Recently, while chatting with an author about their book of poems, I asked them about the ordering of their collection. I was particularly curious about the placing of a few poems about half-way through the book that focused on personal experience.
Reading these personal poems in the context of the prior poems, which were primarily concerned with the world outside the self, was incredibly striking. The author responded by first noting that he is always unsure how people will engage his books—whether they will pick up the book and read one or two poems and set it down, or if they will read the book in larger chunks or even in one sitting.
Poems are individual units of possibility. They enchant us and surprise us. We delight in their layers upon layers of meaning. But poems do not only contain layers of meaning—they contain layers of experiencing.
We can experience a poem through its visual appearance on the page, through its sounds and rhythms, through the way it feels leaving our mouths. We feel and come to understand all at once the tensions and releases found in reading both lines and sentences and seeing a poem as well as hearing it. These multiplicities are at the core of the lyric poem—they allow us to engage with the poem in a present moment and to return to its music often.
While we can experience the many facets of a poem all at once, often to gain a deeper understanding of the poem or an understanding of the ways in which the poem is crafted, we must isolate its particular components—such as solely examining a poem’s use of sound or whitespace. We often engage a poem not only in multiple readings, but in different readings.
I think this concept of engaging in multiple and different readings can apply to the poetry book. I also like the idea of applying some of Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric to poetry books. These books are rather different from other books we often read, such as novels. A poem within a poetry book is self-sufficient, yet is always altered by its existence within the larger text. And the text, the whole, exists as its own entity that at the same time cannot exist without the individual poems in their particular form and order. And in addition to the poem, there are other units within the poetry book that create complexity, such as series of poems and larger sections.
The complex dynamic between parts and wholes allows some poetry books to function much like poems. Through reading a poetry book, the reader is creating a web of connections and tensions that can be experienced in a present moment. This ‘web’ separates narrative forms, like the novel, from other forms, like the poetry book, which can be much more lyric.
While we can read narrative forms like the novel from beginning to end, we often read poetry books circularly—constantly referring to previous poems and ideas to consider the relationships between the many parts and wholes. When reading the last poem in a collection, we often return to prior poems in thought—the context of experiencing the whole changes the parts we have already experienced. We are continuously re-experiencing units of the poetry book in a ritualistic way, similarly to how we return to reconsider lines or stanzas or the title of a poem after reaching its end.
Just as there are multiple ways of reading a poem to yield new understandings or experiences, there are multiple ways of reading a poetry book. Sometimes, when poems expect a lot of us as readers, we must absorb them in smaller chunks. Other times, we may be able to read a collection straight through. After reading a poetry book in smaller chunks, we might consider re- reading it continuously. I think a continuous reading sensitizes us to the ebb and flow of a poetry book—to the various turns or climaxes within series or sections or the larger whole.
We can have a different experience through reading the last poem of a book back into the first poem. We could also isolate poems written about a particular subject or in a particular form and read them continuously rather than reading them in the order they appear within the collection. We could read a poem specifically in the context of another poem within the collection. These different readings will illuminate new aspects of both the poems and the book, providing us a way to experience the complexities of the poetry book as a form.
I am not advocating for a particular way we should be reading poetry books, but rather that many readings exist as possibilities for us to explore. Just as we delight in whole poems as well as in their lines, stanzas, sounds and rhythms, we can delight in whole books as well as in their individual poems, series and sections. We not only delight in these parts, but in the various tensions and connections present—the spaces that exist between these parts and their larger wholes. Regardless of how we read a poetry book, we should consider more often these spaces between—the wondrous web of meanings and experiences that draws us to encounter a poetry book again and again.