Synopses & Reviews
0 for God's sake
they are connected
They look at each other
across the glittering sea
some keep a low profile
Some are cliffs
The bathers think
islands are separate like them
Muriel Rukeyser's short poem could be taken as a, metaphor for the subterranean way in which contemporary poems are connected to each other. There are certain underlying commonalties that separate this poetry from prose. One is the poet's approach to the blank page. If you look at a book of nonfiction--whether it is a biography or autobiography, a sociology text, a book of film or theater criticism, or a personal confession or book of psychological advice--the page is filled up in the same way. There are headings, paragraphs, perhaps quotes surrounded by quotation marksindented in the standard way. One page resembles another pageand one book resembles another book from a visual point of view.Sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a period.Commas and semicolons help the reader know where the pausesare. The same is true for almost all of prose fiction. The form ofmost prose is predictable, and the reader does not have to adapther or his sense of what to expect on the page from book to book.In fact, the page is there to be turned, not to be studied or viewedthe way one might look at a drawing or photo.
It's different with poetry. The blank page is often treated as a canvas for painting as much as a vehicle for sharing print. The placement of a poem on a page, or over several pages, and the shape of the poem create a visual composition as well as a verbal one. That means one has to look as well as read when encountering a poem,and sometimes something as simple as looking at thewhole poem and its form before even reading a word can help orient you to the structure the poet has created. I know that when I approach a new poem one of the first things I do it look at its shape before reading it.
The most important thing when coming to poetry is to take this advice of poet and essayist Philip Lopate:
People too often assume they're at fault if they don't appreciate a poem. I think they should trust their own instincts. When you find a poet whose style you like, read everything he or she has written. It's really not important to like all poetry, but it's important to start to trust your taste in it and enjoy it.
There are some ways to encounter poems that help develop a personal passion for poetry. One has to do with looking at poems as well as reading them. Sometimes the shape of a poem is explicitly related to its meaning. This is true in what is called Concrete Poetry, "where the poem is looked upon as a painting with words." Here's an example of a concrete poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay:
This poem/poster is a representation of steering by a star. It can be interpreted in many ways: to represent the selection of a special star, to show affinity (through the bold type) between a person and the cosmic world, etc. It can also simply be taken in as a pleasant, interesting way in which letters, shapes, and meaning can come together without having to, use too many words.
Concrete poetry is only one small island in the world of contemporary poetry, though with the development of computer graphics, thecombination and transformations of letters and graphic images is quite common. Concrete poetry has been taken over by the computer graphics world (and especially by advertising) and we are much more accustomed to looking at letters as well as reading them these days. This can help in approaching more complex poems where words, meaning, spacing, typography, and images play central roles and the graphic presentation is meant to enhance these other aspects of the poem.
Poetry has the power to move and challenge the reader. It can intensify or even celebrate misery, be cynical or wry, or just laugh outright in an outrageous way. Poetry is as serious and antic as life, and yet reading modern poetry can be shocking to our sense of what language is or must be.
In A Grain of Poetry, Herbert Kohl presents a series of guideposts to help everyone read poetry and discover those poems that inform and inspire them. In clear, direct language, he covers all of the essential-but often unchartedpaths to understanding poetry: form and structure, line breaks and pauses, rhythm and melody, imagery, and recitation. Written by one of the country's leading educators, A Grain of Poetry is a comprehensive and accessible guide for all poets, students, and poetry lovers.
About the Author
Herbert Kohl is a well-known educator and award-winning author. Among his more than thirty books are Thirty-Six children, Growing Minds, I Won't Learn from You,and Should We Burn Babar?An active teacher-educator who works with school systems all over the country, Kohl lives in Point Arena, California.