To read a poem, any type of poem – a sonnet, a haiku or a concrete poem – is to read it at least twice. Although this does not happen with all verbal communication, it doesn’t mean that reading a poem is a more relevant activity than reading sports news. They are merely different activities. One would expect that reading sports news require a single reading only, assuming the text is cohesive and coherent; reading a poem demands more than a single reading because the text is seldom cohesive and rarely coherent. To read a poem therefore requires reinvigorated attention.
When discussing the attention commanded by a poem, I take special note of a poem I particularly like, which is why I thought of bringing into this text one of the greatest poetic art in the Portuguese language. In this poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto, which starts with the line “culling beans is not unlike writing,” the poet compares the act of “culling beans” to the writing of a poem. Just as the kernels are tossed into the water of the clay pot, so are words tossed into a sheet of paper. Then there are words/beans that float; and words/beans that sink. One must learn to toss “the frivolous and hollow, the chaff and the echo” and to keep the essential. Whilst the first stanza, which I’ve tried to paraphrase, tells me a great deal about the creative process, the second stanza tells me more about the act of reading a poem.
“Culling beans” is an image chosen to represent poetic creation – a perfect image, because it is clear and not emphatic – and, as all great poetry which does not forget Aristotle (even though it might not remember him), it achieves the extra-ordinary without losing clarity. It is especially in the second, and last, half of this poetic art that I find a possible description of the experience of reading a poem. Let us remember it:
Now, there is a risk in that bean-culling:
the risk that among those heavy seeds there
may be some any-old kernel, of stone or study-matter,
an unchewable grain, a tooth-breaker.
Not so, for culling words:
the stone gives the phrase its most vivid seed:
it obstructs flowing, floating reading,
it incites attention, luring it with risk.
When reading this poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto, and the second stanza in particular, I am forced to take several aspects into consideration. It seems clear to me, for example, that the risk of culling beans lies precisely in culling heavy seeds, “tooth-breakers”. The lines from the second half of the stanza are even more peculiar. The “unchewable grain”, the stone, which poses a risk when bean-culling, is the essential requirement for poetry and also for the reading of poetry: “the stone gives the phrase its most vivid seed” and for that reason it commands further readings, and more attention when reading and re-reading.
The stone standing on the way obstructs the reading of the poem and incites our attention. One of the most vivid grains of the second half of the poem is thus the penultimate line, as we don’t expect to find the adjectives “flowing” and “floating” next to the noun “reading”; and we certainly don’t expect these forms to be used as adjectives proper collocating with that noun.
Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of reading poetry: when producing obstructions to its own reading, the poem “incites” the reader’s attention and doesn’t allow deviation from the essential.
* João Cabral de Melo Neto, Selected Poetry 1937-1990, ed. Djelal Kadir, Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1994, p. 143.
Joana Meirim is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. When she was 18 or 19 years old, she wrote and published several poems, which she now regrets. She enjoys poems with a sense of humour, a characteristic that in her opinion defines good poetry.