Saturday, September 6, 2008

Postscript to a Month of Poems

After reading a poem a day for a month, I didn't even get through two shelves out of ten. So it will take at least three more months to read a poem by each of the authors in my collection at this rate.

I'm not daunted by the task. The reading is easy. Writing the entries for each day is what takes the time. But I am interested enough in the results to want to continue.

However, there are other things I am eager to write about and don't have enough time for both. So I intend to take a break and start back up the month(s) of poems again in October.

Not surprisingly, I found myself writing more about how I read poetry than about the poems themselves. It is, after all, my blog and poetry is a very personal experience. What did surprise me is that I ended up, more often than not, thinking and writing about the poet's larger work rather than the specific poem I read.

It probably shouldn't surprise me since I have read all of these books before. And, as I began to realize and discuss towards the end of the month, one's reaction to the poems is heavily influenced by the context it appears in. This is not just the difference between reading a poem in a magazine vs. in a complete book of verse. It is a very personal context of all the work you may have read of that poet, when you read it, how you reacted to it before, what you were thinking at the time, what else you were reading, what you heard about the work, etc. Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" can be heavily influenced by any of these factors.

This intensely personal experience is not unique to poetry; it applies to all of the arts. However, in novels, movies, plays -- even dance and music -- the author has a larger field in which to play and influence the reader's response. We speak of being "engrossed" by books and "enthralled" by dramas. This is where we let the author take control of our responses as we become part of the work of art.

But the poem, in general, is a much smaller physical space where the author may have as few as two or three lines to "set the scene". So we as readers are more likely to provide additional context to "fill in the gaps", so to speak.

The more the poet depends on the reader to bring things "to" the poem (Ferlinghetti for example, or Wakoski), the more possible it is for the poem to be misread or "under-read" as shallow and vacant. Poems that build their own world in miniature (such as the work of Vasko Popa or W. S. Merwin), on the other hand, can appear strange, distant, and almost inhuman to some readers.

This is not a judgmental distinction. Brilliant poems have been written using both methods. The remarkable thing about it is -- given the personal nature of the experience and minimal space the poem allows itself -- how often and how powerfully that experience can be shared. That is the talent of the poet.

(go to A Month of Poems Continued)

No comments: