OK, that was a little glib––when we talk about how to read a poem, we’re talking about how to process a poem as we read it. Often people worry that they’re missing something when they read a poem, some decoder ring that would help them make sense of what they’re looking at. There are bestselling books out there that promise to explain how the professionals interpret poems, tapping into the market of people who feel like they should appreciate or “get” poetry more than they do.
Don’t get me wrong––reading poetry ‘well,’ in the sense of getting something out of it that not everyone might notice, is indeed a professional skill! (That’s why they call them professors, to make a long etymological story short.) But it’s not a high priesthood, or some inherent ability you either have or you don’t. It’s a skill you can pick up with practice, and a hobby you can enjoy at any level. Think about it this way: you don’t have to be a professional player or coach or scout in order to enjoy sports. As you watch more or listen to experts you might come to appreciate them in a new way, but you don’t need to know the ins and outs of the triangle offense in order to get excited about a dunk, or be able to tell a fastball from a splitter to marvel at a home run.
That means you don’t need to know the difference between an iamb and a trochee in order to enjoy a poem (though if you’d like to know, this is a good explainer). With that in mind I want to share a poem that I enjoy, and what I like about it––no iambs or trochees involved.
Like the moon that night, my father—
a distant body, white and luminous.
How small I was back then,
looking up as if from dark earth.
Distant, his body white and luminous,
my father stood in the doorway.
Looking up as if from dark earth,
I saw him outlined in a scrim of light.
My father stood in the doorway
as if to watch over me as I dreamed.
When I saw him outlined—a scrim of light—
he was already waning, turning to go.
Once, he watched over me as I dreamed.
How small I was. Back then,
he was already turning to go, waning
like the moon that night—my father.
Gorgeous, right? (If you don’t agree, no worries––go find a poem that you do find gorgeous, my taste is very finicky and yours might be too.) The poem reminds me of the feeling of being a child, and how much your world revolves around your parents when you’re small. Trethewey captures that feeling with the simile of the moon and the earth, the literal world and the thing that literally revolves around it.* (This kind of central image that runs throughout the poem is often called the “conceit.”) I remember bedtime rituals as a kid: those memories can seem like a single night in my mind, like this poem is about a single night, but they’re built up out of the rituals that helped me cope as a small child with being separated from my parents each night, alone in my room.
Those rituals became special to me through repetition, night after night. You probably noticed that the poem repeats lines from one stanza (block of lines) to the next. Go back and look at the pattern of repetition: the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third of the next, finally closing the circle with the final stanza. This format is called a pantoum, but you don’t need to know the name in order to appreciate how it changes the experience of reading the poem: the repetition makes it feel almost a little magical, like an incantation. The accumulated effect of hearing those lines that sound familiar in slightly different combinations puts you in a sort of dream-like state––like a little kid falling asleep.
You might also notice how the poem emphasizes the distance between the speaker (the child) and her father. “A distant body, white and luminous”… “already waning, turning to go.” Is that feeling of distance familiar? When you’re little, the world of adults seems big and far away and incomprehensible, like the moon in the sky. That can be particularly the case with fathers sometimes: according to traditional gender roles fathers are not primary caregivers during the day, and so their love can seem almost mysterious in comparison to the familiar presence of a mother (particularly for men of the stereotypically strong, silent type). You might get the feeling that this is the dynamic between Trethewey (or the speaker of this poem, at any rate) and her father. The memory of him “already waning, turning to go” suggests that he might leave the family at some point later on? We can’t say for sure whether the father in the poem does or doesn’t leave; it’s a poem, not a murder mystery. What happens next is sort of beside the point, anyway: the point is that feeling of distance, the childhood fear, or perhaps intuition, that the father won’t always be there.
You might also notice that alongside these images of distance, the father is described as “white and luminous” (like the moon) and the speaker associated with “dark earth.” The poet, Natasha Trethewey, is mixed-race and has talked about her complicated relationship with her white father, who was also a poet––a feeling that this racial difference hung over their relationship, adding to a sense of distance between them. (Trethewey’s father did indeed leave the family; her parents divorced when she was six.) Knowing a little more about Trethewey adds another layer to your understanding of the poem, doesn’t it? It confirms the intimate, personal tone of the poem, and it helps us understand why the “distance” of the father-as-moon goes hand in hand with the image of him as “white and luminous.” But you don’t need to know Trethewey’s biography in order to appreciate the poem or to pick up this sense of a distance between the speaker and her father, and the details of her life aren’t a hidden code that cracks the case. Instead, this kind of information allows you to reread the poem in a new way, noticing things you might not have before (like that light and dark imagery, for instance). But if you recognized a familiar feeling or image in the poem––like a parent’s silhouette in the doorway at bedtime––expressed in a new and striking way, then you’ve already appreciated or “gotten” it. The rest is just deepening that understanding, and hopefully the enjoyment too.
* You might say that the image is a little complicated: I said that as a child your world revolves around your parents, but in this poem the parent (the moon) is likened to the object that revolves around the child (the earth). If you have an interpretation of what seems like an odd aspect of the image, fantastic! These are the kinds of things that English papers are written about…