Several years ago, I suggested to a group of friends that we choose some poems for reading and discussion. We generally chose books to discuss, but books more time consuming and some people wouldn’t finish the book in time for discussion. That was part of the impetus for suggesting poems. The other motivation was to expand my experience and appreciation for poetry. I think we had a conversation about our favorite poets, and answering the question was a bit silly, since I really hadn’t read a lot of poets. So I thought this would be a good way to remedy that.
Now, I thought of this “poetry club,” based on some conversations about poetry here at mubi. I thought it might be interesting to get some suggestions on gainining a better appreciation of poetry. I’ll throw out some issues to kick things off:
1. One of the biggest obstacles I’ve had with poetry is hearing accents. This is crucial for some poetic forms, but I never felt comfortable identifying where the accents are supposed to be, so I couldn’t really evaluate or appreciate the formal aspects of some poems. Any tips would be cool.
2. One of the problems we had was choosing a collection of poems and then finding copies for everyone. Any advice or tips to get around this problem?
3. On a related note, my idea was to choose one poet and then get one of his/her collections and read that. (Hence, the book problem.) But is that the best approach or would anyone recommend a different approach?
Depends on what you looking for, but the easiest way to get copies of a lot of classic stuff is Project Gutenberg.
I wouldn’t even stress over the stresses.
And (with a few exceptions like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass) I wouldn’t bother try to read through whole collections by a single poet.
Agreed about trying to read an entire collection by a single author. Black Irish recently asked me for advice on how to get into the Romantics (specifically Keats, Byron and Shelley) and I suggested the following, which is a small sampling from each poet’s work, some short, some epic:
Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer; Sleep and Poetry; Endymion; To Homer; Hyperion; The Eve of St. Agnes; Ode to Psyche; Ode to a Nightingale; Ode on a Grecian Urn; Ode on Melancholy; Lamia; To Autumn.
Byron: She Walks in Beauty; So We’ll Go No More A Roving; Don Juan.
P.B. Shelley: Mont Blanc; Hymn to Intellectual Beauty; Ozymandias; Ode to Heaven; To a Sky Lark; Adonais.
Of course, reading all of Don Juan or some of the other lengthy poems can be a bit daunting, but even skipping through them to get a sense of the language and style as a way of warming up to them can be beneficial. In fact, that’s what we did in classes, and then I’d go and read the full poems on my own later.
Really? But aren’t some poetic forms dependent on stresses? (Actually, I think I also wanted to understand this because I wanted to try writing poems in some of these forms.)
One of the goals is to become familiar with a specific poet, and then move on to others, so that you have an understanding and appreciation of a variety of poets; hopefully, this will help you know what you like—in addition to just expanding your appreciation for poetry.
So do you not recommend this approach? (Besides a few poets, my experience of poetry comes from anthologies, but, again, that doesn’t really give you an understanding of the poet—or auteur. It’s like listening to one song by Miles Davis or one film by Ozu and expecting to fully appreciate them as artists.)
Any tips about the format of the discussion? I’m thinking of just reading the poems aloud and then analyzing them. (I guess that’s basically the only option, but I’ll throw it out there.)
I’ll check the link later. Thanks.
Also, not stressing the stresses is fine, but reading Old English is fun and really easy once you get into the rhythm and memorize a few common words.
Agreed about trying to read an entire collection by a single author.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean the entire works of a poet—but say a book of their poems.
Black Irish recently asked me for advice on how to get into the Romantics…
Hmm, that raises another angle. Do you think we should organize the discussions by studying movements or time periods? The idea of taking a historical approach—say starting from the Greeks and working our way up to the present appeals to me.
Thanks for the suggestions.
I’ll leave the format up to you guys. I mainly focused on prose in college (and have since), but I can participate in many a discussion of some of the greats.
An historical approach is definitely not a bad idea, it would at least allow for better appreciation for the development of poetry. Speaking as one who currently doesn’t. (glughk.)
[And sorry to appropriate the thread for personal purposes.]
Hou: Speaking of that, I’ve been thinking of just focusing any discussion we have on Keats’ shorter works for the time being. Perhaps I’ll delve into some of Byron’s or Shelley’s as well, but I don’t think I’m ready for some of the longer or epic poems….
Sure. Even before you do read the longer works, I can point out some brief passages from each that we could talk about in relation to the larger piece and the author in general, to give you a sense of them before you tackle them.
I was really happy when you asked me about these poets because, honestly, I hadn’t thought about them in a while and it spurred me to grab them off the shelf and get back into them. I missed em.
That sounds great. It may be awhile before I tackle the long ones, since I want to focus on the short works in order to return the book to the library. Besides, most of the epic poems have sections taken out of them so I might as well wait ‘til I’m ready for them later down the line.
Though the flame’s died down a bit, it’s reignited my desire to read more poetry in general [speaking of the English Romantics, I would love to read some Blake after browsing one of his poems recently.] I’ve a few books at home, but rarely give them the attention they deserve.
I would love to read some Blake
I love Blake. Even though he had an unbelievably complex personal philosophy/religion (like almost all the other Romantics) it never seems to get in the way of his poetry (@House…Mont Blanc is a tough one for me, in that regard. I have tried to read it a couple of times, but haven’t been able to make it all the way through, unfortunately).
Also, Coleridge. I know I mentioned him a bunch in STL, but I really hated him at first and now I sort of love him, specifically Rhime of the Ancient Mariner—which is a long poem that isn’t difficult as long as you’re comfortable with some plot confusion, because things happens fast—and Kubla Khan, which I can’t get out of my head. I literally find myself randomly mumbling the first section to myself while walking through the grocery store and such.
Yeah. I know nothing about timing signatures or musical notes (literally nothing), but that doesn’t stop me from listening to music. Maybe that’s not a good comparison.
Reading poems out loud helps, for me. Accents can get kind of complicated and it’s best to just simplify and let the natural flow of the poem do the work for you (which it should). There are two poems that were very helpful to me in recognizing meter:
1. The Tyger – William Blake
This was the first poem I ever scanned. It’s seems pretty easy and begs to be read aloud—where the stresses can really be heard. TYger Tyger BUrning BRIGT/ IN the FORest OF the NIGHTBasically the entire poem is STRESSEDunstressed ( / U )….Trochaic Tetrameter
2. An Essay on Criticism – Alexander Pope
Pope believed that perfectly rhymed and perfectly metered poetry was what God intended, so he put a lot of effort into making everything precise. Every deviation from iambic pentameter is done for a specific reason relating to the content of the line. But I kind of hate Pope, so….
Sonnets are easy to measure too because they pretty much follow a preset formula.
You need to get in some Wordsworth if you’re doing the British Romantics.
One of the problems with a straight historical approach is that it ends up becoming a HUGE commitment. Even if you limit yourself to English poetry. Even if you limit yourself to BRITISH English poetry, it’s a massive amount of reading to get from, say, Beowulf all the way through to Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
“So do you not recommend this approach? (Besides a few poets, my experience of poetry comes from anthologies, but, again, that doesn’t really give you an understanding of the poet—or auteur. It’s like listening to one song by Miles Davis or one film by Ozu and expecting to fully appreciate them as artists.)”
Well, I think there’s a middle ground sorta like what HoL is suggesting with the Romantics. You can identify a manageable number of representative works by a particular poet without having to plow through a whole . . . otherwise you’re going to just take on way too much reading or you’re going to miss too many great poets because you’re diving into too deep to this or that poets work.
“reading Old English is fun and really easy once you get into the rhythm and memorize a few common words.”
Yeah, I guess for an English speaker, that would be one area where I would encourage a little research—Old English and Middle English (Chaucer and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight).
J&K: I’m a bit curious about Coleridge, but I generally haven’t thought of him as much since I probably know even less about him than the three Hou listed. On a sidenote, I wish my memory was good enough to recite random selections of poetry….
Does understanding the different meters actually help in appreciating the overall poem, or is that more of a specialist’s area? Also, just curious, why do you kinda hate Pope?
Matt: About Old & Middle English, how would one go about researching them? Assuming you wouldn’t try to learn them as an entirely new language.
Most good current editions of Old English and Middle English texts will have fairly solid annotation and supporting materials that should be enough to decipher the text, so you really just have to be willing to read footnotes and maybe flip to the front and back of the book as you read until you get the hang of it.
“Does understanding the different meters actually help in appreciating the overall poem,”
Yes and no. It depends on the work, but for the most part, the meter is pretty much imbedded in the sound of the language, the rhymes, and the line breaks, so you’re pretty much going to pick it up just be reading it. It’s not like you need to be able to read a line and be able to say “Ah-ha—that’s an alexandrine!”.
Many of the Old and Middle English texts I’ve read have side-by-side translations back into English, which can be extremely helpful getting started.
Yeah, I at least figured they wouldn’t just have the original text without any additional information. Guess my only concern would be getting overwhelmed by having so much reference material. After awhile, does reading something like Canterbury become more ‘natural’ on revisiting it?
That’s good to know about the meters, since I haven’t studied poetry all I know is there are many different kinds and wasn’t sure of their importance to the reader.
Oh sure. Hell, reading anything improves on revisiting it.
Oh no, I didn’t mean like that [though I would agree.] I meant more along the lines of being able to read Old/Middle English without use of annotations.
Yeah, it definitely gets easier. It’s not like reading a foreign language. Its rules start to make sense quickly and before you know it you’re plowing through.
When I read Chaucer (or Beowulf or Shakespeare, for that matter) I try not to get overwhelmed by the history or even the original meaning of every word or the direction of every plot, because at the end of the say it’s a story and the good ones are still living and relatable and require more emotional involvement than intellectual—not that the above things don’t matter, but as far as they discourage me or impede my enjoyment or stop me from going further because I don’t understand the politics of the late 12th C. Britain—I would rather just push those aside for a later date.
Meter should be self evident—not something you need to understand—it’s a mechanical thing. When reading Old, Old Poetry though, it might help to be aware of the Great Vowel Shift, which really mucked things up, because we don’t speak like that anymore, but even then it doesn’t really matter—it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that the writer thought Hot rhymed with Hat, in his day and age. The good thing about well metered poems is that they are easier to remember (which is one of the reasons poetry was invented—it’s easier to recall, from memory, rhymed lines with an even beat that it is to recall prose poems). Poe is great for this—the first poem I was able to recall from memory was Poe’s Eldorado—which I first heard, as a child, from Howard Hawk’s Eldorado, which James Caan (Mississippi) recites, in part, to John Wayne.
I hate Pope (hate is too strong a word, of course. I actually like almost all of his stuff, to some extent, I just prefer the Romantics) because he, along with his contemporaries, tried to make art into a science of sorts. The Romantics—with their ecstatic revelations, personal religions, distrust of the state, and lack of faith in the efficacy of the sciences on the human soul—were reacting, I think, in response the urbane confines hoisted on them by the likes of Pope and Dryden, etc. Pope was practical and interested in social order, olitics, etc. whereas the Romantics were wild and interested in the soul (the American Romantics, later on, where better able to balance the two, and I prefer that small group of artists to all others).
Everything I write is sloppy and long lately because I am writing on the run and this Mubi thing is making me late to appointments and such. So that…
Hou: I hope that’s true, especially after having previewed a bit of Chaucer on Amazon. For some reason, it reminds me of Dutch….
J&K: Long, but not sloppy in my opinion [if anything, I feel bad for being unable to contribute significantly.] In any case, I appreciate all of your guys’ input. What you say about Pope and his generation makes alot of sense to me, I imagine I’d feel similarly if I was as well-read on, at least, English poetry.
Speaking of the Americans, who do you like along with Poe, if you don’t mind me asking?
Welsh: Dafydd ap Gwilym (Welsh language), R.S.Thomas, Dylan Thomas.
Tang dynasty Chinese: Tu Fu, Li Po, Po Chu-i
English: Keats, Tennyson. I’m a romantic. One poem i love by Coleridge is Frost at Midnight. By Byron, The Death of Sennacherib.
Of course with poetry there’s a loss in translation, but i also like Lorca.
Maybe my various poetry anthology lists on mubi (reflecting my own taste) will give a sense on which poets to explore more closely. It’s not heavy on US poets. I’m always sad to see poetry hidden away in bookshop corners when so much trash dominates the charts and shelves. It’s like the Hollywood domination, and say Paradjanov not being known.
This is going back a bit (and I can’t revise), but some everypoet links I found useful for ways of thinking about language. Might be too beginnerish—I can’t remember.
But. Perhaps begin with one poem.
Matt: I’m actually a little familiar with all three of them, have a complete volume of Dickinson and the original edition of Leaves of Grass at home, but want to get into them further. Especially Stevens, since all I have are a selection of his works in one of my college textbooks.
Kenji: Speaking of Lorca, are there any translations you’ve favored?
If you’re going to do Stevens I suggest getting The Palm at the End of the Mind. It’s not as exhaustive as the Library of America’s Collected Poetry and Prose, but it’s got all the essential poems, and it’s half as long (so it’s a lot less daunting) and less than half the price.
You should also read Herman Melville, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Frost, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Robert Penn Warren, James Merrill , John Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, Langston Hughes, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Richard Wilbur, James Dickey, Robert Creeley, Philip Levine . . . there are many more worth reading of course, but these would give you a solid foundation.
If I got into Stevens, I would probably just check out the LoA’s edition from the library, and maybe Palm as well in case I did want to buy one in the future.
Thanks for the recommendations, I’ve familiar with most of those names and have read a little from some. Is there a particular ‘tactic’ I should take when approaching their work, since I’d probably do each one individually at some point? In particular, I’ve been interested in reading The Changing Light at Sandover but imagine that’s not the best starting point for Merrill.
Also, which of Melville’s poems do you particularly like?
Sandover is great, but a number of shorter lyric poems are very good too. You might try his Divine Comedies, which is made up of a number of shorter poems that lead into “The Book of Ephraim”, a brilliant long poem that in many way anticipates Sandover, before you tackle that one.
Personally, strategically, I really think it’s fine to just sample various writers and then read whatever strikes you as compelling at the moment. But then again I’ve never been a really programmatic reader, so maybe this is more of a personal quirk that a good suggestion about how to proceed.
Melville wrote a very long epic poem about a pilgrimage to Jerusalem called Clarel that’s genius. Much of his shorter poetry is about the Civil War. “The Maldive Shark” is one that’s not, but I think is particularly relatable to his prose (shark-whale and all). “Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)” is outstanding. “The Portant” (which is about John Brown) I really like. People still haven’t fully worked out whether or not Melville’s a truly great poet or not, but I see him as really more or less the first modernist poet.
Yeah, I’ll probably want to start with some of the shorter ones and will look into Comedies as well. Thanks for the tip.
That makes sense, it’s more or less how I read, at least when I’ve managed to commit myself. Just didn’t know if there were certain works I should refrain from until I became more familiar with a given poet’s style.
Think I had to read Shiloh for a class once, but I don’t remember any of it…. What about his poems strikes you as modernist? I’d read about that before, so it’s part of the reason I’m interested in his verse and Clarel in particular [though it being an epic poem naturally intimidates me (Haha.)]
Not sure I can do my own argument justice off the cuff and in a reasonable amount of space, so apologies if this ends up being incoherent, but . . .
Well, the whole Battle-Pieces collection is really sort of fascinating in that poems themselves were drawn largely not just from direct experience (a series of trips to the front to visit a cousin) but from a variety of accounts in print, stories conveyed to him by family and friends, etc. So, instead of a series of poems from a single perspective, you get a kind of mosaic-y kaleidoscope of multiple perspectivism, with each poem really speaking with it’s own eccentric voice, and a kind of blending of romanticism and realism, but with a very modernist-feeling authorial distance. He writes about the war in a way that acknowledges that it can’t be fully represented.