Talking Craft With MrMary: Reading Poetry


‘…nine-tenths of what passes as English poetry is the product of either careerism, or keeping one’s hand in: a choice between vulgarity and banality.’

Robert Graves

Before I get into how I approach reading poetry, I’d like to offer you an analogy. In  my mind poetry is very much like a seed. The seed, if it isn’t defective, contains everything in it that to transform into a tree or bush or whatever it has to. A poem to me is like a seed and the reader’s mind is like the soil and it should [again to me] contain everything in it for it to grow and bear fruit in the mind of the reader. Some times do to personal preferences or difference of view, a poem may not take root in a person’s mind. Not all the time however is this the fault of the poet though. For example if you do not like to read like unfortunately many people nowadays, then I hardly suspected the heavily nuanced work of T. S. Elliot will appeal to you with its rich literary allusions. If you like the honest but subtle prose of Robert Frost I doubt an experimental poem like “algorithms” by Ms. Rosamond King will entice you:


4                   I/me
5                   you(/them)
3                   we/us
1                   love
6                   hate
7                   neglect
8                   respect
0                   war
2                   peace
9                   justice

4 + (5 * 1) = 3
4 + (5 * 8) = 3
5 + 6 = 0
7 + 6 = 0
9 * 0 = 2?
7 * 0 = 6
3 * 0 = 0
5 * 0 = 0
1 + 8 = 9
1 + 8 ≈ 2
8 ÷ 7 ≠ 9
1 > 0 ?
1 > 6 ?
1 + 9 = 2
8 * 5 = 9
5 ≈ 7
(1 ÷ 7) – 8 = 6
4 * 8 = 42
3 > (4 + 5)

After we take personal preference into account there is the question of work. In poetry unlike the novel we do not have pages and chapters of descriptions we have some work to do. It is not enough to read it once and see if it sounds good or makes us remember that passionate night where our secret crush of 4 years gave us a go in the girls locker room right before an important home team game. Granted the mark of great poetry as Ezra Pounds intimates in the following quote should be the ability to make its readers revisit certain moments of their life with new insight, with new eyes ultimately.

No man can read Hardy’s poems collected but that his own life, and forgotten moments of it, will come back to him, in a flash here and an hour there. Have you a better test of true poetry?’
Ezra Pound

But insight just doesn’t come like that . I think it is necessary to engage the poem and in doing that work must be done.

Words and Work

‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people.’

Adrian Mitchell

One of the important things I was taught concerning poetry was to never say “I think the poet is trying to say”. Who knows what the poet may be trying to say what we do know for instance is that te poem has a structure, it uses analogies, and stirring images, diction either sparse or maximalist etc. Let me show you what I mean as we look at this poem by SYlvia Plath. Here is the poem  by Sylvia Plath [For those of you who do not know her: Sylvia Plath was an American poet, novelist and short story writer. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, she studied at Smith College and Newnham College, Cambridge, before receiving acclaim as a professional poet and writer]


Axes after whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes travelling
Off from the centre like horses.

The sap
Wells like tears, like the
Water striving
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock

That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road______

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

MrMary’s Thoughts on Words

  1. Looking at the structure of the poem  the lines are uneven. They have the look of being fragments that have been stitched together. Also the punctuation and capitalization of every line enhances already look/feel of fragmentation. Every like starts off with a capital letter as if to signify the start of a new  thought. The punctuation is sparse and serves to further add to the theme of fragmentation. The period at the end of the first stanza generally should connote the end of an expressed thought. But it is also put at the last word of the first stanza which is may on initial  look b e considered over kill but what is the period their? The first stanza for instance doesn’t express a clearly delineated thought or process. The use of commas in the beginning of the third stanza  can also be an example of punctuation being used to further enhance the disjointed feel.
  2.  I find the moment of self identification in the third stanza a bit interested. So far up to this point in the poem we are presented with actions or images in a personless way.  Echoes Traveling, wood ringing after being struck by an ax, the sap and wells like tears, a white skull.  How are self-identification and this theme of disjointed fragmented thoughts connected? One can almost make a case for the fragmentary nature of thought and the affects on momentary self identification.

I could go on talk about stream of consciousness as seen in other authors like William Faulkner or Virginia Wolfe and James Joyce if we want to get into the whole fragmentary theme). I could talk about fragmentation and the process of self identifying etc. There are many questions that can be asked. And I feel in doing so we really engage with te poem in a more superficial way.

I am not the biggest Plath fan out there but Ido believe this is for me one of her best poems, the rhetorical techniques used here are used quite masterfully.


We cannot just dump the seeds on the ground. We have to prepare the ground for the seeds. Water the ground first add some fertilizer maybe till the earth a little bit. There requires an active level of participating in poetry more than I feel at least other forms like novel-writing. I also feel that the rise of the television and instant nature of how we want to be gratified has affected our ability to enjoy poetry. It’s my observation that we don’t like things which are open-ended, and can be interpreted multiple ways. I think reading on a whole has suffered, as has education.  We are educated to be workers not independent educated thinkers.The art programs are always in danger of being cut at any second. We have to ask questions analyze  etc. We have to engage it.  We have to also connect ourselves to the classics. Poets and writers, well the good ones are usually the great voracious readers.

Coming back to poetry we have to also realize that for some poetry it is easier to engage it through the images offered, others through the sound when read outloud etc.  I find the poetry of e.e. cummings  it has to be read aloud to get the full effect. Try it out and tell me. Read Freedom is a Breakfastfood to yourself and then read it outloud or rather listen to Laurence Fishburne read it outloud

as freedom is a breakfastfood
or truth can live with right and wrong
or molehills are from mountains made
—long enough and just so long
will being pay the rent of seem
and genius please the talentgang
and water most encourage flame
as hatracks into peachtrees grow
or hopes dance best on bald mens hair
and every finger is a toe
and any courage is a fear
—long enough and just so long
will the impure think all things pure
and hornets wail by children stung
or as the seeing are the blind
and robins never welcome spring
nor flatfolk prove their world is round
nor dingsters die at break of dong
and common’s rare and millstones float
—long enough and just so long
tomorrow will not be too late
worms are the words but joy’s the voice
down shall go which and up come who
breasts will be breasts thighs will be thighs
deeds cannot dream what dreams can do
—time is a tree(this life one leaf)
but love is the sky and i am for you
just so long and long enough
Yeah I think that it
Read the first part of this series here.
Also go check out the talented TJ Lubrano she gave me the idea for this series. She is a lovely person and talented artist and give great movie recommendations.
I am going to direct you to a better more incompassing resource if you want to or are interesting in reading poetry. I could cover teh topic more or I can show you how I read and break down other poems. Like I could take a whole poem and dedicate a post to talking about it breaking it down etc. You tell me what you like
– this the first chapter of the Book How to read poetry by  Edward Hirsh. It has 16 sections provide strategies for reading poems, and each section has plenty of links to examples of poems in our archive to illustrate the points. Here is an excerpt on metaphor
The transaction between the poet and the reader, those two instances of one reality, depends upon figurative language—figures of speech, figures of thought. Poetry evokes a language that moves beyond the literal and, consequently, a mode of thinking that moves beyond the literal. “There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry,” Robert Frost confesses in “The Constant Symbol,” “but chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another, the pleasure of ulteriority.” Poetry is made of metaphor. It is a collision, a collusion, a compression of two unlike things: A is B. The term metaphor comes from the Latin metaphora, which in turn derives from the Greek metapherein, meaning “to transfer,” and, indeed, a metaphor transfers the connotations or elements of one thing (or idea) to another. It is a transfer of energies, a mode of interpenetration, a matter of identity and difference. Each of these propositions about the poem depends upon a metaphor: the poem is a capsule where we wrap up our punishable secrets (William Carlos Williams). A poem is a well-wrought urn (Cleanth Brooks), a verbal icon (W. K. Wimsatt). A poem is a walk (A. R. Ammons); a poem is a meteor (Wallace Stevens). A poem might be called a pseudoperson. Like a person it is unique and addresses the reader personally (W. H. Auden). A poem is a hand, a hook, a prayer. It is a soul in action. 

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