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How to Read a Poem…and Start a Poetry Circle

by Molly Peacock

That “parse” and “parch” are such near homophonic kin is surely no accident. Nor is it insignificant that every entrance of “analysis” is announced by the footman “anal.” Perhaps this is why so many readers will feel that parsing a verse or analyzing a poem is of necessity dried and wizened work. Clenched and retentive. Every Secret Book of Resentments probably has at least one page dedicated to Teacher X or Professor Y, whose puckered tutelage of long ago lingers in the cold sweats and asthmatic wheezings that wreak systemic havoc whenever a poem looms into view.

In How to Read a Poem, Molly Peacock makes a case for reclamation, and suggests that in poetry one might even find a modus vivendi: “To be comfortable with many inexplicable meanings, yet to be able to find meaning, to actively locate it in a syllable, a beat, an image, and to have clarity and mystery at the same time – that seems to define the complete way to live.”

Any number of books have been written as encouragements to the writing or anatomizing of poetry, but this is a lucid, intelligent guide to the straightforward business of reading the stuff. Peacock’s method is to focus her remarks on several “talisman” poems that she claims to tote “around like amulets against the world, using them to ward off every evil.” Whether you take this as a literal truth or as a slightly precious rhetorical flourish, she plainly feels an abiding fondness for and deep familiarity with the 14 poems she presents here, by writers as diverse as Jane Kenyon, John Clare, May Swenson, Li Ch’ing-chao, Margaret Atwood, Lorna Crozier, and Michael Ondaatje.

Readers of her memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, will know that Peacock is comfortable with confession, and it is exactly her easy way with the personal that makes How to Read a Poem so engaging. She writes of her own response to each poem, gives it a place and context in her own life, and then moves deftly and subtly into the particulars of the writing, illuminating individual lines or stanzas, holding them up for examination, but never losing sight of the way they work as part of an organic mechanism.

She cheerfully reveals the guts, but then stitches everything neatly into place. It looks much as it did at the outset, but you have a better idea about where to locate the heart, and how to read its various rhythms. By way of a coda, Peacock suggests that poetry lovers might find a sense of community in starting a poetry circle, and suggests ways to engineer such a gathering. Those who think that public airings of such private musings would be about as appealing as windy accounts of endless dreams will probably not hurry to follow through. However, How to Read a Poem is appealing proof that an intimate response to something as potentially private as a poem – at least, when that response is as schooled and thoughtful as that provided by Peacock – can handily translate the personal to the public without any evident signs of wear or strain.