Wednesday, November 16, 2005

How I Read Poetry

When flipping back through my book journal recently, I noted that there isn’t a single poetry title in my list of books read so far in 2005. This is not because I don’t read poetry. I can tell you, just off the top of my head, that this year I’ve read poems by Sandra Alland, W.H. Auden, Ken Babstock, Jonathan Bennett, Roo Borson, Raymond Carver, Kevin Connolly, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, H.D., August Kleinzahler, Dennis Lee, Philip Levine, Tim Lilburn, Jennifer LoveGrove, Frank O’Hara, Theodore Roethke, Stuart Ross, Stevie Smith, Paul Vermeersch, and William Carlos Williams.

But I only list books that I’ve read cover to cover in my book journal. And, for me, with a book of poetry there’s no identifiable beginning or end point. I dip into a collection wherever I like. With a brand new book, I’ll look at the table of contents and flip first to the poems with titles that intrigue me. If I’ve heard the author read from the book, I’ll start with poems that I recognize, to see if I experience them differently on the page. With old favourites, I gravitate towards old favourites. I treat my shelves of poetry books like one big anthology. I read most of the poetry books that I buy in their entirety eventually, but it could take years. And with the ones I borrow from the library, I may never make my way all the way through.

This has always seemed a reasonable approach to me, particularly with “selected” and “collected” works. But it has occurred to me that with many poetry books I’m likely missing something by not paying attention to the overall structure. After all, I pay close attention to the structure of novels and short story collections, not just to their component parts. And I have an idea from conversations with poet friends of how much time and thought they and their editors put into decisions about what goes in and what is left out, what order the poems appear in, whether the book will be divided into sections and what sections, and so on. It’s a shame to think of all that effort being wasted on me. So, before the year is out, I resolve to give a few poetry collections the cover to cover treatment, and see what difference it makes to my understanding and appreciation of the poems.

Fellow readers, how do you approach a book of poems?

And poets, how would you like your books to be read?


Stefanie said...

I like to dip into poetry books and read them from cover to cover. The ones I read all the way through I tend to read over the course of several weeks. I read a poem or two and then set the book aside for a day or so, then read another poem or two. But sometimes I will just walk up to my poetry bookcase and pull a volume off at random and read the poem on the page that falls open.

dj sciz said...

Reading poetry is a very intense experience for me, so I only read one at a time, and my pace is usually about one poem per month. Sometimes I sit down with a book of poems, and can't stop, but that doesn't happen very often.

I've only ever been really close to one poet, and he's in your neck of the woods, Kate. His name is Ricardo Sternberg. I've read his first three books over and over and over again, and I always pay attention to the structure, because I know how much it matters.

I suppose with anthologies, it doesn't matter.

Razovsky said...

As a reader, I read different poets' books in different ways. Usually, though, what happens is I intend to read a book of poetry straight through, but only get to page 30 and the move onto other things. After that, it becomes a "flip it open and read whatever catches my eye" kinda thing. One I did manage to read from beginning to end (chapbooks not included) was Harryette Mullen's Sleeping With The Dictionary.

As a poet, I hope that people will read my books any darn way they want. Though I am working on a booklength poem now that I hope people will read as if it were a novel: to encourage this, the poems are numbered.

Over and out.

Connolly said...

Kate, in answer to your final question: I'm just glad to have anyone read it, frankly, even if they hate it.

I read poetry (especially when I'm writing it) like a deer eats. Stay in one spot as long as things seem interesting, then move on to a more promising tuft.

When you're full, turn on CNN. Except when Ted Nugent's on ...