How I Read a Poem

I’ve written before on how to to write a poem. Followed by how to truly write a poem – study Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and then practice.

But reading a poem is a whole different pack of monkeys.

I developed this weird method to help me absorb the poems I read. It slows me down, so I don’t rocket through the lines. The aim is to bury the verses in my subconscious.

See if it works for you.


First I read the poem to myself. From the first verse to the last, all the way through.

Then I’ll read the poem from the end to the beginning. I read line by line, from the final verse, back up to the opener:

From Over the Fence, Emily Dickinson

Reading it backwards is like reverse engineering. It helps me see the poem’s structure. How each verse builds up to the final one.

After that, I’ll read the poem beginning to end again, but this time out loud.

Reading out loud helps you find the poem’s rhythm. I’m sure there’s things like meter and tone involved as well, but I won’t pretend to know how.

Then I’ll read the poem in reverse order again. But this time in full blocks. Starting from the bottom of the poem to the top:

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

While reading I’ll keep a pencil close. If the poem rhymes I search for the rhyming pattern by underlining all the rhyming words.

From Again his voice is at the door, Emily Dickinson

Once finished, I’ll log the date, author, and name of the poem in my steno book. Keeping a record gives me a sense of progress.

It’s a practice I stole the from director Steven Soderbergh who publishes a yearly log of what he’s watched, read, and listened to, on his site.

This how I read a poem. You may read a poem once and bin it. And that works too.

Dear Mother…A short writing tip from John McPhee


“You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whisper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

Draft No. 4: John McPhee On the Writing Process, McPhee, John, pg 157,158

A trick to help loosen up your mind and get some words down on the page.

I’m hoping posting it here will help me remember to return to it when all feels impossible.

First Sentences

The prisoner in the photograph is me.

Hole in my life, Jack Gantos

On a sticky August evening two weeks before her due date, Ashima Ganguli stands in the kitchen of a Central Square apartment, combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl.

The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

I noticed writing out first sentences is like sliding them under a microscope.

By removing them from their natural habitat – the paragraph they’re resting on, you can see what they’re up too.

See what their hiding.

These three sentences all establish a world. A tone. They all introduce a character and a problem.

Efficient!

Seductive!

Come read more, they beg!

Jack is in prison.

Ashima is pregnant and alone in an apartment that doesn’t feel like home.

And while cloaks of invisibility exist in Ingary, apparently being the oldest of three is a problem.

This makes me think of the first sentences I’ve written.

Did they create the same effect?

Notes from The Natural Way to Draw pt.2 : The Way to Learn to Draw

The way to learn to draw is by drawing. People who make art must not merely know about it. For an artist, the important thing is not how much he knows, but how much he can do. A scientist may know all about aeronautics without being able to handle an airplane. It is only by flying that he can develop the senses for flying. If I were asked what one thing more than any other would teach a student how to draw, I should answer, ‘Drawing – incessantly, furiously, painstakingly drawing.’

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaïdes, Kimon

An artist must have skin in the game.

The work, the practice of drawing everyday, is the path to improvement.

Notes from the Natural Way to Draw: Contour Line Drawing

This book is proving helpful. It clarified some techniques for practicing contour line drawing.

First you must convince yourself that the pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper.

Place the point of your pencil on the paper. Imagine that your pencil point is touching the model instead of the paper. Without taking your eyes off the model, wait until you are convinced that the pencil is touching that point on the model upon which your eyes are fastened.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg 9

I always wondered, what do you do when the contour leaves the edge of the object and turns inward?

Often you will find that the contour you are drawing will leave the edge of the figure and turn inside, coming eventually to an apparent end. When this happens, glance down at the paper in order to locate a new starting point. This new starting point should pick up at that point on the edge where the contour turned inward.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg.10

And contours can lie inside the figure as well:

Not all contours lie along the outer edge of the figure. For example, if you have a front view of the face, you will see definite contours along the nose and the mouth which have no apparent connection with the contours at the edge. As far as the time for your study permits, draw these ‘inside contours’ exactly as you draw the outside ones. Draw anything that your pencil can rest on and be guided along. DEVELOP THE ABSOLUTE CONVICTION THAT YOU ARE TOUCHING THE MODEL.

The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides, Kimon, pg 10, 11

Helpful reminders. Now, back to drawing.

John Porcellino’s time machine: From Lone Mountain

This collection of King-Cat comics is a time machine. Not a whirling pod that splits atoms and breaks open new dimensions, but instead a glimpse of John Porcellino’s life in the early 2000s.

As I read each page over and over, I found myself playing this game. I call it: Where was I when?

Here’s how it goes. At the bottom of a comic it may read MARCH 2005.

From there I light a swisher sweet, jog with my memory, imagine, and ask the question, where was I in March 2005?

Was I failing college algebra again?

Was Episode One still the dopest movie ever?

What were my go-to pair of Nikes?

It’s a fun game. Try it at home. But it does make me wish I kept record of those days. A journal, a heart and key locked diary, or, then it’s it heyday, a blog.

We can’t change the past, but we can revisit it. Even if it’s a bit blurry.

Buy your very own time machine here!

Forgotten Photojournalists: Robert Capa

Eyes of the World winked at me from the top shelf.

On the cover, Robert Capa was rockin’ a knit tie, Gerda a beret. I didn’t know who they were, but I knew they were special. I turned to chapter one and gave the first sentence a read:

As Robert Capa tells it: A metal ramp cranks open and lands with a splashing thud. Chilly dawn fog rushes into the craft where thirty soldiers sit shivering, crouched on benches. The floor sways, slick with vomit; the seas have been rough.

Reading that first sentence I realized, pictures of D-Day are so ubiquitous I never asked the question: Who took those photographs?

It’s easy to forget that amongst the soldiers, bullets, and death, were photographers like Robert Capa on the ground. Pioneers documenting war in a brave new way.

Forgotten Photojournalists: Gerda Taro

Gerda putting in work

Before reading Eyes of the World: Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Invention of Modern Photojournalism, I’d never had an interest in photojournalism or photography. Photography was my fathers thing. Not mine.

I’d never read about Robert or Gerda in a text book. Or heard their names in a history lecture. No mention of them in photography class. Hell, Amazon didn’t even list the book in my recommendations.

But Gerda’s story is irresistible, as Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos‘ book proves. The story is a mix of art, love, and living for something beyond yourself. Of stepping forward even when all is unknown. Gerda and Robert’s photography helped usher in a new form of journalism – photojournalism.

But before she became a pioneer, Gerda, then named Gerta Pohorylle, was a Jewish refugee struggling to adapt to life in Paris. Managing the demands of a starting a career. Navigating falling in love. And resisting the rise of fascism in Europe at that time.

As Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos write of Gerda’s early time in Paris:

For a brief while, she and Ruth roomed with Fred Stein and his wife, Liselotte, who had an enormous apartment with extra bedrooms. Fred had originally studied to be a lawyer in Berlin, but when he was unable to practice under Nazi law, he too picked up a camera and was making a go of it professionally.

What good parties they all had there – putting colored bulbs in the lamps, dancing! Fred snapped pictures of Gerta, mugging away. Yes, being poor, a stranger in a strange city, was awful, but to have the solace of friends, all in the same situation, made it easier. Maybe that’s why, as Ruth put it, “we were all of the Left.” That is, they belonged to a loose collection of groups opposed to fascism and in favor of workers’ rights.

Gerta was never exactly a joiner. Her sympathies, her ideas, came from her years in Leipzig. She hated the Nazis and knew how dangerous it was becoming for her family. But she wasn’t one of those who debated every political point. She wasn’t part of the Communist Party, which took its direction from the Soviet Union. But she did care about social issues, about the future ahead. They all did.

For now, there was food and coffee at the Café du Dôme and talk with friends. And photographs. Above all, photographs.

Eyes of the World is an underrated gem. A historic and important book that belongs on the shelf of every historian, photographer, professor, and curious and wonderful soul out there.

Discovering the Whole Earth Catalog

I’d never seen an issue of The Whole Earth Catalog before, but I was browsing through Fire and Riots and POW! There it was:

At first, I didn’t realize this was Whole Earth Catalog page. But I kept returning to The Natural way to Draw, and The Way of Chinese Painting excerpts, and thought – This layout has a Whole Earth Catalog feel.

It would take three more passes before I noticed the or WHOLE EARTH CATALOG text after the publishing line.

Then, a few pages later:

We’ve landed

This chance encounter intersects with the Kevin Kelly/Stewart Brand kick I’ve been on. The podcasts, the video interviews, The Manual for Civilization

It’s funny how the universe knits together your interests without permission.

The Manual for Civilization: a curation of books for our future

The Long Now Foundation has scrambled up the the idea of a reading list.

Instead of the typical what we’re reading now list. Or, our favorite summer reads list. They’ve asked us to imagine reading beyond our lifetimes by posing the question:

What Books Would You Choose to Restart Civilization?

With the the goal of:

Gathering essential books and democratizing human knowledge for future generations.

It’s ambitious. It’s thoughtful. It’s called:

The Manual For Civilization.

There have been 11 contributors to date, but Kevin Kelly’s list via Medium introduced me to the project.

Kevin, the author of the Inevitable, and host of the stupid-dope-fresh podcast Cool Tools, assembled a list of nearly 200 tomes.

Below are three titles from Kevin’s list that piqued my immediate interest.

The Manual for Civilization has me meditating on this idea of a reading list for the future. I’m asking myself:

What books would I select, and why? 
Which books would a scholar or intellectual from an eastern culture select?
Which books would you select?

Check out Kevin’s list in full here, and the rest of the contributors here.