When I read new poets, I often have a hard time connecting with the poem. Part of that is on me, part of that is on the poet. I think it can be hard to connect with a work if we’re looking at it critically. The more critically we look at something, the more we examine it under a microscope, and microscopic organisms never really give us the big picture. A single piece of a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle can’t tell us what the picture is.
So what can we do to prevent a disconnect with our readership? After all, most people who read poems are poets themselves. It’s just statistics at this point. That means that our main audience is going to be asking themselves “are they worthy” every time they read our literature. So what do we do?
As A Poet
As someone who is writing poetry, I think we can protect ourselves by passing a few tests each time we write a new poem. These all come up in the editing stages of writing, and I’ll go into more detail when I get into editing poems.
- “You’re not the boss of me!”
- Instruction: Read your poem like a moody angry person who is talking to their equal or subordinate. If, at any point, you can shout at your poem “You’re not my mom” or “You’re not my boss” then that area needs reworking.
- Explanation: Whenever a reader feels like they’re being bossed around, readers tune out. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because someone’s saying “You must” or “You should always” or one of those other imperative, commanding phrases. Talking about the right thing to do with a little too much passion can annoy a person.
- “Well, I don’t … !”
- Instruction: Read your poem and look for places where you assume a universal truth or fallacy. If you have assumed a universal truth/fallacy such as anything with “always” or “never” then take those words out.
- Explanation: The only time when a universal truth is a good thing to use is when you’re being contrary on purpose, such as sarcasm or satire. In these situations it works well, but otherwise, you’re likely to turn a reader off, or disconnect with them, by using what you perceive as a universal law.
- Instruction: Paraphrase your poem! Take each line or sentence, and write it in plain English. Don’t use fancy language. Don’t use difficult words. Make it as simple and short as you can.
- Explanation: Sometimes we get so caught up in our flowery language that we forget the meaning of the sentence. It’s good to take a step back and read over your poem in layman’s terms to ensure the poem actually means something and it isn’t just a bunch of pretty pictures.
It is good to leave uniqueness in your poem, but if you overdo it, the poem can be bogged down like an inside joke, so finding that careful balance between writing a poem like you’re sharing with your best friend and a stranger is important. You want the openness of sharing with your best friend, but the explanations like you’re sharing with a stranger.
As A Reader
All of the work does not fall on the poet to create a connected reading experience. To enjoy the act of reading, it helps to step back and give the poet the benefit of the doubt. When a reader enters into a poem with an open mind, expecting the poem to meet their level of entertainment, it can be self-fulfilling. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to help ensure we’re not hyper-critical.
- How does this relate to my life?
- What is the poet doing to make this poem imaginative?
- Why did the poet use [that word]?
- How would I translate [that] stanza into my own words?
- Where do I think this is taking place?
- When do I think this is happening in the speaker’s life?
- Who is the poet trying to connect with?
- What turn of phrase do I like the best?
- What is the poet trying to tell me?
- What would I tell the poet if I met them?
- What part do I really like? Why do I like it?
These questions can help keep us looking at the positive aspects of the poem rather than the negative, but it also leads to some good critiques. The best critiques of poems point out things that the writer did well and things that they can improve upon in your opinion.
If we look at questions 2, 4, 9, 11, and 12 we can see that each of these questions have the potential for being answered negatively. If the poet isn’t working very much on imaginative poetry, than 2 is a place to talk about that, and how to improve upon that. 4 is a chance to look at the clarity of the poem and if it makes sense to you. 9 is also looking at the clarity of the poem, but from a different perspective. Eleven helps the reader consider why the poem elicits a strong reaction. Instead of talking about a stanza or word, some of these questions ask about the big picture. Some others probe into questions about the style of the poem.
Poetry is ultimately about our experiences as people, piecing together our own feelings, and it is best to approach poems with that in mind. How does the poem relate to me? What in the poem relates it to something in my life? If you feel an emotional reaction, something relates.
Once we feel that, we are more likely to read the poem with a kinder eye. If we have a personal experience called up in our minds, we can read the poem looking at that personal experience, and, from there, talk about what we liked and didn’t like and why. That makes us think and it might make us aware of some inner truth or demon we rarely bring out into the light.