You Want Me To Read What? by Kent Travis

Book Wyrm Reviews 

by Ali

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?

Empowered By Poetry Pictures, Images and PhotosKent: 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.

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Comments

  1. Great interview you two, and, Kent, what a fun topic to explore in your book. Good on you for helping children (and adults) learn to appreciate and not feel intimidated by poetry. I still remember the fun in school when a teacher introduced us to e.e. cummings. We couldn’t understand it until we read it out loud, and then we were all, “OHhh, yeah!” Suddenly, poetry was ‘cool’ and not boring. Good luck with the book!

    • Ali Dent says:

      It was a privilege Naomi. I want others who are like me to see that they can enjoy poetry.

    • Naomi–thanks for the comments. Yeah, e.e. cummings does some interesting things, both in content and in form. We read “in Just” this year in English 12. The students didn’t like it at first–as you mentioned–but then we just looked at it in terms of form (patterns, repetition, the look of the poem on the page, etc.), and things came into more clarity for us. Some of the students may actually like that poem now.

  2. Hi Kent & Ali!

    Kent, I agree with your comment about the accessibility of the language. I think the syntax and esotericism of some poetry scares people. My exposure to poetry is minimal, in a high school English class where I learned poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. 🙂 We studied Dickinson, e.e. cummings and learned terms like didactic and iambic pentameter. Haiku is my favorite.

    • Ali Dent says:

      Jennifer,
      Kent has a way of explaining things that makes it less scary. I think it’s a gift. He’s one of my favorite teachers.

    • Jennifer, your name
      Doesn’t rhyme with much, I know,
      but thanks for your words.

      (Yes. That was weak. I cry pardon. As for haiku, check out Gary Hotham. He’s written some excellent ones, and he does so with a western bent (he doesn’t follow the typical Japanese form). His little book BREATH MARKS influenced my view on poetry and haiku more than I’d care to admit. Would that I could write a book as short as his and say as much as he does.

  3. I loved the interview, Ali and Kent! I usually say I don’t like poetry, but that’s not really true. I want to like poetry, but most of it is hard to understand. I enjoy some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but some i just don’t get. I like Robert Service’s, The Cremation of Sam McGee. I love the rhythm! Your explanation’s, Kent, make so much sense. I think I need your book. Wish I had it when I was home-schooling my son 10 years ago. Thanks!

    • Marcia–

      You gotta watch Jim’s version of this poem–excellent! You know, my first thought on poetry is just find something you like. It’s sort of like music: find what seems to match your mood, your soul. Heh. Maybe start with the lyrics of your favorite songs. What are the singers/songwriters doing? They’re speaking for you and to you. Find poems that do the same. If that doesn’t work, go to youtube.com, type in “Billy Collins” and watch/listen to him read his poems. He’s funny and profound at the same time. See if you can find him reading “The Lanyard.”

  4. Ali Dent says:

    Marcia, I always wanted to understand it too but it eluded me. YOu said you’re familiar with The Cremation of Sam McGee. I have a treat for you. Kent is in charge of the youth at church and there was a fundraiser for a trip they were going on. Anyone could present an ACT for entertainment. Here is my husband performing The Cremation of Sam McGee.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSKAfMOXbv8
    Enjoy!

  5. Fabulous interview, Ali and Kent. Some of the questions were pretty challenging, but Kent handled them effortlessly!

    I’ve always loved poetry and even tried my hand in it during my teenage years. But then my old muse has disappeared and the new one can only handle short stories and novels 🙂

    • I imagine, from what I know about you, that your poetry was beautiful. I bet it hasn’t disappeared, just riding in the back seat for now. Maybe it will hop in the front seat again one day and bless us all. Who knows?

    • I agree with Ali. It seems like we tend to move around topics/focuses. I’ve been told (by an agent–love them so much) that I need to be more focused. I’ve written a Disney fairies book, a sort of epic poem about Abraham, numerous short stories, essays, an introduction to biblical narrative, a theological/biographical/literary book about Abraham, songs, and even a comic. The agent wasn’t impressed. Oh well.

      I guess we can’t all be like some of the Southern agrarian writers (John Crow Ransom, Allan Davis, and others.), who had multiple typewriters set up, one for stories, one for poems, and one for essays. Sure, we could do that much more easily than they did (word processing rips insane, doesn’t it?), but our brains don’t necessarily work that way, do they. Alas.

      Angele, try to write a poem. Right now. About a your super Twitter picture. Write about what’s going o in that. That’s worth some words.

  6. Great interview guys! I love the title of the book, Kent. It sounds like a few kiddos I know. (Won’t name names though. . .)

    I adore poetry. Always have. The skill needed to put so much meaning into a few words is amazing. I’ve never written poetry because I’ve never wanted to work that hard. (Ha! Now that’s awful to admit, isn’t it?)

    What I’ve disliked about learning poetry (in a class) is the interpretations. William Carlos Williams “Red Wheelbarrow” was one of my favorite poems until a professor stuffed it full of “meaning”. Bleh. It’s just a cool poem with great visual images.

    One last thought, I think it’s hard to teach poetry to a child who hasn’t learned body rhythm. He just can’t seem to hear the music in the poem. Has that been your experience?

    • Bridgette, I think I can hear the same kiddos now that you mention it. Ha!

      You pose an interesting question to Kent about kids learning body rhythm first. I can’t wait to hear his thoughts about that.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Bridgette–good thoughts on body rhythm. I don’t know the order things should go. I will say this: kids get sound–sometimes much better than adults do. They’re not afraid of being moved by it, even if it’s the subtle move inspired (provoked) by written language. You know Poe’s poem “The Bells”? Kids get that, especially if you read it aloud to them. It thumps.

      I agree with you. Being more aware of the sound and movement of words, and how those relate to the movement of the body is a great way to get at poetry. So maybe we start with music and just encouraging kids to respond to it with their bodies, maybe that’s what we should do. What do you think?

      • I’m all for more music education. I know it is downplayed these days, but I believe it must help.

        I’m not familiar with “The Bells” but will go find it and listen to it. Thanks Kent.

  7. This was fun getting to know you, Kent. I’m one of those people who ‘get’ poetry. It makes sense to me ~ Shakespeare especially. I always thought if I had more time I would write sonnets, but alas I always seem to find another project to write and don’t make the time. It’s going on my bucket list, though. One year in college I wanted to write a term paper in epic poem form, but my teacher said no. She didn’t think I could do it. What a stinker! She probably just didn’t want to have to work harder grading it.

    Anyway, thanks for the peek inside your life and the reminder that I do love poetry, I’ve just let it slip away.

    • Ali Dent says:

      Tameri, I’m sorry your teacher turned you down. If one of my literature students has a bright idea, I get so excited and say yes before I even think it through. Hum… Not sure if that’s good or bad but I honestly think the ideas and desires that flow from our heart produced passion that develops into great work.

    • Tameri–

      First: cool name. Glad you get poetry. Here’s a confession: I do think I get it (some of it). However, I honestly still seem to be trying to prove its worth to myself as I attempt to get my students to see that they actually do like poetry (though they may not know it yet). However, the more I’m at this, the more I see the essential worth of poetry. It’s in our make-up. It’s in the category of deep utterances, almost sacramental or at least trying to broach the region that the sacramental leads us into. (Ok. That was heady. Maybe crazy, too. I’m still going with it.)

  8. Thanks for this, Ali and Kent. I believe there are times when many of us need a reminder of how enjoyable poetry is and that it is not only for deep reflection. Reading Shel Silverstein and Dennis Lee to my children and now grandchildren keeps that thought alive for me. Your book sounds like just the ticket to bring students into the poetry fold. Well done!

    • Ali Dent says:

      I left my time with Kent’s book with a better understanding about poetry and just letting it have its way with me. First I must enjoy as much of a poem as possible. Then I must think about it a little more deeply. Baby steps, I think and this makes so much sense after reading this book.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. As with any writing project, it seems that looking over it again I need to add some things. My main hope is that it does exactly what you said: bring students into the poetry fold. Or, as I’ve said a time or two in these comments, get them to see that they already like poetry, though it may not be in the form of the kind of poetry they think of when they hear the word. (Music is an obvious vehicle. Sometimes novels, movies, etc., reach the lyric terrain as well.)

  9. Hi Ali and Kent! Great interview!

    I don’t think that I ever appreciated poetry until recently, if I may be honest. The more I write the more I enjoy the usage of words and how they play off one another. I appreciate how Kent defined Diction and Syntax. Two terms that years ago would be lost on me, but now I understand their importance. Thank you! 🙂

    • Ali Dent says:

      Karen,

      Kent has a way of explaining these “foreign” words that makes a timid poetry reader believe, “I can do this.”
      I love that about him.

    • Ali is too kind. I have a way of using more “foreign” words on my way to getting to a simpler explanation Alas. But I do think more of us “Can do this” than we think (and I am absolutely NOT one of those people that thinks anyone can do anything they put their mind to–be honest with reality, people!).

      Karen–glad you appreciate it more and more. Listen to the world around you; I have not doubt you’ll hear more of the lyrical. Now… if I could just get my own ears and imagination to listening…

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