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Chapter Two: Welcome, Reader: Reading Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser says in The Life of Poetry that in order to successfully read a poem, we must give a poem “a total response.” This means giving it all of our attention, taking it in slowly, reading it several times. It means listening to the poem openly, without judgment, and without projecting our own assumed meanings onto it, but rather as Ruykeyser writes, coming “to the emotional meanings at every moment.” As she explains, “That is one reason for the high concentration of music, in poetry.”

To come to emotional meanings at every moment means to adjust and react to the way a poem takes shape with every word, every line, every sentence, every stanza. Each poem creates its own universe as it moves from line to line. It is a universe that Ruykeyser describes as the “universe of emotional truth.” So how exactly does one listen with his or her emotions?

Reading is one of the most intimate forms of connection we can have with someone. We take their words—their breath—into ourselves. We shape the words with our own bodies and, too, give them life with our own breath. Reading poetry, we breathe in what a poet breathes out. We share breath. The words and their meanings become part of our body as they move through our mind, triggering sensations in our bodies that lead to thoughts. And through this process, we have experiences that are new and that change us as much as any other experience can.

Poetry is a condensed art form that produces an experience in a reader through words. And though words may appear visually as symbols on the page, the experience that poems produce in us is much more physical and direct. The elements of poetry permit a poet to control many aspects of language—tone, pace, rhythm, sound—as well as language’s effects: images, ideas, sensations. These elements give power to the poet to shape a reader’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience of the poem. Because form and function are so closely intertwined, it is impossible to paraphrase a poem. When I was an undergraduate at SUNY Brockport, my first poetry teacher Anthony Piccione used to say, “A poem is what a poem does.” This is why we must read poems with full concentration and focus more than once. It is why we must read them out loud. It is why we must be attentive to every aspect of the poem on both ends: as a writer, and as a reader.

Readers come to the page with different backgrounds and a range of different experiences with poetry, but it is how we read a poem that determines our experience of it. By “read” I do not mean understand or analyze, but rather, the actual process of coming to the poem, ingesting its lines, and responding emotionally.

Be a Good Listener

Discussion

I’m willing to bet that all of us have heard someone described as a “a good listener” in our lifetimes. Well, what is it that makes someone a good listener? List the qualities we associate with good listening skills and share your experiences of people who demonstrate these skills. In contrast, what makes someone a “bad listener”? How can we relate these concepts to reading a poem?

Being a good listener requires many of the same traits as being a good reader. When we listen to someone speak, we listen to their emotions and ideas through meaning and tone, body gestures, and emphasized words. We do not judge. We do not interrupt. We may touch the speaker’s arm to express care. We certainly use facial expressions and gestures to let the speaker know we are listening and understanding, that we are advancing emotionally alongside them with each turn of the story. Before offering advice, condolences, or other reactions, we as listeners try to see their perspective and its complexities from their side. We take our identities out of the equation and place their concerns in the middle of our attention.

Every poem has a speaker that seeks connection with a listener. A poet seeks to create an emotional experience in the reader through the poem’s process, just as if a friend—or stranger—were telling an intense story. Unlike a person speaking, who can use the entire body to gesture, poetry has only a voice to rely on to speak. Yet the poem seeks to speak to a reader as if it had a body. The poem uses rhythm, pauses, stresses, inflections, and different speeds to engage the listener’s body. As readers, it is our role to listen to the speaker of the poem and to embody the words the speaker speaks with our own self as if we are the ones who’ve spoken. We as readers identify with the speaker, with the voice of the poem. We listen with what John Keats called a “negative capability,” meaning we are capable of erasing our own identity and ego in order to imagine what it is like to take on another. Although Keats used the term to apply to the writing side of poetry, it is useful to consider the concept in terms of the reading side of the equation, as well.

Like individuals, each poem’s speaker speaks from a place of perspective, a place which can be physical and/or psychological. As we as readers move word to word, line to line, we must allow the universe of the poem to take root in our imaginations as if it is the only universe that exists. When we are open to the words’ music and meaning, the poem has the potential to envelop our entire being and body, as poet Emily Dickinson expresses in one of her letters:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know. Is there any other way.

Dickinson speaks of the poem affecting her entire body and being. Great poetry does this, as Rukeyser explains, because of the musical language, one the most important properties of poetry. Music is seductive. Music is instinctual beyond language. Music is a universal language. When accompanied by language, it has the power to affect our senses and our sensibility in intense ways.

How to Conduct a Close Reading of a Poem

The Title Matters

Reading a poem, we start at the beginning—the title, which we allow to set up an expectation for the poem in us. A title can set a mood or tone, or ground us in a setting, persona, or time. It is the doorway into the poem. It prepares us for what follows. How would you describe the tone of each of the following titles?

Discussion

Look at the following titles and discuss the reactions and expectations they create:

  • Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
  • Happiness
  • Wishes for Sons
  • Riot Act, April 29, 1992
  • Reckless Sonnet
  • Pissing Off the Back of the Boat into the Nivernais Canal
  • How Much Is This Poem Going to Cost Me?
  • The Turtle
  • A Blessing
  • Girl Friend Poem #3
  • Sex at Noon Taxes
  • The Tree of Personal Effort

The First Time Through

Upon a first reading, it’s important to get an idea of what it is you are entering. Read the poem out loud. Listen for the general, larger qualities of the poem like tone, mood, and style. Look up any words you cannot define. Circle any phrases that you don’t understand and mark any that stand out to you. Some questions we may ask ourselves include:

  1. What is my first emotional reaction to the poem?
  2. Is this poem telling a story? Sharing thoughts? Playing with language experimentally? Is it exploring one’s feelings or perceptions? Is it describing something?
  3. Is the tone serious? Funny? Meditative? Inquisitive? Confessional? Here is a list of tonal descriptors that may help you pin down what you’re hearing:
    • Abrasive, accepting, admiring, adoring, angry, anxious, apologetic, apprehensive, argumentative, awe-struck
    • Biting, bitter, blissful, boastful
    • Candid, childish, child-like, clipped, cold, complimentary, condescending, critical
    • Despairing, detached, didactic, direct, discouraged, doubtful, dramatic
    • Fearful, forceful, frightened
    • Happy, heavy-hearted, horrified, humorous
    • Indifferent, ironic, irreverent
    • Loving
    • Melancholic, mysterious
    • Naïve, nostalgic
    • Objective, optimistic, peaceful, pessimistic, playful, proud
    • Questioning
    • Reflective, reminiscent
    • Sad, sarcastic, satirical, satisfied, seductive, self-critical, self-mocking, sexy, shocked, silly, sly, solemn, somber, stunned, subdued, sweet, sympathetic
    • Thoughtful, threatening
    • Uncertain, urgent
    • Whimsical

These initial questions will emotionally prepare you to be a good listener. When we come to a text, though we release ourselves of any preconceived judgments, we do come prepared emotionally. Picking up a book of fiction is different than opening a book of nonfiction essays. Within us there is an ever-so-slight yet important preparation. Think about it. Although both nonfiction and fiction share similar writing tropes, how would you feel if someone told you that the nonfiction book you are reading—the one that brought you to tears—is not nonfiction, but actually fiction? Most people become upset. It feels like you’ve been lied to. To put it another way, think about how differently you prepare to engage with a performance depending on its genre. How do you set yourself up differently for a stand-up comic as opposed to an opera? Not only are the effects of the performance different, but the way we emotionally prepare ourselves to receive them is also different.

Let’s begin to apply our approaches to the following poem by Stephen Dunn:

The Insistence of Beauty

The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark,
gray and white ribbons of it
on their way to evanescence.

And at impact, no doubt, certain beholders
and believers from another part of the world
must have seen what appeared gorgeous
the flames of something theirs being born.

I watched for hoursmesmerized
that willful collision replayed,
the better man in me not yielding,
then yielding to revenge’s sweet surge.

The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,

and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensity—or was it the coldness?
of each photographer’s good eye.
For years I’d taken pride in resisting

the obvioussunsets, snowy peaks,
a starlet’s faceyet had come to realize
even those, seen just right, can have
their edgy place. And the sentimental,

beauty’s sloppy cousin, that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?
Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?
When word came of a fireman

who hid in the rubble
so his dispirited search dog
could have someone to find, I repeated it
to everyone I knew. I did this for myself,
not for community or beauty’s sake,
yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.

“The Insistence of Beauty”, from THE INSISTENCE OF BEAUTY: POEMS by Stephen Dunn. Copyright © 2004 by Stepehen Dunn. Used by permission of W. W.  Norton & Company, Inc.

Begin with the title: “The Insistence of Beauty.” What does this title do to you? What kind of expectations and tone does it set up?

Perhaps you expect a poem about beauty, or because it is the “insistence of” you may feel determination, or like beauty is up against some other force. Or maybe you expect a poem about art.

Then ask and begin to answer these questions:

  1. What is my first emotional reaction to the poem?
    • There is no one answer to this, obviously. But maybe you feel loss. Or hope. Or desperation. Or sadness. Or admiration. Maybe you’re confused or feel a combination of these.
  2. Is this poem telling a story? Sharing thoughts? Playing with language experimentally?
    • This poem seems to be telling a story. The poem contains a sequence of events: “The day before”; “I watched for hours”; “the next day.” The speaker is sharing emotional reactions to something, as well as his actions to an event.
  3. Is the tone serious? Funny? Meditative?
    • It seems serious, inquisitive, and confessional. It’s not humorous and isn’t experimental.

Images and Tone

After an initial introduction to the poem, read slowly and allow the meanings to emerge as you move from line to line, paying attention next to images and tone. Before moving ahead, ask what your emotional response is at the end of each line, as lines can create different meanings and give the poem complexity. For instance, in the following stanza, we respond one way to the first two lines’ image, and another way after its turn to the third line:

The day before those silver planes
came out of the perfect blue, I was struck
by the beauty of pollution rising
from smokestacks near Newark

In the second line, the phrase “I was struck” forms an image with what precedes before it can form an image with what follows. This second line leaves us with the image of the speaker being struck by something. It might be different for you, but because I am holding the image of a plane in my mind, a plane being a large and physical object, I immediately imagine the speaker being “struck” physically by an object. Therefore, we momentarily hold the image of being struck physically: “The day before those silver planes / came out of the perfect blue, I was struck.”

But when we move to the third line, the image changes. The speaker is no longer struck by an object, but by an emotion or idea: the “beauty of pollution rising.” Although we may think of pollution as ugly, here we are being told that it is beautiful. The word reverses our assumptions; maybe we see in our mind’s eye the clichéd image of smog rising from smokestacks and ask, “How is that beautiful?” Or maybe we think about how smog makes the colors of sunsets more intense. Either way, the speaker is telling us that he sees pollution as beautiful even with all of its complications (it’s harmful, smelly, ugly, etc.). Rather than leave us with only the speaker’s judgement of pollution, the next lines create for us an image of that “beauty” so we can see it, too: “gray and white ribbons of it / on their way to evanescence.” These last two lines help us make sense of the idea that pollution is beautiful. The ribbons evaporating maybe are somehow beautiful. If we disconnect our knowledge from the image so we do not think about how the ribbons are smoke, if we simply see the visual the smoke makes: “ribbons…on their way to evanescence,” we experience what the speaker experiences: beauty. Or, perhaps, what the speaker sees as beautiful is the pollution, the ribbons of smoke, disappearing. From this persective, the speaker would see not the gray and white ribbons as beautiful, but the gray and white ribbons disappearing as beautiful.

Tonally, the words “perfect” and “struck” stand out for different reasons in the first two lines—one for meaning, one for sound. When something is “perfect” we feel admiration, maybe the need to protect it. Since nothing really is perfect, it also sounds a little romantic, subjective, or too good to be true, which may also produce tension as we know perfection isn’t real, or doesn’t last. The word “struck” is a harsh, violent, physical word. And ending the line on it emphasizes it even more. To be struck by something suggests shock, surprise, immediacy, and change.

In addition to these two words, the first phrase sets a tone, too, of expectation. We know something significant is being made of the planes because they are marking a day: “The day before those silver planes.” The event is important enough to refer to it in such a way. This is how we speak of big events. The day we were married. The day we went swimming. The day those silver planes came out of the blue.

The tone in the first stanza immediately produces a connection between the speaker and reader. We feel the speaker is disclosing something to us, or divulging something important. As we continue through the poem the speaker’s tone becomes inquisitive as he asks questions:

or was it the coldness?

that enemy,
can’t it have a place too?

Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?

Is he asking questions of the reader? To himself? A bit of both? We journey with him on his seeking.

Discussion

Read through Dunn’s poem and identify the rest of the images. Discuss how each image makes you feel. To what words or images is your attention drawn? What associations do you make from them?

Find Connections and Ask Questions

After moving through the poem and noting images, their effects, and the tone or places where tone changes, the next question that is helpful to ask is: What does x remind me of? Or, what associations am I making? Usually the connections I would suggest making would be within the poem itself and the patterns it creates—between lines, images, repetitive words or themes, diction (word choice)—but in Dunn’s poem, before we can make connections within the poem, we are actually reminded of something outside of the poem. In the first stanza, the two planes near Newark and two ribbons evaporating may remind you of the iconic image of the September 11th attacks on The World Trade Center in New York City. This an allusion (an indirect reference) to that event, as suggested by the second stanza: “believers from another part of the world / must have seen what appeared to be gorgeous.” Making this connection provides us with a context for the poem’s occasion. Maybe we begin to ask, “How can the attacks on the World Trade Center and its subsequent collapse be seen as gorgeous?”

You may be wondering what happens if you didn’t make that connection. Will you misread Dunn’s poem? In a poem, allusions like this usually aren’t usually necessary if the poem makes use of all the other elements of poetry successfully. And in Dunn’s poem we are actually given enough, I would say, to have a sufficient experience if the allusion isn’t made. In the poem the planes cause an “impact,” believers elsewhere watch the “flames of something of theirs being born,” the speaker watches “mesmerized,” the media posts photographs of the fearful and “dead or made of stone” watching the events; then the poem focuses on the speaker’s emotional reactions and thoughts regarding the event, and what thoughts it evokes within him in regard to beauty. The poem closes with the story of the fireman and his dog and the speaker’s insights. Looking at it this way, maybe 9/11 is secondary in experiencing the poem. It’s hard to be certain since I cannot not make the connection to the event personally, but perhaps it is possible that the allusion is not central to the poem’s experience, since it is all of the other poetic techniques of the poem that create the sensual reaction in the reader.

Let’s for a moment pretend that the poem isn’t alluding to these events. This will leave us to focus on the private and unique universe of the poem and make connections within it. If we begin to make connections within the poem itself, one of the first connections we might make is how the ribbons in the first stanza appear beautiful to the speaker even though they are pollution, and how the flames in the second stanza appear “gorgeous” to the believers even though they are destructive. What does that suggest? The connection bridges the distance between the speaker and the believers, as they both have the capacity to see beauty in something harmful, in something that others see as ugly. This further suggests that beauty is subjective, though the ability to see it is universal.

You can see how making connections like this and asking questions about those connections can lead to insight into the poem’s experience, as well as insight into the experience of being human. Here, Dunn’s speaker has found similarities between himself and people who might be considered enemies. Beauty, we see, may be received and interpreted by our senses and not rely on context.

What other connections and patterns can we see? And what questions can these patterns raise in us? In the third stanza the speaker watches the collision “replayed”—be it on a television screen or in his mind—and admits to a desire for revenge. Later, in the last stanza, the speaker repeats the story of the fireman: “I repeated it / to everyone I knew.” What does this suggest? He says “I did this for myself, / not for community or beauty’s sake, / yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.” How are we to understand the impact of his repeating his story? If it is told “for myself,” then what exactly is the speaker getting from this and how is it connected to the replaying of the collision? What might be meant by rhythm and frame?

In the fourth and fifth stanza the speaker makes a connection between himself admiring “the intensity” of the people in the photographs and between the photographers taking the photographs:

The next day there was a photograph
of dust and smoke ghosting a street,
and another of a man you couldn’t be sure
was fear-frozen or dead or made of stone,

and for a while I was pleased
to admire the intensityor was it the coldness?
of each photographer’s good eye.

The speaker asks, “Was it the coldness?” This seems to suggest a distance, or emotional coldness, in the voyeuristic qualities he is experiencing and the way photographers act as objective eyes for the audience. The photographers cannot act on their emotions or empathies, but instead to succeed, photographers in intense situations must shut down their responses and capture the moment visually, detached from their emotions. The speaker says that he admires this, “the intensity—or was it the coldness? / of each photographer’s good eye.” Perhaps he sees courage in the act of taking these photographs, or maybe he sees something admirable in the way a person can detach himself from an event in order to focus only on the image, the visual, the camera’s eye with a “good eye” that can see art and capture it.

In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker muses on how he’s reacted to beautiful things in the past just as coldly as these photographers: “For years I’d taken pride in resisting / the obvioussunsets, snowy peaks, / a starlet’s face.” The pattern of “coldness” is established by several word choices here: “fear-frozen,” “coldness,” snowy.” The words are used as physical description and emotional description. They are literal, and they are figurative. Our speaker then tells us how he discovered that images of “sunsets, snowy peaks, / a starlet’s face,” too, have their “edgy” place. This is a little mysterious. Does “edgy” refer to the destructive, ugly yet mesmerizing collision and photographs he’s been viewing? Is this suggesting that serene beauty and edginess are somehow closely related?

The speaker then introduces the idea of “the sentimental,” which he refers to as “beauty’s sloppy cousin, the enemy,” and asks if it can have a place to also be appreciated. The word choice of “enemy” is interesting, as it echoes the relationship between the speaker and the believers from the beginning of the poem. What does this suggest about the relationship between enemies, and between the roles they play? The speaker ends the stanza with another question: “Doesn’t a tear deserve a close-up?” The image represents sentimentality, beauty’s “sloppy cousin,” but it actually could be another allusion, this time to a commercial by the Keep America Beautiful campaign, made in the 1970s at the start of the environmental movement. It is another reference that will not diminish the poem’s effect on a reader if he or she doesn’t know it, but it can add another layer of complexity if it is understood. In the commercial, a Native American witnesses the pollution of a river as he paddles a canoe up the river, and as he turns to the camera, we zoom in on a tear slipping from his eye. The allusion echoes the pollution that the speaker found beautiful in the first stanza.

In the last part of the poem, the speaker confesses that he retells the story about the fireman hiding in the rubble “so his dispirited search dog / could have someone to find.” And that he retells it notfor community or beauty’s sake,” but for himself. Why would he do that? Why does it matter that he does? The story is moving. Who isn’t moved by the relationship between a man and his dog? Our focus shifts from all of the people who perished in the rubble whom the fireman and his dog cannot help, to the “dispirited” feelings of the dog that the fireman tries to help. It is almost as if all the devastating emotion we feel thinking about those people and their families, empathizing with them, transfers to the emotion we feel thinking about the dog, empathizing with the fireman who feels such empathy and emotion for the dog that he hides in the rubble so the dog can find someone. In this moment, the feelings the dog has become as important and as worthy as our own—a dog’s emotions equate with a human’s. If we can feel such strong empathy toward the dog, as the fireman clearly does, can we not also feel it toward our enemies? And are these feelings in any way similar to “revenge’s sweet surge,” referred to earlier in the poem? Are they maybe one side and the other, sloppy cousins of each other like beauty and sentimentality? Or is the dog and fireman story too sentimental to fall in love with? And if it is, doesn’t it “deserve a close-up” too?

Look Closely at Diction

When reading a poem, you should always look up words you do not know, but sometimes it can help to look up words that you do know when they have more than one meaning, too. The last line of the poem may seem a bit mysterious: “I did this for myself, / not for community or beauty’s sake, / yet soon it had a rhythm and a frame.” A rhythm and a frame? What on earth does that have to do with anything? Is the speaker suggesting that beauty relies somehow on rhythm and a frame? We can begin by looking in the poem for other things that have rhythm and a frame. The poem itself, does, for starters. Poetry has rhythm. Speech has rhythm. And the images of the building collapsing repetitively have a rhythm too, as well as a frame if they are being shown on television, captured through a camera lens. But “frame” is a word with many meanings. If we look at the word “frame,” we find that it is a noun defined as:

  1. a border or case for enclosing a picture, mirror, etc.
  2. a rigid structure formed of relatively slender pieces, joined so as to surround sizable empty spaces or nonstructural panels, and generally used as a major support in building or engineering works, machinery, furniture, etc.
  3. a body, especially a human body, with reference to its size or build; physique: He has a large frame.
  4. a structure for admitting or enclosing something: a window frame.
  5. usually, frames. (used with a plural verb) the framework for a pair of eyeglasses.
  6. form, constitution, or structure in general; system; order.
  7. a particular state, as of the mind: an unhappy frame of mind.

In looking at the above definitions, there are several that have resonance in relation to this poem.

  1. a border or case for enclosing a picture, mirror, etc.
    • We frame art and other works of beauty, and the title of the poem is “The Insistence of Beauty.” What is the purpose of a frame in this sense of the word?
  2. a rigid structure formed of relatively slender pieces, joined so as to surround sizable  empty spaces or nonstructural panels, and generally used as a major support in building or engineering works, machinery, furniture, etc.
    • The World Trade Center, like all buildings, had a frame, which was destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Were the Twin Towers a piece of art that had beauty and a frame? What did they represent symbolically?
  3. a body, especially a human body, with reference to its size or build; physique
    • All people—no matter what their culture or nationality—and other living beings have frames.
  4. form, constitution, or structure in general; system; order
    1. Poems have form; society has systems; the United States has a Constitution; the 9/11 terrorist attacks were very orderly and systematic. How is beauty linked to order?
  5. a particular state, as of the mind
    • A poem’s speaker has a state of mind, as does the reader; the events of 9/11 place us in a certain “frame of mind.” What frame of mind is the reader in? What frame of mind does the poem put the reader in?

The word “frame” adds layers of meaning that can contribute to our interpretations, reactions, and understandings of this poem, as the word relates to many of the poem’s themes: beauty, violence, love, destruction, storytelling, the visual nature of art, to name a few. Considering these definitions, we might follow our thoughts to conclude something like this:

“Frame” can refer to the building’s architecture, the human body, systems, and orders. We frame photographs—a single moment captured from time—and hang them on our walls. A frame lends support, gives something its shape. And rhythm? Our first rhythm: our mother’s heartbeat—rhythm is elemental and basic. It is the basis of music and poetry. The human body finds rhythms pleasing. Rhythms repeat themselves. The man telling the story of the fireman and his dog creates a rhythm through its repetition; it becomes artful, monumental. It becomes an experience shared rather than isolated. It stands as a symbol, an allegory for the wreckage of person, animal, and city. Perhaps the retelling becomes its own type of architecture that listeners can enter, or the bones within someone, like the fireman, who in retelling this story finds strength and support.

Discussion

What is your experience of this poem? How do you interpret its meaning? After discussing your reactions to the poem, discuss the specific approaches you used to come to your interpretation. What do you think is the most powerful part of the poem? What, if anything, confused you in its reading? Did that change once you conducted a closer reading of the poem? Did your interpretation align with mine in some places? Or are there sections inwhihc it differed? Remember, there is no one way to interpret a poem. That’s what makes discussing them so pleasing and rewarding.

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Chapter Two: Welcome, Reader: Reading Poetry by Michelle Bonczek Evory is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.