What goes on at Getting into Poetry?
April 21, 2009
One of the things I love most about working on our reading groups sessions is that I had to shift my own head from my previous experience of discussing poetry – school or university classes, in which the aim is to prepare for examination – to something suitable for reading for pleasure. I still want to retain that incredibly rewarding feeling you get from discovering something about how you read a poem, and trying to express it to others. I know how much that moment excites me when I’m reading, and gives me confidence to talk about it – and the confidence to change my mind completely.
Reading poems on my own or with other people builds up a heap of observations and ideas and scrawled questions in the margins, from which I know I’ll end up picking out the ones that help me make sense of what I’m reading and how I feel about it. ‘Breaking down the poem like we did at school’? Aw no, no, no – it’s building up thoughts and testing assumptions and finding connections, and the blinding flash of mental lightbulbs suddenly switching on.
Anyway, every so often I run some sessions in the library which I imaginatively call ‘Getting Into Poetry’, attended by people who often feel they’re not very sure about how to discuss poetry and what to read, and are a little anxious sometimes that they just don’t know enough to make worthwhile comments on a poem. The idea is that they’ll quickly sort out this misapprehension, and feel happy about diving in to one of the regular poetry reading sessions in the library. And every single time, the GIPs end up uncovering new meaning for me in a poem that I thought I knew. It’s some of the most fun it’s possible to have in the library, short of putting my music up really loud and dancing round the lending section (well, nobody else was there at the time).
Despite my eejit-like advertising of the wrong start-time, last week’s group were in remarkably good temper to start, and just got better. They were very game to read poems, argue and change their minds, or mine. After an hour and a half, which vanished even though I was trying hard to keep an eye on the time, I had that happy, tired buzz you get from exercising grey cells.
Next week is the second half of the session, where we talk about ideas for what to read next and I try to dig out some poem that will frighten the socks off everyone for a minute, till they see what I’m up to and realise they can talk just as happily about that as about the previous week’s poems. And where I no longer get to enjoy the sound of my own voice: from here on, I have to shut up and let everyone else really get into their stride.
I’ve got part of a poem by W S Graham stuck above the computer here. It covers pretty much all of my reader development strategy, but concisely:
The spaces in the poem are yours.
They are the place where you
Can enter as yourself alone
And think anything in.
It’s vital feel that you are being yourself when you read poems, not uncomfortably adopting ideas you think you should have. But it’s a revelation to have company. (And if you’re interested in reading and reading groups – do you know about The Reader organisation and magazine, run by Phil and Jane Davies? And you’d like Poets House in New York, where our Facebook friend Marsha Howard works – she knows all about running reading groups, having done so in the New York Public Libraries for years. Go have a look and make friends…)