Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.


  1. bristlehound says:

    With just 26 letters there is the power to cause conflict, to show loving spirit, to argue a point, to reflect on beauty and so much more. Every person capable of interpreting the alphabet, has a voice. What is most fascinating is how the letters are jumbled together to form words. Just the right word at the right time.
    Peter Cook and Dudley Moore showed that art was in the way it was and how it was presented, by their unique interpretation of 6 Bottoms.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Oh, yes, and “when a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (Joyce, FW, 18.36-19.02). And ever was I two “abcminded.”

  2. ladydeviant says:

    Sometimes us poets can only write how we understand. In any art form, it’s not up to the rest of the world to always understand at first glance the intent. But I daresay I find a modest boredom lurking about “some” new age writing styles. It’s akin to “See Spot run, Spot chases dog…. and” off to sleep I go. Poetry has to have nerve and pulp. Even if delicate.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      “nerve and pulp.” Like that. Living, life.

  3. oddjar says:

    Interesting topic. Poetry can be difficult to gasp after any amount of reads. Sometimes I give up fairly easily – other times, I find it is best to persist. It is really rewarding!

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Elusive, obscure – takes persistency. Some readers may not care about the reward.

  4. Marya says:

    Great post, thank you. Muriel Rukeyser (who would be turning 100 in just a few days) in her “The Life of Poetry” wrote this:
    “Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember this other kind of knowledge and love, which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these— the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives—the attitude of poetry.”

    Her treatise on why poetry is necessary is as relevant and necessary today as it was in the 1940s when she first published it. Went out of print for a long time, revived by Paris Press 18 years ago, thankfully.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Thanks for reading and comment, Marya. I just recently read “The Life of Poetry.” Yes, it’s that “other kind of knowledge” that requires an other kind of language, the language of poetry. I wasn’t thinking Muriel’s 100 in a week or so. Some of her poems here. Interesting photo of Muriel with Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Randall Jarrell, and Alan Tate here.

      1. Marya says:

        Joe what a gorgeous photo, thank you. And really enjoyed your review of LoP.

  5. ljung1 says:

    Poetry is a beautiful thing. Some might not suit you and might even bore you. The thing that matters is if the poem made you think a bit more. That’s what I love about poetry. Poetry enables writers to open up and readers to dig deep (if they are in the correct mood for the intake of information and they have the ability to be open).

  6. RebellRed says:

    Reading this post reminds me of Marianne Moore and her poem “Poetry”. She writes “Reading it, however with perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it after all a place for the genuine. Hands that can grasp, eyes that can dilate, hair that can rise, if it must , these things are important not because a high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because so derivative as to become unintelligible, the same thing may be said for all of us, that we do not admire what we cannot understand”.

    I’m also reminded of Billy Collins “Introduction to Poetry” “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…..but all they want to do is tie a poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” :D

    1. Joe Linker says:

      “…these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are useful.” – See more at: – and our favorite line: “‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.'” Behind the paywall, but this on Moore is recent and interesting.

  7. philipparees says:

    One of the most interesting discussions found. P.S. Thanks for following my blog.

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