints in the poem as to whether the body can fully forget another?

Spencer Reece’s “At Thomas Merton’s Grave,” Kelle Groom’s “Swerve,” and Lucia Perillo’s “The Second Slaughter” deal with death in many of the same ways Alvarez and Cheney deal with love. Which poet strikes you as the most reverent of the dead? How is the tone of “Swerve” distinct from the tone of “At Thomas Merton’s Grave”? Does Reece hint at a continuing life cycle?

In her poem, Perillo focuses not on a dead person but on animals sacrificed by humans. Near the end of the poem she writes, “now I guard / my inhumanity.” What does she mean? Do you find her position to be “inhuman”?

Are the deaths discussed in Groom and Perillo’s poems more final than the death in Reece’s poem?

the view from here

Sometimes when we read poetry, we may wonder: Who needs these poems? Who else is reading them in the wider world? These questions are answered, at least in part, in this issue’s “The View from Here” section. Six people from a wide range of professions reflect on how poetry affects their work, even though their jobs have no direct connection to poetry. News columnist Mary Schmich writes that “poetry isn’t just a way of writing, it’s a way of thinking.” She has used Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry in her columns, used Hafiz’s poems in her soap opera comic strip, and even composed some of her own verse in honor of baseball’s Opening Day. Do you know of poems that reflect the kind of work you do yourself?

Fernando Perez, catching fly balls in Caracas, enjoys the work of Robert Creeley and John Ashbery; Dennis Jacobs, from his federal judge’s bench, reads W.H. Auden, C.P. Cavafy and Alfred Tennyson; Lin Hixson, when not directing collaborative dances, spends time with Lyn Hejinian and Rosemarie Waldrop. Do you think that each person’s profession informs what type of poetry he or she likes? Is some poetry more likely to appeal to a construction worker than a lawyer, for instance? Is it useful to try to find connections between work and poetry, or are they, by nature, distinct things?

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