BWS 12.09.18 report: “How to Read a Poem,” with Bardia Sinaee

SINAEE

Bardia Sinaee was born in Tehran, Iran, and lives in Toronto. His poems have appeared in magazines across Canada and in several editions of Best Canadian Poetry in English. He is the assistant editor at the Literary Review of Canada and an MFA student at Guelph-Humber.

At our last event, Bardia distributed copies of “The Throw,” a poem by David O’Meara from Noble Gas, Penny Black to audience members. He took us on a journey of what reading a poem means to him.

 

I should begin with a disclaimer: The best way to read a poem is simply to read it (and/or listen to it). The true subject of this piece is how to read into a poem. If you find that a poem really affects you, and you want to investigate how and why, consider this one starting point.

Poetry, perhaps paradoxically, is the product of both freedom and compression. You can say or do anything in a poem, and yet many of them can fit on a single page. It’s therefore fair to assume that every word, line break, and punctuation mark is deliberate. This is not to say that every authorial decision can be traced to a clear objective, but that in a good poem even the most playful and seemingly spontaneous lines have been subjected to a certain deliberation. One way to read a poem more closely is to look at various aspects of the poem and ask why they are the way they are, given that every other option in the world was available to the poet.

What, if anything, is the poem “about”? Does anything happen in it? Who is speaking and what is their relation to the world and to us?

Even the most abstract poems can’t help but situate themselves the universe, in the world of discourse and things. Examine the speaker’s voice, tone, and language. For example, the speaker might be parroting legalese or invoking a religious address. Are they addressing you the reader, themselves, or nobody in particular. Are they omniscient, intimate, scared, polemical? Are we inside a dream?

Once you’ve got a few observations about what, compare these to your impressions of the poem’s other discernible elements, such as its diction, images, or setting. Are colours present? Weather? How, if at all, do these relate to the mood and emotional register?

How does the poem sound when you read it out loud? Is its shape on the page narrow or expansive? Do these two aspects of the piece complement one another? How do they reflect the voice of the speaker or enact the thematic elements of the poem?

Poets pay attention to the materiality of their work. A poet might use short lines, clipped syntax, and subdued imagery to evoke quietude. She might use small stanzas with extra space between them to encourage careful, introspective reading. When used sparingly, rhyme and metre can propel the piece forward. Alternatively, dissonance, irregular syntax, and the piling on of stressed syllables could be deployed to slow the pace or to evoke frustration and discord.

Again, compare your observations about the poem’s materiality to its subject, tone, and imagery.

When its technical and thematic elements cohere, even the shortest poems can effectively conjure a rich and vivid world. Our favourite poems take us where we don’t want to leave. Reading a poem closely is one way of lingering there a little longer.

 

Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 

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