Reading Poetry

by Guest Blogger June 02, 2010

by Stephanie Walker

[A]s I gear up to begin reading for Ruminate's 2010 poetry contest, the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, it strikes me that my life takes me to a variety of levels of poetry reading. And all of these levels give me different things to appreciate, to consider, or to strive for. As a reader, I love poetry. I adore the craft of such a small parcel, the tightness of the language and the power of well-placed images. I am a language lover, and I feel that poetry is the most creative and challenging mode of distilling language to its most powerful core. I read to be entertained or moved, and though a number of poems or lines stick with me, a good number also just rush over me, enjoyed and then forgotten. That's part of the fun of leisure reading. As a poet, I am a member of a writing group, composed of passionate, committed writers who give me much to aspire to. They also let me have it from time to time. Each week, we submit work to the group, then get together in a coffee shop to read our poems, offer feedback, and maybe share some pie. Reading the poems for this group is unique, in that you can't just read for entertainment—you have to go into it with a critical, but helpful eye. For them, I read with an eye to what particularly works for the poem, what doesn't, what parts hold me up, what words and images work or could be tweaked, etc. Rather than a simple "thumbs up"/"thumbs down" mentality, it is about making the poem as strong as it can be. It also makes you really think about what makes a poem enjoyable/worthwhile/"good." As the leader of a poetry bookclub, a similarly critical eye comes into play, though in more of ruminative and general way. We sometimes point out specific lines that did or did not work for us, but typically we talk about poems as a whole, rather than their minutiae. And as opposed to the writing group, when our group discusses the book, we do so knowing that while our feedback might open parts of the book that were previously obscured to us, our discussion will ultimately have no effect on the final product. Our talks help us to understand and appreciate (or not!) the books, but ultimately, it is only our way of more deeply taking in the book. As an editor at Ruminate, reading poetry for the issues (as we will soon begin reading for the Poetry Prize) is an interesting combination of the above readings. While it is easy to get swept away and read purely for enjoyment, you also have to have a critical slant in order to help you narrow down the selections. Sometimes I get so into reading a poem, that I then have to re-read it to make sure it's a good fit! And while we don't typically offer feedback about the poem (as in the writing group), I like to think that the feedback of an acceptance letter is an acknowledgment of the poet's work up to that point. It feels good as a poet to read another poet's work that is still mutable—not yet published and therefore cast in stone, the unpublished poem is usually a changeable mass that the poet continues to work on. I love finding a poem at just the write moment in its development, or reading a poem that resonates with me or the theme of the issue. It's a much more dynamic act than reading for enjoyment, but less taxing than reading for a writing group. Ahh—I can't wait! Bring on the poetry submissions! What do you enjoy or find challenging about reading poetry?




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