Poetry: How to Read the Words

“Positive bright white neon white sign on dark background, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” by Lauren Peng on Unsplash

 

 

First, relax.

Speak the poem out loud.

Pay attention to the words.

All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.

During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?) conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses. They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.

But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.

Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.

You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.

But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations. Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.

It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]

Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:

  • This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
  • This is a poem about an abusive father

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.

Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.

Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.

Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.

In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.

Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good. Complexity. Poetry can sing about that to us. All we have to do is pay attention to the words.

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