Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rewarding the Reader

The main post for December is rather more open ended than you've been used to. Take a look at the following:

... a willingness to trust is the one thing the reader may give the writer for free, and it is based on nothing the writer has done but on the reader’s whole relationship with literature. But the dark side of the willingness to trust is suspicion. If the poet does not reward this trust in the first few moments of the poem, he or she is in trouble, because the longer the poet takes to reward it, then the harder it will be to keep it. Stephen Dobyns, from Best Words, Best Order

Readers tend to access poems in stages, however small and fleeting, and, at times, unconscious.

1. They notice the size and shape of the poem without reading the actual words.
2. They estimate the effort required to read it.
3. They consider the title.
4. They read the first few words, the first line.
5. They enter the whole of the poem.

It's probably after 3. that a reader begins to be nudged forward in a willingness to trust the poem and the poet, or grows more suspicious.

So what is it that a reader looks for, or expects from a poem? Here's a list of points I've identified, and how and where they might be located in a poem:

to feel: the presence of emotion
to think: the presence of ideas
to feel anchored: the physical setting
communication: language and image
music: rhythm, rhyme, patterns
tension: the form, the dramatic development, pacing

The degree that a poem is successful is the degree to which some, or all, or these elements are made important to the reader, and if we want to reward a reader, and encourage them to 'stay', then at least one must be made important as soon as possible, either in the shape on the page, or the title, or in the first line or two. Although the balance between rewarding the reader but not answering their questions too easily is sometimes difficult to find. We want to satisfy them, in some way, but also make them want more.

When you post your poems in response, perhaps you could add some brief notes about how you feel you've attempted to reward the reader, the things you consciously considered.

I'm sure you all have poems in process that you can work on but if you need a fresh start then here are some ideas:

Write about the last day of your life.
Write a poem that starts in one place and ends in another - physical, emotional, intellectual.
Write about 'home'.


anne.kenny said...

Small Emperor

It must have woken
from a pile of logs
as we,full-bellied creatures,dozed.
An erratic angel
with tapestry wings, slight
paper thin,
eye spots stitched
with indigo, gold, azure.
Such inticate art in a gown
to soar heath-land,
rest on chestnut, zigzag moors,
fix predators with a stare, beneath
the light of a guiding moon.
Here, it circles a filament,
unaware of that fragile thread.
Like benevolent gods,
we release it
into the night air.

Anne Kenny

Just finished writing this poem. I wanted to have the surprise of seeing the moth, some contrast and description. The idea behind the poem was to do with the fragility of life. One thing I wanted to try to achieve, but didn't manage was to leave the poem open at the end, understated, with room for the reader. I think it's something I need to work on.

Lynne Rees said...

Hi Anne - for me, the size and shape of the poem feel 'easy to manage' even though there's some tension suggested by the few longer lines. The title pulls me in too - the contrast of something great yet diminutive is intriguing. Yes, I'm rewarded enough to keep on reading!

Anonymous said...

You, us, and I

I flicked red across canvas
I wanted to be beautiful

I sowed a white orchid
I wanted eternity

I drew a ripen apple
I wanted harmony

I played a silver flute
I love waterfalls

You said you’d love me
if I gave up all I wanted.

Do you read and write poetry
to find answers? I write to ask questions,
answers are full stops;
questions are metaphors for a room full of doors.
Each door is a poem –
what is inside, should I go in, stay,
or open another?
I am in love with being in love,
it is a door that slams shut in the wind,
becomes another door along the corridor,
lets light in when left a jar.
I write about love because I do not understand it,
about relationships because I do not understand them,
because there are more questions in my head
then answers. Do you think poets are normal?

Above are my notes on the poem above that.
As a child I liked Russian dolls.
I try so hard to complete a circle
then another doll pops out the bottom…


Lynne Rees said...

Hi Martin - are poets normal? Hmmm... It's a strange thing, normality. Possibly, none of us want to be normal, in the sense of ordinary, run of the mill, yet we probably all want to be 'accepted' in some way too. And to be accepted we need to make connections with other people who have things in common with us. Which creates a kind of 'norm'.

Rilke says 'don't search for answers because you would not be able to live them... and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer...'

Maybe that's the tiny solid doll at the centre of the hollow ones.

Anonymous said...

Beneath his Eyes

Wherever he wakes
there will be sea
and angels criss-crossing
a whisper of sky

there will be days
lost in books
and speaking runes
foretelling magic

but nights
will draw in skeletons
by candle-flame
walls will moan mistakes

he will sleep
or dream of sleep
as another moth
is doomed to dust.

© Dec 2008

This poem went somewhere I wasn’t expecting which is not unusual. It’s a poem of two halves really which I hope come together.
I wanted it to begin very gently with lovely images but wanted to show that lurking underneath there is a darker side. Sometimes what you see is not always what you get kind of thing. I suppose it’s also about positives and negatives and how even the most beautiful (people) can have a dark destructive side or can have a past that haunts them even though they may wake up each day hopeful.

JPK said...


You always used to cheat at hide and seek,
peek between your fingers, count in tens.
I'd scuttle up the stairs, avoid the creak
on the third step, under the bed and then
wait, not giggling, stifling a cough,
not breathing even, wait to see your feet.
You'd bounce upon the bed to squash me, laugh,
then drag me by the ankles from beneath.

We haven't played that game in many years.
You hid from me, I never thought to peek.
I'd peek now, but I can't see for the tears.
I'm counting now, in years, I'll find you soon.
This is our final game of hide and seek.
You have but slipped into another room.

John Kenny

I wrote this as a sonnet because the form is familar and feels natural to both reader and writer. It is intended to give the reader an insight into something personal in return for time and interest in reading it.

The turn in a sonnet is one of those things that you know is coming but you never know quite what form it will take. I like the idea of something with a built in twist

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Eileen - yes, your poem pulls me in with just a glance at the accessible form, and with its title too, which is rather unusually expressed, intriguing.

Hello John - yes, the sonnet has history and familiarity on its side. The rhythm tends to be comforting. And your title is great - lovely sounds to a word that conjures up childhood, a hint of naughtiness. I'm reading on!

charlotte segaller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lucy Corrander said...

I always scan the size and the shape of a poem before reading it - and feel guilty (it seems such an uncouth thing to do).

I now feel a little light-headed to find I am not alone and that it may be publicly acknowledged without shame that we approach poetry warily like this.

As part of my initial assessment, I also take stock of the vocabulary. This may or may not influence whether I read it but it will affect the way I approach.

Then I think about the name of the writer. (I have read a poem by John Kenny before - and liked it - so, even though I don't know if it is the same John Kenny, that gets me off to a good start.)

And it's not just whether I know the writer, the sound of the poet's name has an impact. It shouldn't. But it does.

Then . . . I decide whether to read it!

Lucy Corrander

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Lucy.

Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your ideas. I admit to being affected by the name of the poet too :-)... someone I know, or don't know, someone whose name might suggest difficulty... we're only human after all! I suppose a lot depends on how much time we have too, and how we're feeling. After all, poetry takes a different kind of attention/concentration than prose. It probably asks more of the reader in the first instance, and I think it's good to remember that when we're making our own poems.

Hope to see you here again.