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Discovering Poetry: Part One
Copyright©2004 by Nathan Harms

I wandered aimlessly in a branch of the Edmonton Public Library about a year ago when I bumped into a writer, "Vee," who I recognized from a previous Christian writer’s workshop. Vee said she was looking for poetry, and asked me to make reading recommendations, especially Canadian poets. I recommended several books by Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier.

Our chance meeting prompted a stimulating discussion of poetry, via email, between Vee and myself. We shared our thoughts casually, unaware that they would ever be read by anyone else.

January 2003

Hi Nathan,
It was great to see you at the library this afternoon. God is so neat. I wander into a branch that isn't even my home branch, looking for poetry, feeling rather clueless, and what to my wondering eyes should appear? A poet! How fantastic.
Vee

Hello Vee:
Yes, aren't coincidences amazing? I'm a bit wowed by it too.

Hey Nathan,
Can you give me some tips on how best to read and appreciate poetry? I read the books you recommended, some of both Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier. I enjoyed Atwood least, because I found it so difficult to understand what she was talking about.

Now comes the question: do I read for feeling, enjoyment of the word play, etc. and not worry about the meaning at first? For example, Atwood’s long poem, “Circle Game,” was very interesting. I quite enjoyed it. However, when I was done reading (I had to read it several times) I still couldn't quite get the story line. I'm fairly sure I know how the person in the poem is feeling. That part I seem to pick up, but it is frustrating not to understand what’s going on.

Crozier is a bit more clear in the meaning of her poems, although there are a few that baffle me.

I was writing about it this morning, and I was wondering if it's an ego thing—always having to have the right answer. I think that reading poetry will stretch me. I am out of my comfort zone, but I'm excited to see where this will take me.

Am I on the right track? Should I just hang in there with these two, or should I try another poet who is a bit more clear in the presentation of meaning. For example, a poem like "Stopping by Woods" (Robert Frost) is very clear. I know what's going on, and I like to read it. I like the sounds, the pictures it creates, etc. I have read others that have been more vague, but when I finish the poem, the meaning hits me, WHAM! I like that. It's when I read it over and over and I'm still left wondering, "What the heck was that all about?" that I go nuts. Am I making any sense?
Vee

Hi Vee:
Such awesome questions you ask. They go to the very heart of what it means to read poetry.

i'm going to change directions with you here, and suggest a different book. I hope it's in the library, but if it's not, then I can assure you that it is worth buying.

The title is "The Discovery of Poetry" and the author is Frances Mayes. The author takes readers on a “tour” of poetry, telling how to read poetry, what to look for in poetry, etc. Besides being a very friendly introduction to poetry, the book contains many poems of all types. You might find some poets worth exploring simply by reading this book.

Although I have been involved with poetry for a long time I still find "The Discovery of Poetry" to be an interesting read. I learned a great deal from it myself.

In the meantime, here are links to several poems I like. They are by a Christian poet, Jeanne Murray Walker. How do you feel about them? Do they strike a nerve? Are they only words? It will help me steer you if I have a better idea of what you like or do not like.

Internet Links to Walker’s poetry:
“Protestant Icon” (http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/16/walker16.html)
“The Grudge” (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9601/poetry.htm)
“Hope” (http://www.cortlandreview.com/issue/21/walker21.html)
Nathan

Dear Nathan
Thanks for the tip. I will pick up the Mayer book tomorrow. As for the poems, I enjoyed them very much. I like the way the sounds and the pictures created by her language.

I love “Protestant Icon.” It's wonderful. I also like “The Grudge” very much. One question: why a bat, do you think? “Hope” was great to read. I really enjoyed the part about the ants, but I got lost in the last stanza.

I'm being brutally honest with you, Nathan. I hope you don't give up on me, thinking that I'm a poetic lost cause. I want to get this, I really do.

Thanks for taking the time to look up these poems. I appreciate it. I'll get into that books ASAP.
Vee
P.S. I did a search on Jeanne Walker and found a good Internet site with samples of her poems. I like them. Thanks for recommending her.

Hi again, Vee
Give up on you?

The thing is this, Vee, what you feel about the poetry you're reading is generally true for all readers of poetry. I don't understand all the poetry I read. Perhaps more to the point, there is no way I understand all the poetry I love. It's possible to garner a distinct emotional or intellectual response from reading a poem without knowing what the poem "means." We read such a poem again and again for the "buzz" it gives us.

In fact, it's been said that a poem that can be fully explained isn't really a poem. Poetry, at its best, scales linguistic heights that other writing cannot achieve. Poetry, at its best, walks the edge. When you're on the edge there are sure to be times when you just can't hold it there. The poet comes so close to scoring with the reader, but misses. And what might have been a great poem makes the reader say, "Huh?"

Questions like you ask about the "The Grudge," "Why a bat," are totally pertinent to the intellectual enjoyment and understanding of poetry. Why, indeed? Perhaps because a bat is seen by many as a despicable animal? Perhaps because the poet felt the bat created exactly the right combination of imagery and underworld?

You are on the right track.

Jeanne Murray Walker is one of my favorite writers. I wonder if you would enjoy Stephen Dobyns? Especially the poems in his book, "Cemetery Nights." He has been an influence on me.
Nathan

To be continued…

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