Reading poetry is all about climbing. I mean it. People who climb trees, rock faces, or the sides of playground equipment have a much better chance of “getting” poetry than non-climbers. It’s all about finding out how your voice and your gestures move through a poem. The technical term for reading the materiality of a poem is scansion from the Latin scansio meaning act of climbing (source). As a climber, I cannot tell you how many thousands of times I have gazed up at a rock face; studied it; found the key features, the cruxes (challenges), the ledges (rests)—reading it, mind you, reading it all the while. A kind of reading that has to do with imagining the climb. What moves I will make. The larger footholds where I will rest. The phrases where I will draw on every last bit of energy, strength, and poise. The dynos.
As any climber knows, climbing will kick your ass. It is difficult, but the best climbers make it look effortless. Same with poetry. People who’ve never had a poem kick their ass haven’t read many poems. To read poems well, one must stand beneath them, gaze up through their topography, and imagine how they will move through language. Like rock faces, I have scanned thousands of poems as well–prior to climbing them.
I don’t think that many people would saunter through Smith Rock in Oregon and expect to climb, with little training and practice, even a moderate 100 foot route. No way. But many people are stuck in an English class where they have to read moderate to difficult poems out loud with little training on how to scan the poem. How to read the pauses, the silences, the breaks. How to—as W. S. Merwin says (and I paraphrase)—listen to the weight of the language as it moves. How to imagine how the voice, lips, teeth, tongue, jaw, along with innumerable other gestures and gesticulations, will all move through the poem like a climber moves through the features of granite.
If you really want to “get” poetry, I suggest reading a 100 poems by William Carlos Williams (WCW) aloud, with gestures. (Interspersed with climbing a few dozen trees . . . but safely!!) Many of his poems seem deceivingly simple, but he gets it. And by “it,” I mean he gets that poetry is something material, something with heft, something with a physical topography that we scan not unlike a climber scans a route prior to saying goodbye to the ground for a couple of hours.
What is more, WCW makes this explicit in “From A Play.” The speaker says he wants to “balance” a poem’s “phrases . . . by / their sensual // qualities” (ln 6–8). He continues:. . . . . . . and make those express as much as or more than the merely literal burden of the thing could ever tell (ln 9–16)
He even says “I like to time / my phrases” (ln 6–7)—and we see how the indentations draw our attention to the physicality of the language and how the blank space controls the timing. Timing is EVERYTHING in the making of poetry, the reading of poetry—and, as a matter of fact, timing is crucial in any climbing endeavor. Move an arm at the wrong time and you peel off the face.
If someone really wants to “get” poetry, I would start them off by reading WCW’s cat poem. The content matters, but the poem’s triumph is found in the “sensuous / qualities” of the pauses and sounds of the poem’s physical spacing on the page.
What’s cool is that the cat is down-climbing, and the weight of the language moves with the weight of the cat. When we read the poem, we climb through a language that captures a cat’s body climbing into a flowerpot. Read it like it is a regular sentence with few pauses. Then scan it. Scan the language’s “sensuous / qualities” and read it again with well-timed pauses, stresses, ever feeling how the body moves through the poem. And don’t be timid about gesturing with the arms!
To compare WCW’s cat poem to rock climbing, it is an easier read (such as a 5.4)—but still difficult for those who think reading poetry is all about finding symbols. Symbols are important, but they ought not usurp the energy of the language.
After WCW’s cat poem is in your bloodstream, move onto T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“Prufrock” is more difficult, like a 5.10b.
I think people get into trouble when they approach poetry as something to decipher. The brilliant minds behind what is now Latin roots knew better. To get poetry, we must first become climbers.
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 W. S. Merwin, Ed Folsom, and Cary Nelson, “‘Fact Has Two Faces’: An Interview with W.S. Merwin,” The Iowa Review 13, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 62.
 William Carlos Williams, The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, ed. Christopher MacGowan, 2 Volumes (New York: New Directions, 1988), 2:44–45.
All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://aaronmoe.com.