How to read a poem by Sandeep Parmar
Here are a few tips from avid readers, critics, poets – all of whom are mentors on the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme – on how to both read poetry and write about it
Reflecting on the craft of writing poetry, the American poet Adrienne Rich wrote 'poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know.' This suspended state of being, in which one doesn’t reason but associates through a field of symbolic language, should not just apply to the poet. Readers, too, navigate this unknowingness. Readers, like writers, make inexplicable creative decisions as they go, ones that are deeply personal or irrational, active not passive, and in doing so they enter into a space that is generative not fixed. And readers should do so willingly, in that liminal state where poetry thrives and bears re-reading, and is possibly never understood in the same way twice. Reading is never a neutral act. For the critic, to read is, inevitably, to set a work within other acts of reading. That is to say, any reader, but most especially the critic, hears an archive of language and the author’s reading in every assumption of the lyric ‘I’, every line break or image.
• Jeremy Noel-Tod:
When I’m trying to explore my response to a poem, I always look for a single, significant word that stands out. Reading the poem out loud, slowly, several times, really helps to identify such words. Does it disrupt a formal pattern (rhythm, rhyme)? Is it longer than the average word used (for example: ‘promises’ in Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening)? Does it have an obscure or ambiguous meaning? (If so, get out a good dictionary!) Whatever you discover will give you a clue to why the other words in the poem have been arranged around it.
• Vidyan Ravinthiran:
1) Look up any words or references you don't understand.
2) Remember that a poem is written by a human being, and like a human being may contain conflicting impulses -- moments of irresolution, or uncertainty. As can your critique...
3) Try to avoid cliches and dead words. 'Relatable', 'hard-won simplicity', etc.
• Sarah Howe:
Read with a pen in hand – I find it so much easier to think that way – jotting down impressions, associations, quandaries in the margins as an initial way in. As your conversation with the poem deepens with each successive sweep, you’ll find yourself drawing lines across the page linking one word to another, tracing connections you wouldn’t otherwise have registered. Your pen will begin to find patterns of imagery or sound, effects of structure or arrangement, simply by virtue of mapping them out visually. At the same time, sound and rhythm – the musical qualities of a poem’s language – make up a crucial part of its meaning: don’t be afraid to read the poem aloud. How do its line breaks act on your breath? What do you notice about its pacing, and how that relates to tone/emotion at any given moment? The best critics will trust their intuitions, but then find a way to do justice to them in words.
Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics is a new mentoring scheme which aims to encourage diversity in poetry reviewing culture, co-founded by award-winning poets Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe with Ledbury Poetry Festival, the UK’s biggest poetry festival. For more details go to www.poetry-festival.co.uk or follow @ledburyfest
Sandeep Parmar biography
Sandeep Parmar is senior lecturer in English Literature at the University of Liverpool where she co-directs Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing. She holds a PhD from University College London and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Her books include Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern, an edition of the Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees (Carcanet, 2011), and two books of her own poetry published by Shearsman: The Marble Orchard and Eidolon, winner of the Ledbury Forte Prize for Best Second Collection. Most recently she edited the Selected Poems of Nancy Cunard (Carcanet, 2016). Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Financial Times and the Times Literary Supplement. She is a BBC New Generation Thinker and regularly appears on Radio 3.