How long does it take to snag a poem?
Or even just read one. I read an awful lot of them, in book, fast. But that’s not reading properly.
But during the reading window (which is now shut and bolted, though various envelopes are still hurtling themselves against it) I read properly, and I snag as I go.
Ok – in any set, I admit I start with the shortest. I look at the shape on the page, and sometimes at the shapes of the rest in the group. Already there’s a personal aesthetic. I like the look of some better than others. Some look easy to read. Some look like hard work. I have never much liked long and thin, and I worry about centred.
But I try not to let personal taste get in the way – even though it can’t be denied. I read slowly, from beginning to end. This is the snagging stage. The poet has built the poem – often in neat chunks and short lines. I am moving slowly through to see whether there’s a clear run; to see whether I can make my way from start to finish without falling over an obstruction.
Often I do meet obstructions. It’s usually something like a noun that could be a verb – such as the words ‘shock’ or ‘fall’, for example. And the line break may create uncertainty what the word’s function could be. The poet knows, of course, where the sentence is going, but the reader doesn’t.
And there’s the business of punctuation. If it’s present, and it’s working correctly, you shouldn’t even notice it. If you start to notice it – if I start to put pencil rings round the semi-colons – it’s a snag.
Using line-breaks to substitute for commas can be an issue. If you have a lot of enjambment – lines where the sense runs smoothly right over the line end and into the next – you rely on the reader sensing that easily. But if you mix those lovely enjambed lines with lines where the line end represents a pause (but you miss out the comma), you create confusion.
Some people miss all the punctuation out. If you do this, your structure on the page – line breaks and indents and gaps, or whatever you do to organise the sense – has to work smoothly. And it can. But it doesn’t always.
Sometimes a snag – for me – is a word I don’t know – though I count this as a Good Snag. ‘Parkour’ was a new word I learned in July. So I stop reading and go online to Merriam Webster. It’s the same with references to paintings, music, or famous people. I have to look them up, and usually I do, unless it’s the fifth reference in an hour, in which case I just note what I don’t know.
I get tied up with imagery too. Decades of reading poetry has made me into a literalist. So I get the metaphorical application pretty well, but at the same time I log it literally. If you tell me love is like riding a bicycle, I’m ok, I can see you rolling merrily down the street. But if I find you, on the next line, washed up on the shores of a stormy river, I’m wondering what happened to the bike.
I am adjective-averse, and it’s getting worse. Sometimes there are a lot. Sometimes every single noun has an adjective (or two) to help it on its way. But – trust me – they start to cancel each other out.
It’s the poet’s job to sort out the snags, but often we can’t see our own. It takes another reader. So that’s all I am really. A snagging expert. Or that’s what I am at first.
If the snags are serious, I limit my feedback to snags alone. Because until they’re sorted out, the real work of the poem can’t begin.
If there are no snags, I read the poem two or three times more. I decide what I'm picking up at a literal and intuitive level. And then I write a response. Sometimes I just think it works. Some poems do what they set out to do. A pleasure to read – and it doesn’t always have to be deep stuff. It can be small. It can be ephemeral.
But I read poetry in a peculiar way. I can only describe it as like swimming breast-stroke while wearing goggles, where I’m seeing both above and below the water as I progress. The above and below views don’t quite match but that’s as it should be. I’m picking up on stuff. Trying to get the feel, and the tone, and the possible symbols. Whether it’s personal or theoretical, funny or tragic.
Some poems are strong writing. You know it when you hit it. You don’t even have to like it. You just know you’ve read something that works on its own terms. Often these poems will have a detail that you remember for the rest of the day. A reflection in a polished plate. A view of three ships through a window.
Most poems are a mixture: good bits, best bits, weak bits, straggly bits. An awful lot of poems have a poem inside them trying to get out.
How long does it take to read a poem? It takes me at least five minutes for a short one, and up to 15 if it’s more complicated. I probably average 8-10 minutes per poem when I’m giving some feedback, and then I write each person a note too – and some of the notes are long.
In July I read around 1000 poems. It took a long time. If I include the notes and finding of envelopes for those who forgot them, I reckon around 130 hours. I like doing it, and I think it’s important. For me, it isn’t about looking for new poets to publish. It’s about being part of this thing we do, whatever it is, this poetry writing thing.
By the end of the month, I was tired. It’s like the opposite of PoWriMo – what I do is PoReadMo, twice a year.
But after July ended, envelopes kept arriving. Another one yesterday. Please don't send any more!
I have moved over to a different kind of work now. It’s upstairs, not downstairs like the window weeks, and it involves writing and typesetting and publicity for books (watch this space). So there’s no time for reading more poems, except the ones I’m putting in books – which takes even longer.
The next window opens in December. Brrrrrrr.