How to Read Poetry – The Role of Reader

Note – Before we begin, though I feel I should not have to remind I do remind that all written can be prefaced with IMO and absolutes can be modified to “some but not all.”
“One only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose.”
Paul Valéry
“The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same …”
To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is a bad translator: he interprets literally when he out to paraphrase and paraphrases when he out to interpret literally.”
“One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of different ways”
“ … the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as sexual stimulus … one is bored to tears …”
W. H. Auden
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Lesson plans encourage students to approach poetry like observers; to examine the poem as object of art; to pick the literary lock, solve the puzzle of prosody and unravel the Gordian Knot of the poet’s mind. Students panic as questions without answer or with too many answers swoop through the classroom like untethered harpies. Who is the speaker? Why does the speaker think foo? Why did the poet use the word “rebar” instead of zebar?
In the English classroom, students are asked to do to poetry with dull-edged dialectics what they do in the Biology classroom to frogs with stainless steel scalpels.
We are taught to analyze poetry in the classroom. We look at poems from this angle and that, slice pieces from branches and investigate them under the microscope of question and response. We look closely at the leaves but miss the forest. We pile our desks with parts that equal less than the whole.
At some point in their career as readers, good readers learn to recognize subtle significance in parts, in elements of Poetic Art used by the poet to create an incantation that invokes from ink and wood pulp a small aspect of Universe. Good readers do this at an intermediate or advanced phase of development, when they must do so to continue to grow, not at the beginning. Starting at analysis puts us in the role of observer, outside the poem, looking in for signs of life.
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We live in a culture of Scientific Thought and Scientific Style dominates our writing and our approach to reading.
Scientific thought permeates the reality of our culture and influences most modern usage; a usage that I label, for convenience only, Scientific Style. Scientific Style so dominates our culture that those who most strongly oppose the materialism of Science: Fundamentalist Creationists, apply Scientific Style to their Holy Texts; they read the texts literally, the way we read Scientific reports, rather than, as all Holy Texts must be read, as poetry.
For Scientific Style, writers focus on clarity and single meaning. They choose words carefully to avoid ambiguity. Documents contain explicit simile and analogy to help readers grasp complex concepts but not true metaphor. Readers of the documents don analysts’ hats. If the writer achieves success, linear logic eliminates all interpretations except those reflecting the intent of the writer. Reading a document in the Scientific Style, we invite the writer to program concepts into our consciousness; we adopt a role of observer, a fan in the stands, doing our best to see a vision defined by the author.
Scientific Style makes our world work. Technology and Science writing, from physics journals to cookbooks, requires readers to understand the intent of the writer. If the intent of the writer gets lost in translation, research fails to inspire invention; invention remains too complicated for production and product cannot be used by consumers.
The natural role of the reader in Scientific Style is observer. When lesson plans encourage students to approach poetry with the same, analytical mind as they use when reading Scientific Style writing, the lesson plan imprints in the student a sense that poetry, like all the reading the student has encountered to that point, has meaning, reflects the author’s intent, contains linear logic and strives for clarity; lesson plans encourage objective observation of poetry in a manner similar to that required by Scientific Style.
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Poetry is antithetic to Scientific Style. When reading poetry, the role of the reader must be other than observer; for poetry, the reader becomes a participant; the reader of poetry becomes an artist.
When we enter the world of poetry we encounter language used differently from contemporary norm. Most modern discourse and writing strives to transfer an idea as clearly and fully as possible from one person to another. Poetry must exasperate a person looking for this kind of transfer. Where modern language values monolithic meaning, poetry exudes ambiguity. Where modern language tells people what to think, poetry provides links to form thought. Very different.
Readers who read poetry through the glass of Scientific Style meet frustration and confusion. Why didn’t the writer just say what she meant? Trying to dig meaning and writer’s intent from Poetic Writing leads to questions without answers and answers without relevance. What did the poet intend? What does the poem mean? These questions have only one valid answer: To read the poem back in a voice that reflects, to the best of our ability, what we hear in our mind and feel in our soul when we perform the poem for ourselves.
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Poetic Reading requires not analysis but synthesis; a synthesis of histories: the history the writer encased in poetics and the personal history of the reader. From the two histories, readers synthesize new, unique works: personal interpretations.
Interpretation here does not refer to an interpretation of meaning or interpretation of artist’s intent but interpretation of the poem as composition.
Reading poetry, we become artists, we adopt a role as creator. As readers we finish what poets begin.
Without readers poems remain incomplete.
Changing role from observer to participant, from trying to unravel writers’ intents to creating a personal work of art, frees readers to enjoy poetry in a new way, a sacred way.
Does the role of participant and co-creator give free rein to apply any meaning, any interpretation to any poem? Yes, but not equally. Poets insert keys to help readers relate to the poetry they write. Readers interpret by relating perception and memory; the readers’ personal histories, to the poetry they read. Novices notoriously miss many, if not all, the keys. Like kindergartners with one paint tube and no brushes, the novices create interpretations that are, though unique creations, easy to anticipate, vague, and untrue to form. Some novices lack necessary vocabulary and have yet to develop the ability to hear rhythm. They create mundane pictures. Others, euphoric to be freed from the constraints of the Scientific Style, soar over the abyss and create wild, woolly, often abstract and nonsense interpretations.
Few will be great translations of poetry.
None are wrong interpretations.
Play and experimentation come before prosody as new readers of poetry expand their poetic palettes. To shift from painting to music, new readers of poetry need the freedom to experiment, to dabble in poetry selected because they simply like the way it sounds. Just as beginning piano players find fun, if simplistic, rhythms and chord structure if allowed to plunk about, beginning poetry readers can find potential insights and simple interpretations by reading without theory.
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Some people find the implant of Scientific Style too strong to escape; find the author too important to the writing. To get beyond the Scientific Style, consider the difference between material and sacred. Both deserve a sense of wonder and awe. Scientific Style describes the material, making sense of the wonder. Poetic Style invokes the sacred, sharing rather than explaining. Good poets capture sense of The Sacred in poetry. Writers of Scientific Style describe the material Universe.
For artists, the sacred exists everywhere. In art, artists share The Sacred they find buried in details, soaring above landscapes, caught in moments, unraveled through eons, exposed by the outline of thigh behind clinging fabric, endless in the eternal migration of geese, drifting in a mist over a lake surrounded by pines, persistent in the perseverance of the Holy See. Having caught a glimpse of the Sacred, the Artist attempts to glorify it in works of beauty. For the works of beauty they need to create, Poets compose poetry.
Readers of poetry adopt the role of ritualists; conductors of rites that invoke wonder and awe. With voices tuned to glorify the sacred; to unleash the genii from bounds of verse, readers find interpretation, meaningful but more felt than understood.
Reading poetry takes effort, playful and experimental and requires us to synthesize rather than analyze. We create new from the poem in the same way piano players create something new from the work of composers.
And like the piano players, readers get better with practice.
© 2009 Chrome Poet

© 2008-2012 Chromia Poetics