A Way In (Starting Somewhere)

Poetry is not my specialty. I love poetic language, but I don't understand the concept of using only a few words when you can use a whole lot of 'em.

So I'm learning about poetry by reading it--at least one collection a year. (I don't call it "aiming low." I call it "starting somewhere.")

Last year I read Jeremiah, Ohio, by Adam Sol. Canadian content, a Canamerican/Ameri-nadian/ whatever writer: lots of connections there. To say nothing of the subject of the collection, which is a retelling of Jeremiah, a narrative (!!) that is itself challenging and disturbing. I found the whole experience stimulating, rewarding, and interesting.

So I didn't wait till poetry month to read another poetry collection (yep, "starting somewhere"). Last summer, Betsy Struthers was at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival, and I heard her read from her book In Her Fifties. It's divided into two parts: some prose poems set in the 1950s, and poetry about being a woman in her fifties. I liked what she read, so I bought it to read myself, too.

As I suspected, the prose poems set up a narrative that provided the way in for me. Narrative, I understand. Because of the first half, I could examine the later poems with some kind of context.

But for my official National Poetry Month book, I wanted to push myself. So I picked Struthers' Where the Night Comes Closest (sorry, the uncached link doesn't work). I knew that individual poems in the collection are related, and I knew the relationship wasn't through narrative, exactly. (Yes, I could have read up ahead of time, but what's the fun in that?) So far, so good in terms of the challenge.

Challenge is right. When it came time to read the poems and reflect, I had a hard time settling down to the task--through no fault of the poet. Chalk it up to life. It's a busy time of the year on lots of fronts. The individual poems are short, and on the up side, that means it's possible to read them in a series of five-minute windows, as the windows appear. But that's not the optimal way to read these poems, and probably not the optimal way to read any poetry.

Still, five-minute windows were what I had. So I read the poems over the course of the month. I enjoyed the process, and I admired individual poems, but the collection seemed to be inaccessible as a whole: a sphere of ice, a cloud of ecoplasm, a...something. Or maybe not. (See? Not a poet.)

The point is, I kept looking for a way in. For a "somewhere" to start.

And then I got to "Kelp." It's a relatively short poem with repeated lines that vary in meaning. "Aha!" said some part of my brain. "I bet this is a formal structure of some kind." I could tell it wasn't a sonnet or haiku, which is about the limit of my knowledge of poetic forms. As it happens, "Kelp" is a pantoum. (It says so in the back of the collection; thanks, Betsy.)

So, a pantoum. I studied the changes in meaning in the repeated lines, and I found myself slowing down. Reading. Thinking. Going forward in the book, going backward. Paying attention to individual poems and retaining something of them from one reading to the next.

In other words, I got in. I got a start, somewhere. As time passes and I keep reading--slowly--the context may assemble itself. The more I engage, the more I'll see, I suspect.

While I was reading up on pantoums, I eventually remembered reading Mesopotamia, by Bruce Meyer, in late February and early March. He came to Thunder Bay for a lecture and workshop, and I read it to prep. However, that was also a busy time. I got the gist of the collection--that was what I could do.

Luckily, Mesopotamia has lots of form poetry. And apparently I'd had enough mental wherewithal during that time to learn to pay when individual lines reappear later in the same poem. (Remember: "starting somewhere.")

So here's my lesson from the experience of reading poetry during 2010's National Poetry Month: form can be a key that gets me into the space the poet has created. At the moment, I may still be in the foyer, but at least I'm a little closer to the inside. And the foyer's a beautiful place. I like it here.

To build on last year's experience, I may even read another poetry collection before next April. (Starting somewhere.)