Book Wyrm Reviews
Poetry is threatening to me. In high school when we were given an assignment to find the meaning in a poem I felt like I was walking into the Valley of Doom. The words on the page stared at me like I was prey. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over the thump thump of my heart.
I feel like poetry is written for special people and by special people who have a gift. Early in my marriage, Jim wrote poetry for me. I remember thinking what a special person he is and how talented, but I didn’t understand his intended messages. I felt loved because of his effort but that was the extent of my appreciation for his writing. Sad, but true. For years he lovingly called me Spock because my fail-safe approach to life is left brained but that began to change about 10 years ago when I met Kent Travis, author of You Want Me To Read What?
I haven’t been called Spock in quite some time. I filter life through both sides of my brain now and Kent, with regard to books, I have you to thank for this. The way you talk about stories inspires me to look at them with new eyes and from different angles. This inspiration gives me courage to read novels and teach literature. I think I’ll read poetry now because your book, You Want Me To Read What? shows me a way to approach those threatening beady eyes on the page and see them for what they really are.
Kent is with us today to discuss his new book. Thank you for joining us. There are other poetry shy people like me who think reading poetry is too scary or a waste of time. Let’s have a conversation about your book and see if we can change their minds.
Ali: Am I right to concluded that a theme of your book is that I, the reader, will find more enjoyment in a poem if I can know its meaning and that meaning is found by paying attention to word choices and placement and allowing images from the words to affect me?
Kent: Well, that’s part of it. I’m trying to show that you don’t necessarily need to know the meaning of a poem to appreciate it, enjoy it, gain some sort of experience from it. Sometimes it’s meaning enough to just like the way a poem sounds or the way the words are put together or the way the images are made.
Ali: I love that answer. I already feel better. How does the study of feet, meter, & stanza help me enjoy a poem? It seems like a lot of work. Can you convince me the work is worth my while?
Kent: Good question. I do spend a bit of time on rhythm, which includes discussing various types of metric feet, meters, etc. However, My overall point is for people to know that rhythm—the sound made by the words put together into a poem—contributes to the meaning of the poem. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was very concerned with the sound and flow of his poems. He was after a particular effect in his poems, appealing to a particular emotion in his readers. His word choice (diction) and the flow of his words (rhythm) helped him achieve his desired effect. At the very least, I think readers of poetry need to appreciate how a poem sounds; understanding at least something of meter helps make a reader aware of sound.
Ali: Rhythm…Flow…Sounds… I’m willing to give it a try. So, Kent, I have a friend who gasps at the idea of understanding the meaning of a metaphor. She’s very literal. She says her brain hurts when she’s asked to find the meaning below the obvious. What can she do that will help her with the concept of image that you talk about in chapter 5?
Kent: She probably already gets metaphor to some extent; she would have trouble communicating about many things without it. I suppose starting small would help. Have her take note of all the things people say that aren’t literal: “I love you with all my heart.” “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” “I’m rattled.” Metaphor is such a part of our communication; it’s hard to imagine someone not getting any of them.
Ali: Alright, that helps. You talk about diction and syntax in the book. If you ask me to study the diction and syntax of a poem I tense up, maybe because I don’t understand it well enough but more likely because I don’t want to go to the trouble. Your book explains how I can learn to do this and the pay off is worth it? Will you convince me that I will be rewarded if I do this work?
Kent: You like words, right? Their sound, their meaning, their placement? Sure you do. You know when someone puts a phrase or sentence together that zings. Why? Because of the words and their placement. Diction: word choice. Syntax: word order. That’s the major gist of what we mean by these words. I would say that just focusing in on a particular word can help us get at overall or general meaning.
Ali: I love your explanation of form in poetry. Seeing the winged pattern formed by the length of lines in Easter Wings impresses me. I can feel the poem. Why does form matter to the reader of poetry?
Kent: I use the term “form” to refer to several things. It includes line length, white space, rhyme scheme, syllable count (and meter), repetition, the look of a poem on a page. It also refers to what I call internal form—a shift in thought or direction or image, for example. I think form matters because it helps the poet make meaning in appearance, sound, structure, etc. If we “get” the form, we often can start to “get” the meaning.
Ali: You’ve shed a lot of light on diction, syntax and form and I appreciate that. I wonder, why do you read poetry?
Kent: I like words. I like playing with words and finding how others have played with them. I like the experience poems give. I like the “portal” into life that a poem can be. Oops. I used a metaphoric analogy. (Don’t tell your friend.) What I mean is, through a poem we get a glimpse at some reality about life.
Ali: Portals. You have my attention now. I love sci-fi and fantasy books and movies. Kent, I like the exercises you have in the back of the book. I think your book, You Want Me To Read What? is a good home school text for teaching a poetry class. If I decide to teach a class I will work through the chapters weekly and assign the corresponding exercises from the back of the book. To conclude the course I will ask the class to analyze some poems. Would you suggest a few poems for beginners to evaluate?
Kent: I like Billy Collins. His language is accessible and his images startling. He sees the world better than I do and says sees more clearly than I can. Richard Wilbur is good. Emily Dickenson. Hmm. Here’s something to try: start with more recent poetry and then work backwards to the older poetry of the great masters. That way a person isn’t as distracted by the diction and syntax of older poetry.
Kent, it was a pleasure discussing your book. I appreciate your thoughtful answers. It’s obvious you love words, stories and helping others find the love too.
To read more about Kent hop over to his blog where he’s Thinking it Through,
If you want to purchase a copy of his book, it’s available at Amazon.
How about you? Do you read or write poetry? Do you have a question for Kent today? I love hearing from you.
Kent Travis is a fairly regular guy who spent more than a regular amount of time reading and studying poetry over the last few years. It didn’t kill him. This book is some of what came out of that time. He is author of the narrative poem, “Soil and Seed.” Kent earned a Master of Humanities degree from the University of Dallas. Currently he is chair of the humanities department at the Brookhill School in Bullard, Texas where he teaches senior English and runs the yearbook. He and his wife reside in Tyler, Texas with their four daughters.