FAQ 3: How do you read a poem? How do you teach people to read a poem?

This Thursday in Filipino Literature class, I am teaching To Love as Aswang for the first time.

I’m doing that thing again, where I have to go back into my mental files and figure out, once again, how to explain poetry to undergrads. What is a poem? What is poetry? How do you read a poem? What kinds of things do you look for in a poem? And even: what makes a “good poem,” a “good poem.” I’m not sure this is a “fair” question, but I am interested in how readers of various backgrounds and levels of exposure to poetry would answer this question. We all have our aesthetic, political, and cultural preferences.

I like to fall back on Luis J. Rodriguez. During a couple of his Bay Area events, he was generous to offer his definition of what a poem is. Poetry, he says, is a special, intense/compressed use of language. So then that already speaks to the use of distilled/condensed language; words and combinations of words are working overtime, beyond casual, conventional meaning. Therefore, poetry is seeking to accomplish a lot in a small amount of space, with relatively few words.

Rodriguez also says poetry is a sacred use of language. I think, of course, about prayers, in which you profess your faith and speak to your deities. I also think about vows and oaths, where you state before your community that your word is bond. Poetry is an ancient form, chanted and sung, predating the written word. If our society were ever to become post-written word, then I would say poetry would outlive the written word. All of this perhaps is esoteric to you. I do believe poetry is special, otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen to become a poet.

It’s always an interesting experience, opening up these questions to a classroom full of students. Sometimes I get a definitive, “I don’t get poetry,” where the door’s been shut. They’ve been constantly told they’re reading it wrong, that they must read between the lines to find the hidden meaning. And so they claim to “hate” it. But this isn’t specific to students; I meet all kinds of people who claim to not “get” poetry, who claim to “hate” poetry.

One thing that’s important for me to put out there is that there are many kinds of poetry; every human culture has its own poetic traditions, chanted, sung, spoken, written. We seem to have omitted this truth from our consciousness; we believe, or we’ve been taught to believe that “Western” poetry is The Only Poetry. We are taught to believe Poetry is Universal, when it’s really the opposite — poetry comes from culturally specific places. And in its well-rendered specificity, it transcends cultural specificity. See how those intolerant to poetry would hate this kind of contradiction? It’s only through my years of direct experience with diverse groups of readers that I have come to believe this specificity breeding universality — some of the most culturally specific poems I’ve ever written have found resonance in others I would not have ever imagined.

More often, I get, “Poetry is expression.” “Poetry is your truth.” Here, the door’s also been shut; there’s no additional need for inquiry. Expression of what, why, and how? Part of the resistance to discussion, I believe, is about the reader not quite yet having found the language to describe the what, why, and how — in terms of their own reading responses and reactions, but also the literary terminology that describes what and how the poem is happening. Perhaps there’s also a skepticism; surely, the length of the poetic line, or the fact that a poem is in a certain poetic form, is not what’s getting a reader emotionally worked up here.

There’s a preference then, for a kind of loose “Anything can be a poem,” way of thinking in which random bits of profound, cryptic, spontaneous, florid, fancy language and phrasing — all of these fall into the garbage heap of “Anything can be a poem.”

This is why, I believe, folks get really resistant to actual discussions of poetic technique, poetic form, poetic line. These discussions dispel that notion. No, not anything can be a poem — see how cries of elitism start to happen? Sometimes it’s just words jotted on a scrap or napkin, or jotted in a diary or journal. Sometimes those jottings are the germs or seeds of a poem.

So, continuing with this garbage heap metaphor, perhaps it’s best to think of those random “anythings” as being deposited into a large compost heap, in which time, movement, darkness, and heat make something new that enables growth (poeisis means to make, or to create). And this is why I take the time to discuss with my students, that literary devices are deployed in order to enhance a reader’s understanding, and to deepen a reader’s emotional engagement. It’s important to remind them that the vocabulary is not esoteric; it’s there to be used, and clarified.

So that’s where I am today, turning over the question, “What is poetry,” again, for the millionth time, again.

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