Perhaps you do it differently. I can’t know. I only know what I do.
I’m interested in how people approach puzzles, and a poem’s a sort of puzzle. When I was a college teacher, and working on learning skills, I used sometimes to give students a thinking challenge, a question. ‘What’s 5 x 13?’ for example. They had to work out the answer and write it down without conferring. Then they had to say how they got their answer.
A lot of people (I’m in this group) did 5 x 12 (which they remembered from learned-by-heart tables) and then added 5.
Some did 5 x 10 (50), then 5 x 3 (15) and added the two results.
Some had a picture in their head that looked like this:
They would add up the 3s in the units column one by one (15), write down 5, carry 1 over to the tens column, then add all the 1s.
Somebody would reach for their phone and use the calculator.
Sometimes there would be a person who knew the answer instantly but didn’t know how they knew.
And so on. Usually there was at least one method that would never have occurred to me in a month of Sundays. But the interesting thing was the way we assumed, without saying as much, that we were all doing the same thing. Actually we were doing a whole range of different things.
So it occurs to me, in this reading window when I’m reading a lot of poems, that it may be the same with poems. Tom Duddy once said to me he didn’t read poems like a poet reads poems, he came to them as an ordinary reader with a need.
The ‘ordinary reader with a need’ makes a lot of sense. Think about funeral poems. You go to a funeral, and someone who never normally reads poems, will read one aloud, and that poem, in that situation, will answer a need for more than just that one person.
But I was immediately interested in how a poet reads poems. How does a poet read poems? I think perhaps Tom meant looking at how the poem is made and what it’s up to, like a person who builds bicycles immediately looking at the construction not just the performance.
Frankly, I don’t often think about what I do. Like most people, I just do it. But I thought it would be interesting to perform my own class exercise on myself, to see what happens, and share it.
If I were doing the 5 x 13 exercise, I would also talk to the class (after they’d done the sum) about the role fear plays in the whole problem-solving thing. If people were nervous about coming up with the wrong answer to 5 x 13, it would affect the process. So the person who reached for her phone might be scared she’d get it wrong (or too lazy to work it out). But some people would know they would get it right and that would affect not only the thinking method but their entire feeling about juggling with numbers.
When I come to a poem, I’m not scared of it. I’ve read a lot of poems, and I like doing it. So I think that probably makes me quite relaxed in my approach. I come to it as a communication and I want to know what the poem’s telling me. Simply from the fact it calls itself ‘poem’, I assume it’s telling me something un-casual, something I might want or need to know.
So here’s how I read a poem (assuming the poem fits inside one side of A4 paper, which most these days do. If it's a long poem, the process is different).
Right! I’m working with a real poem. I haven’t read it before, ever. (I picked it at random from this month’s submissions, but I shan’t tell you who wrote it or what it’s about.)
I glance at the shape and how the text fits into the white space. Is it in stanzas and if so, are they the same size and shape. Do I like the look of it, or find it interesting? This is a sort of ‘Are-you-sitting-comfortably-then-I’ll-begin’ stage. I note, mentally, whether there’s an odd or even number of stanzas.
This poem has 5 x 4-line stanzas. Five is a good number. For me, odd is nicer than even.
Then I look at the title. And mentally process it. Is it one of those titles that could be a play on words? Or a title I don’t get? Or a first line title? Whatever. The title may be a clue. But this one seems entirely straightforward, so I relax a little, and start.
I'm reading right through the poem from start to finish. If I hit a snag, I’ll stop. A snag is a place where I’m not sure what the poet means, at the simplest level. That could be because there’s ambiguity, or the sentence doesn’t seem to make sense, or the punctuation’s confusing and I get lost.
But this poem’s easy. Immediately I see a pattern. Each of the five stanzas starts with a question. All but one has the question mark at the end of the second line.
So yes – even from the start, I am looking for patterns in poems, and if I see one right away I feel quite chipper because I’ve spotted something the poet put there for me, like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. (NB: I don’t think poems have to have patterns.)
This poem has five questions. The second half of each stanza gives the answer. So the structure’s a bit like the story of the Three Little Pigs, except here there are five pigs (I mean stanzas), not three.
In the story of the Three Little Pigs, the first pig builds his house of straw, the second a house of wood, the third (as you know) a house of bricks. So we know a climax is imminent because bricks present the hungry wolf with a big problem. But by this time, we also know the score. We know the wolf will say, ‘Little pig, little pig, can I come in?” and we know how the pig will reply. The tension builds because we know some of what will happen, but not all of it.
This poem does that same thing. It draws me into a pattern of familiarity. Each stanza has a question and an answer. And as I go through, I see the answers are rhetorical – that is to say, not true answers. The poet simply considers a possibility in response to each question. This means that by the final stanza, the reader (me) REALLY wants to know what the ACTUAL answer might be. This poem has structured itself towards a punchline and a pay-off.
Actually, there’s a pay-off in most poems, namely the feeling of satisfaction (or at intensified interest) that takes you back to the start. Because if you really like a poem, you want to read it several times, and if it’s a good poem, each reading adds to your pleasure.
So back to this poem. My interest intensified as I went through the stanzas. But when I got to the very last line (at this point, I’ve only read it once, remember), the pay-off didn’t work for me. It didn’t match my expectation.
Why not? I need to go back now. I’m glancing back up the poem, like someone looking up a high rise building from the street.
I can easily see a rhyme thing going on. The ends of the second and fourth lines of each stanza roughly mirror each other. And there’s metre. I picked that up even on first reading. This poem has a ballad-type shape and sound, and ballads are folky poems. They don’t intimidate by being difficult, intellectual and full of complex metaphors.
I still like the feeling of this poem, despite my sense of disappointment at the end. So now I’m going back to read it again. This time, I’ll track the pattern more closely.
Right. This time I notice immediately how the first word in each line’s capitalised, even when the sentence runs over. So either this poet always writes in a slightly old-fashioned way, or she is deliberately calling in an old-style format. I’m inclined to think the latter, but I don’t know, because I don’t know the work of this writer. At this point I notice (this is a confession because it’s not a particularly honorable observation) that the poem is set in Times Roman, the default font of Microsoft Word up to 2007, so either they’re using an old version of Word, or they deliberately selected a slightly retro typeface.)
Second time through, I notice why I dived into the poem so willingly. It’s because the opening question’s really interesting. I do want to know the answer. And although very little information is given about the context, there’s enough for me to imagine myself fully into this situation. And even in the very first stanza I’ve begun to create a scenario. I’m already fearful that the answer to the question will be the one I dread, the one we all dread.
But I know a thing or two about poems because I’ve read a lot of them. One of the things I know is they set up expectations – but then they have a little wriggle and a twist. So your expectations are satisfied (if the poem works) but not in the way you thought they were going to be. Jokes work like this too; it’s part of the fun.
Now I’m up to stanza three of my second reading, and I like the way the question stays unanswered but each stanza gives a tiny bit more information about the context. Lots of poems use lots of repetition and sometimes it can get annoying and wearisome (I often find this is true in villanelles and sestinas, for example) but here I like it. And I like that none of the language is complicated, and none of the sentences either. Question. Suggested answer. Question. Suggested answer. I know precisely where I am at each stage.
And the rhyme isn’t perfect rhyme, it’s a rhyme echo. The words at the end of the first and third lines in each stanza end in ‘ing’. That’s all. But it’s enough.
In the fourth stanza, one line now strikes me as slightly clunky, and it’s because of a ‘that’ which doesn’t quite sound like natural speech here, though the poem has invoked a speaking voice from line one. Also, now I think about it, there are other ‘thats’ in the poem and one earlier in the same stanza. Probably another reason why this line struck me as clunky.
Ah, I’m into stanza five, and now I see the first two lines of the last stanza are exactly the same as the first two of the first stanza. So the poem’s come full circle – back to the question first asked. This puts huge weight on the last two lines, doesn’t it? Finally, the reader has got to what might be the answer.
So I read the last two lines again. Maybe they’ll work for me this time. Nope. I’d say the poet’s created a lovely situation here, and done it well, but hasn’t decided where the poem was going, or hasn’t let the poem have its own head. Because the end is flat.
I go back to the title. It now seems too plain and straightforward. It doesn’t add anything; it simply repeats a phrase that already occurs twice in the poem, and it seems to me now that there is much unexplored possibility here. The title could have changed the whole poem, or perhaps lifted it into an extra level of meaning.
But what possibilities are here! This could be quite something. So easy to make it into a cracking little poem. And the question doesn’t have to be answered, of course. But if it’s left open, it has to be left satisfyingly unanswered. The mystery has to deepen, like Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’, that marvellous poem of un-answeredness.
Now all I have to do, though the ordinary reader does not, is articulate my feedback. My pencil’s in my hand. But before I do this, I’ll take a sneaky look at the next poem because I do want to see whether the method in this text is unusual for the poet, or typical. Does she capitalise the first word in every line of every poem, or just this one? Do all her poems have regular stanzas? etc
Reading poems takes an age ( ‘An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze’). So very much to think about in each one. A delicious way to spend a Sunday morning.
How do you do it?