Vermont Reads 2013
A discussion of a poem can best start with a group member reading the poem aloud, as other participants either read along or simply listen. Most poetry is meant to be heard, as well as read.
There are many entry points into a poem: structure; its imagery and language; its symbolism; its meter, rhyme, and rhythm; how it makes a reader feel; what one supposes was the intent of the author in writing it. You can think about what the title might be telling you about the poem. (You can then go back and re-examine the title after discussing the poem to see how the poem illuminates its title.) Regardless of where you start, it is important to create an atmosphere in which participants feel
comfortable sharing both their insights and their questions.
In opening Poetry 180, Billy Collins uses his own poem “Introduction to Poetry” to remind us not to forget the experience of the poem:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
And he asks us not to …
… begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Elsewhere, in his poem “The Effort” he cautions us about trying to determine what the poet is trying to say:
Would anyone care to join me
in flicking a few pebbles in the direction
of teachers who are fond of asking the question:
"What is the poet trying to say?"
as if Thomas Hardy and Emily Dickinson
had struggled but ultimately failed in their efforts—
inarticulate wretches that they were,
biting their pens and staring out the window for a clue.
You might choose to start the discussion informally, naturally, by picking up where the participants are: You might ask, What do you like about the poem? Is there a line or image that you especially like? Do you notice anything special that we might have missed? Do you like the poem? Do you think it does what you think the poet wanted it to do? What are we to take away from the poem — a feeling, an idea, or impression?
Questions having to do with form, mechanics and meaning can be helpful in leading participants to consider what is happening in a poem and clarify their response is to it:
• Who is speaking in the poem?
• Is the poet speaking to someone?
• Does the poem have a setting?
• How does the poem use imagery? What are specific examples of images?
• How does the sound of the poetry contribute to its meaning?
• What words in the poem are stressed, either by virtue of rhythm or because they stand out in other ways, such as through rhyme, repetition, or by isolation?
• Does the poem evoke a mood?
• Does one sense a theme, an abstract concept that is made concrete through its representation in images, voices, or action in the poem?
• What experiences from participants’ own histories does the poem bring to mind?
• Are there conflicting views or ideas within the poem? Paradoxes? How might they be summarized?
• Poems are very visual, given the freedom the poet has in ending lines and placing words on the page. • How does the way a poem looks affect readers?
• What form does the poem take? Is it a sonnet, haiku, limerick, a cinquain, a villanelle, a rondeau?
And finally, know your group. The helpful questions a facilitator can pose a group of discussants are in large part a function of the reading and comprehension skills of the group.
Additional Ideas for a Dynamic Discussion
• Use a facilitator, preferably someone who loves literature, has experience leading discussions, and has taken the time to read and research the book carefully. He or she should be prepared with a list of stimulating questions (the above list is a good start) and should try to include everyone in the conversation. He or she should also provide a brief biography of the author. Consult with VHC for trained discussion facilitators in your area.
• Make every attempt to seat people in a circle. If the group is too large for this configuration, ask people to speak loudly and clearly so that everyone can hear, or, as appropriate, ask them to stand and face the group when talking.
• Don’t forget the introductions! Be creative — in addition to stating their names, people might briefly share their general impressions of the book, their reason for attending, or something about the book for discussion.
• Discussion facilitators should use a “closer” to end the discussion. One example is asking everyone (or, if the group is large, volunteers) to share a final thought about the book or the experience they’ve just had discussing it. Or ask volunteers to read their favorite sentence or paragraph from the book.
• Serve refreshments!