To read a poem is foremost to pay attention to peculiar uses of written words.
Some poems are enjoyable and do not seem to require more than a superficial reading, but even those, sometimes, surprise us with work. We spend time looking at words and spacing, thinking about what those words are doing there in that exact form. But if our thoughts wander away from the words on the page (if we get distracted), then what we call ‘the meaning’ - our relation with those words - evaporates. We relate to poems and (dis)like them for a multitude of reasons. There’s no right reason; but there are better ones. And clearly knowing what these reasons are is what makes for a conscientious reader.
We get lost and start again. Trying to link loose ends sends the diligent and the enticed on another go on the merry-go-round because odd details prompt us to ask questions. In this manner, poems can confuse us into self-knowledge; for having no final answers (paper doesn’t answer questions) elicits a journey.
But the particularity of reading is also permeated by the abstract idea of poetry, for poems resonate within our expectations of ‘poetry’ (motley concept of past reading experiences - which itself keeps shifting as we read more poems). Reading is a game whose ‘rules’ (i.e. our expectations of what poems are) keep changing. Good: otherwise the game would be dull. Box of chocolates.
Since poems are things made of words, how we relate to the properties of these objects is different from how we relate to, say, stone in the form of a statue. We don’t literally read stones or statues. Words bear conventional meanings; and poems bear articulated words –mostly in a state of play. What is poetic play then? As Wittgenstein insisted, what a certain practice is, is best understood when compared to other family-related ‘language games’. For years I compared reading poems to prayer - and many significant features emerged from this comparison. Comparing poems and songs - a mixed form, of music and words – can also help us bring out some formal traits of these strange things called poems.
Many poems are mixed forms too, resorting to different levels and patterns of rhythm and rhyme. In poems where there is musical play, ‘meaning’ becomes more allusive. As the meanings of words become ‘less literal’, poems become an ambiguous mix of sense and nonsense. In songs, words do not need to ‘mean’ to work well - a nonsensical ‘ooh ooh’ sung in a certain waycan be precisely what the song needs to work. As David Byrne says in How Music Works, “the difference between an ohh and an ahh and a B and a thsound is, I assume, integral to the emotion that the story wants to express.”
Play. Hit play and music floods our ears. A song hijacks our attention easily because music is sense-form loaded with emotional power. But whereas, in songs, lyrics operate against a background (or foreground) of music (that gives them an attitudinal context), words in poems are typically surrounded by vacant space. Nothing jumps out from a poem: a poem lacks a voice until you read it. (Late Heidegger’s metaphor for ‘true poetic writing/reading’ is - voila - singing.)
Songs and poems are hybrid forms, made of musical and semantic elements; and that’s why I love both – for the serendipity of chancing upon remarkable uses of the bizarre and communicative materials that words and sounds are. It is an openness to the play of words that inaugurates poetic attention: reading is first of all going out to play, to find out what the game before you is. Of course, it may also turn out that you’re dealing with more than just a game after all.
Bernardo Palmeirim is currently a lecturer in English at FLUL, where he also teaches Creative Writing. He has a PhD in Theory of Literature (ULisbon) titled “What is Poetic Attention” (2014). His research interests include poetry, short stories, theory of literature, philosophy of religion and philosophy of language. Passionate about literature and music, he is also a songwriter and has two bands.