Feb 20, 2018

Learning To Read Pt 6 (Metaphor and The Descent into Sub-Text)

A poem is not always what it seems. There is the apparent story - the text. And the thing we are not talking about when we talk about the story - sub-text.

In this way our conversation between reader and writer can get dangerous. 

and the way to bridge that gap is - metaphor


this is a series about understanding and improving our ability to write through my experience of becoming a reader. check out parts 1-5 on this page


When I was young-er and a not so avid reader in middle school we read a poem about blueberries - I've tried to find it but haven't - and I remember it was about blueberries cause I got into an argument with my teacher that went something like this:

teacher - what do you think the poem was about?

me - blueberries

teacher - but what else was it about? maybe the blueberries were a way to talk about something else...

me - why can't a poem just be about blueberries?

teacher - *sigh

Now, I'm sure the poem was about more than blueberries and I'm also sure if I was older than 10 I might have been able to think more critically about blueberries. 

The truth is trying to define sub-text is tricky even now. There is not one answer that works for every reader or writer. Every one can and will read into a poem differently but that's not a problem younger me failed to grasp:

What my younger self failed to understand was the metaphor of the blueberries, or if I remember correctly, picking blueberries. That is, the act of picking blueberries was the subject of the text, and the rail into which I could have begun to descend into the author's sub-text. 

The poet chose blueberries out of all the fruits or vegetables that they could talk about and why can give us a clue about the poem is really about when we talk about blueberries. Maybe they picked blueberries because it was a real life experience, so blueberries was a historical choice, but this would lead us to possible sub-texts like nostalgia, family, youth, nature, innocence, etc. Or maybe blueberry picking is regional and the sub-text can wonder into class, race, gender, history, occupational, etc. Or maybe the blueberry is representative of something bigger like a person, or relationship, or a nation, or a people. 

teacher - so what is the poem about?

This would all be easier if I remembered the rest of the poem, but like I said the metaphor is just the handrail for the descent into the sub-text, not the sub-text itself. So any poem can be read in these different ways and they are not more or less valid just more thoughtful.

younger me - blueberries

me - all I remember are the blueberries

teacher - *sigh


Jan 17, 2018

Learning to Read Pt 5 (Line Breaks)


This series looks from a readers point of view about how to become a better writer. How I learned to read poetry taught me a lot about how I want to write. Check out parts 1-3.


Line Breaks might be the most misunderstood concepts in amateur poetry. Many beginner readers/writers, my past self included, think of breaks as serving a singular function. 

Either one of the look of poetry, as in short words in a line looks like poetry:

a poem 
lik'a poem 
its shape 
like this

or one of idea breaks, as in breaking each line when a thought is complete:

a poem
looks lik'a poem
when its shape
looks like this

Both look like poems because we know they are not written in long format like this sentence. But the truth is that trying to pin down and understand why or how to break lines is less a science or a rule, but an artistic touch. Poems can be full paragraphs. One to several words per line, or even parts of words. They can break at full thoughts, or in the middle of a thought. So where do you begin to understand it?

I once again take it back to reading. 

One of the biggest functions I see across all kinds of line breaks is the question of flow. Or the reason to make a break is to help guide the reader into the tempo of the piece. Is the poem supposed to be fluid and easy? Is it slow and deliberate? Is it fun and whimsical? Or a million other things that the form could be used to represent the ideas of a poem.

If the lines break and clean full thoughts the words become really easy to read. The idea flows as if it was a full prose sentence but almost easier because it is arranged into smaller thoughts. But if the lines are broken erratically, the same words can become difficult and slow.  As in:

a po
em looks 
lik'a po
em when it

s shape

like this

None of these break choices are right or wrong, poetry isn't about that, but they do convey different messages with the same words. They tell a different story. They have a different "voice" (a concept I have issues with but that's for a different post). It really is a matter of flow and flow, to me, comes from concept. 

What is the poem about? 

How should it be read? 

How do I want someone else to read it?

These are all ideas that go through my head when I am writing. Because we know now that even this is a poem:

A poem looks lik'a poem when its shape looks like this.

But what would that tell the audience? Somehow the words lose a bit of meaning when they are written out in a regular prose format. Somehow the idea becomes one dimensional. The voice becomes generic. Not to say those are bad things, just different choices. And every choice in a poem is critical.

The more poems you read, the more you will see how and why other authors have chosen to make these breaks, and how it affects the way you read.

I'd challenge you to take the line "a poem looks" and make you own variations. I'd love to see what you come up with.

much love


ps. as always like, share, subscribe and if you want to talk you can reach me on this blog, youtube, facebook and twitter. Also my new website ReneTheWriter.

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