Friday, February 01, 2008

How to Learn from What You Read

One of the most sage pieces of advice you will hear about learning to improve as a poet is to read, read, read, read some more. I think this is true.

But what are some specific things you can do while reading? Do you do a close reading, a formal analysis? Do you do a line-by-line analysis? Copy or parody a poet's style? What are the practical things you can do to teach yourself about poetry, while reading it?

Here is a very simple truth: No art school, no music school, no dance academy, no MFA poetry program can teach you joy, inspiration, or enthusiasm. All they can teach you is craft.

If you're lucky, you get inspired and enthused anyway, either by your own love for what you're doing, or perhaps by a teacher who fulfills the role of a mentor for you. You have to generate all the rest of it yourself, internally. That's why the best advice is still to read widely, eclectically, and omniverously: read read read write read read write read write read some more.

Therefore, I believe that line-by-line analysis or similar forms of analytical close-reading are more useful for academic and craft-oriented analysis than for poetic analysis. Those are all very heuristic, very intellectual, very left-brain modes. There are good arguments to be made for doing it that way; to figure out how meter and form works, for example. But don't read just Shakespeare's sonnets, read Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnets, read Edwin Denby's sonnets, read Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus—all sonnets, yet nothing alike.

The danger in line-by-line analysis is that the overall sense of the poem can get lost in the analysis, in terms of sentences, phrases, and grand overview. I don't recommend analyzing the composition of the moss on the north sides of the trees in the forest, if in doing so one loses the sense of the forest itself; its ecology, its place in the world, in history, in relationship, its grand breathing.

Analysis is almost always reductive; appreciation is by contrast expansive rather than reductive. So, when I read a poem, I read it as much for pleasure as for analysis. The two are not mutually exclusive. But again, analysis is easier to describe, proscribe, and discuss, than is appreciation.

"Parody" means "imitation" in its original sense; or as in 16th century sacred music, the "borrowing" of other musical material to include it in one's own setting of the Mass. Copying the masters has always been one way to learn about them. Painting students have done that for centuries, and it's still a good way to learn technique. That's true in all the arts, including poetry.

If a poem inspires you, write a poem in response to it: not necessarily in imitation of it, although you can learn craft that way, too. Every time I read Rumi, I feel inspired to write poems on similar topics, similar scales, similar themes; so I do. Every time I read Rilke, similar things happen.

Keep in mind, though, that parodic poems, or imitation poems, do not always stand on their own, as poems. They might best be thought of as études rather than finished, independent pieces. Nonetheless, a great deal can be learned about poetry from this practice.

Choose the poets you love to read as your de facto mentors, and learn from them by reading everything they wrote. Be thorough; read even their juvenalia, their weaker efforts, their failures; don't just read their best and greatest poems, read everything. Read their letters, their essays about and reviews of other poetry. This will give you a well-rounded view of them as human beings, not just as disembodied, iconic genius-artists. It is both humbling and validating to realize that your poetic heroes had feet of clay, the same as you and I do.

One method to really learn about a poem is to copy out the poem in your own hand. This slows you down enough to pay attention to what you are reading, and you notice things you wouldn't simply by reading the way we usually cursorially read. You might notice the rhythm more clearly, or the arrangement on the page. You might even want to take a particular poem you love and make it into a piece of artful calligraphy, to frame and mount on your wall.

You might read the poem out loud, word by word, as you copy it out. You might discover that you have memorized the poem during the process of copying; then you can even walk down the street reciting it. (Never be afraid of people looking at you funny; artistic types are assumed to be weird, remember. Use that to your advantage.)

Reading poems out loud is very important. You learn a lot about rhythm, but also about what works on the page and what doesn't work in a reading; and vice versa. Lots of Slam poetry works as performance art, and fails utterly on the page; lots of "post-avant" poetry looks fascinating on the page, and quickly gets boring when read out loud. A great poem can be recognized in part by how it succeeds in both written and spoken realms. This may be in fact a good definition of a successful poem: it can survive and thrive both as spoken art, and on the page.

Reading the poem out loud, and copying it out in your own hand (I have made caligraphic artwork pieces of favorite fragments, from time to time) are both helpful because they are both somatic processes, rather than processes of pure mentation. Most poets need to get out of their heads more often than they do, and more into their bodies. Reciting and copying out are both good ways to trigger that shift. If poetry doesn't live in your body—if you don't feel the occasional gut-punch from reading a poem, a visceral reaction brought on by the reading of the poem—then you need to go find a poem thatdoes do that for you. If movies can make you weep or feel such joy that your heart is about to leap out of your chest, then so can poems.

I mentioned sonnets earlier. You can also do a course of reading that focuses on one aspect of poetry, and do a comparison and contrast across many poets, to see how they used a form like the sonnet (or the haiku), and how they exploded or transcended it. Look at the similarities and the differences; this will provide a wide range of "solutions" posed by writing a poem in a particular form or style.

Poets have come up with many different ways of "solving" the problems imposed by the limits of form, meter, method, content, and style. These can all make or break the poem. It's another way of spotting a great poem amongst the chaff; often enough, many great poems transcend the form they're written in, in some subtle way. Shakespeare's sonnets read out loud so well, in fact, because they read as sentences that break across the line; reading them purely as accented rhymed couplets fails to do them justice, while reading them as sentences brings out their deeper beauty.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Will said...

In all my years with poetry I never thought to copy them out by hand. What a wonderful idea.

BTW, when I was at school you wouldn't have got me to appreciate poetry if you'd held a gun to my head (a technique they must have got close to) but when I finally found 'my' poetry it was like discovering a new world.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

It is like discovering a world, yeah. I had that experience early in life, with poetry, myself.

The whole thing about copying them out, reading them, etc., is to bring them into the body—the somatic experience I mentioned. I find that it really, really does make a difference.

So, what IS "your" poetry, that you discovered?

11:39 PM  

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