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.

Poetry of Resistance

A crowd of protesters, one holding a poster with an image of Princess Leia saying “A woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash
Political poetry is experiencing a resurgence in Trump-era America, and I’m grateful. It challenges our assumptions and brings us together as we speak and act against the injustices and oppressions of yesterday and today.

In fact, a few new magazines specializing in political poetry have sprung up since the 2016 election. One is Rise Up Review, edited by poet Sonia Greenfield. I was fortunate to have the following poem published there in 2017. Since then, Greenfield has expanded the magazine, and it features poems in many different styles, on many different topics, from poets around the world.

 

Terror, Anxiety, and Not Much New Writing

In the spring of 2016, I got on a creative roll, waking up in the dark at 5:30 am and writing for 90 minutes before heading off to my day job. But as the 2016 election drew near, I focused more and more on reading the news each morning, and then each night. Each new misogynist revelation, each new racist pronouncement left me newly depleted. My morning writing practice fizzled out.

Since 11/9, I’ve been in a perpetual state of checking: checking the NYT, WaPo, the Guardian, checking 45’s Twitter feed, checking social media. Recently, I realized this checking behavior was what I did as a child in an abusive family situation, and later, a teenager in an abusive relationship. It’s got to stop.

People who’ve survived child abuse and intimate partner violence get used to walking on eggshells because abusers and batterers can snap at any moment. When I lived like that, in terror and anxiety, I monitored my boyfriend’s moods with great vigilance. I hung on to the fantasy that if I could predict his violence, I could prevent the next black eye, broken nose, split lip.

For many years after escaping that relationship, I was as head-shy as a maltreated horse. Any sudden movement near my head made me flinch. I thought that for the most part, I’d gotten past that.

But no. I live in a country where elected leaders exhibit the same characteristics as batterers: blaming others for their actions, denying or minimizing their own bad behavior, using sex as an act of aggression, losing their tempers explosively, insisting on control. And access to their babyish rantings and explosions is always just a click away.

So it’s not surprising, really, that I would be re-living the terror and anxiety of my youth now. The current political landscape is awash in overt racist and misogynist violence. It’s also awash in the more subtle violences that attack the health and security of women, of immigrants, of anyone who doesn’t look white, of gay, lesbian, and trans people, of people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. It’s much too much like the old days, when men were legally entitled to rape their wives, when homophobic violence was not prosecuted, when racists got away with lynchings, when men could beat their wives and children, when communities and government sanctioned such behavior or excused it as “private family business.”

For me, the terror and anxiety manifest now in my checking behavior. I spend way too much of my time and energy monitoring the political climate and obsessing about it. As if I could predict violence, subtle or overt, and so prevent it. As if.

So where’s the balance between staying informed enough to call my congressmen (yes, they are all men) regularly, and freaking out over every new photograph of a group of old rich white men smiling over meetings and documents meant to exploit or harm our planet, our people? Where’s the balance that will give me back at least some of the energy I need for early morning writing sessions?

Help me out here. Thank you.