How to read poetry (notes to self)

As if it were any other kind of communication that means what it says, not some kind of code to be deciphered.

As if it were code, where a single mistyped letter can change everything, and turn a webpage into the white screen of death.

As if you had nothing else to do: no news to skim, no email to hurry through, no other work, no purer entertainment.

As slowly as a lover performing oral sex: forget about me, what does the poem want?

As fast as a sunrise on the equator, so the mind won’t have any time to wander.

As if each line were an elaborate curse in some nearly extinct language with only four elderly speakers left, all of them converts to evangelical Christianity.

As if the stanzas were truly rooms, and not houses lined up on some quiet street.

As if the spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life.

As if it were perfectly useless and irrelevant to the cycle of discipline and indulgence we think of as real life.

As if each poem were an oracle just for you: a diagnosis from a physician, an interview with Human Resources, the suggestions of a therapist, the absolution given by a priest.

As if the real poem were buried like a deer tick ass-up in the flesh of your ear.

For notes on reading poetry for an audience, see my similarly titled post, “How to read a poem” and the Voice Alpha blog it links to. (Must work harder on titles!)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

23 Comments


  1. The last chapter of Slow Reading, the one on techniques, was too short. I had difficulty recommending particular techniques. I think you nailed it here. Maybe the best technique for slow reading is to read as if you were reading poetry.

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    1. Maybe so! Yes, I am very much of the school that says poetry isn’t different in kind, only in degree, from other forms of literature.

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    1. Thanks, Dale. These really were just notes to self this morning, but I kind of liked how they turned out. My essential self-advice is this: each time your mind starts to wander, go back to the beginning of the poem and start again. Make your restless wanting take the poem as its object.

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  2. Larkin agrees with your third plank, in his way: “To write a poem is a pleasure: sometimes I deliberately let it compete in the open market, so to speak, with other spare-time activities, ostensibly on the grounds that if a poem isn’t more entertaining to write than listening to records or going out it won’t be entertaining to read…”

    Thanks for the Movie Plots review, too: I’m going to staple it into my copy of the book as the 37th page.

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    1. Hey Nick! I’m glad you were o.k. with that review. I was kind of sleep-deprived yesterday and fear I didn’t quite do the book justice, but I really liked it: the poems themselves, but also the delicious typesetting and design. Thanks for that Larkin quote. I agree, writing poetry is its own reward (if that isn’t too trite a paraphrase). Reading should aim for that same level of immersion, in my opinion.

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  3. Oh my this is good! Funny and worrying and acute and obvious and obscure all at once – what we’ve come to expect in other words.

    I’m going to read it again now.

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  4. The last line says it all, Dave. Yes, one must read a poem and not miss the many-splendoured thing in it that could be killed by ruthless hermeneutics. If a poem can’t give that aesthetic pleasure when read, what in blazes is it for?

    (The line before this):”…forget about me what does the poem want?” is an apt reading formula. (:–)

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    1. Yeah, I’ve never been too big on literary analysis myself, perhaps because I’ve felt that for some people (I was a Comparative Literature major) it overshadows pleasure, maybe even takes the place of reading itself. Though a few critics, such as Bakhtin and Steiner, have been crucial to the evolution of my worldview.

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  5. The last one wins! Well, they all win, but this one is terrific:

    “As if the real poem were buried like a deer tick ass-up in the flesh of your ear.”

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    1. Glad you liked. That image actually came from a remembered dream-fragment from last night.

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  6. I like the edges of surrealism in How to read poetry (notes to self), the variety of images, all quite rich and meant to evoke the reader’s imagination, that the only extended metaphor is the poet who is dreaming up a series images of the world that emerge with a cadence of similes, analogies, that, if followed, bring the reader (who is reading or speaking) back to the poem, the poem’s reading.

    If you were inclined to record this poem, too, I’m sure Dave would be delighted!

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    1. Of course it’s deeply flattering to get the audio treatment like this, Brenda, and I suppose if anyone else wanted to give it a shot I could incorporate it into the player at the top of the post (I’ve never done that, but I believe it’s possible/easy). I do want to state for the record that I did not and do not conceive of the post as a poem, though I have no problem with you viewing or hearing it that way. As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I don’t get too hung up on labels.

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      1. I regard Notes as a prose poem, Dave. But prosepoems really are poems rather than prose -they do not have the grammatic logic of prose, but rather of poetry, even if a prosepoem is composed of mini sentences- so for me they are in the category of “Poetry.” Which this is.

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  7. I regard Luisa’s Morningporch pieces as ‘prosepoetry’ because of the grammatical structure of the lines that are mostly enjambed mini sentences, but of course the images make great leaps and don’t at all follow the logic of a prose paragraph, and so she is definitely a poet who writes poetry.

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    1. I strongly disagree with that definition. A prose poem should be in prose form! Sorry. :)

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      1. Might be an interesting post, Dave, what a prose poem is. Writing in paragraph form might determine that a piece is prosepoetry, but no necessarily – for me, it’s the grammatical structure of the writing.

        It’s a popular form to ‘cut up’ sentences (which are emphatically not what anyone here does) and call it poetry, but giving prose the ‘look’ of poetry doesn’t make any difference to my reading.

        Anyway, it’d be interesting to read of your definitions of poetry, prose poetry, concrete poetry and any other forms that you come across often enough to talk about. Since you are an eMagazine editor, it would be especially interesting to here your take on these forms.

        They are so fluid it seems to be we are each using our own ideas about where many pieces fit into literary forms.

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        1. That’s true. I am actually collecting ideas for a possible blog post on free verse — we’ll see if anything comes of it. If so, though, it’s more likely it’ll be another lyrical exploration rather than anything analytical.

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        2. I guess what I would say here is that there’s a difference — a big one in my mind — between a prose poem and a prosey poem. A prose poem historically, as you probably know, came out of the French surrealist movement and the best examples still tend to retain surrealist elements, including abundant non sequiturs and deliberate absurdities that would rarely be found in straight-forward prose. It is not enough for the classic prose poem to be lyrical and contain metaphors. This is, in a way, opposite to the prosey poem that sets itself apart from prose primarily if not exclusively by taking on the appearance of lyric verse — though I also believe it’s perfectly appropriate to do this in some cases, for example when using found material of a quotidian nature, and wanting to show that it deserves a closer read. The appearance of poetry with its uneven, hard-returned lines is a signal to read in a different, more attentive way. So writing prose poetry is a fun challenge because you lose that advantage, but in exchange get to play with the reader’s expectations of what prose is or should do.

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  8. hear! tired. a dog was hit on the road tonight but not hurt running to see my dog & a I’m a little shaken, & really oughtn’t to be out commenting.

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