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Filtering by Tag: Tania Runyan

How to Read a Poem

Melissa Reeser Poulin

6 reading I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.

However, not all how-to’s are created equal. Last month, I followed a free tutorial for a maternity dress and ended up with a house-sized pink-flowered pillowcase that would have comfortably clothed me and two of my pregnant friends—an interesting challenge, but not exactly what I was going for. Sometimes, one man’s how-to is not another man’s treasure.

Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem is a glittering exception. It’s a pocket-sized literary guide and anthology that does—perfectly— what I’ve long tried to figure out how to do: introduce the new and skeptical reader to the necessity and beauty of poetry. Or perhaps not Poetry with a capital P.

This is a book about how to read a poem, just one poem that knocks the wind out of you. That’s how you get hooked, and poem by poem, eventually gain the confidence that develops into passion.

With simplicity, friendliness, and humility, Runyan gently guides the would-be reader of poems into a world she is clearly familiar with. She uses the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry” as a chapter-by-chapter template for encountering and enjoying a poem. After each short chapter, she offers a handful of startling and widely-varied poems to consider, encouraging the reader to try out a new lens with each grouping: imagery, sound, line breaks, discovery. Her selections are personal and unusual, modeling the way a reader of poems collects pieces that are meaningful to them, not necessarily those that are well-known or serious or understood.

Reading her book as I get ready to lead a high school writing workshop, I feel a sense of relief and excitement. I don’t have to have all the answers to a poem before introducing it to a class. I don’t have to explain what can’t be explained, because if I “get” it on a gut level then it’s likely the students get it, too. We can talk about that.

How to Read a Poem does that rare thing few how-to’s do: it admits its own limitations. It leaves the essential mystery of poetry intact, respecting the space between reader and poem where vital connection happens.

The Writer's Life

Tania Runyan

11 Fireplace2

It's no secret that this winter has left Midwesterners pleading for days that are either a) snow free or b) above ten degrees. So when my poets' New Year's party turned into a 72-hour lock-in, I wasn't all that surprised.

Six adults and eight children gathered to toast 2014 with the finest of Aldi wine. In fact, my 2013 royalties from one of my books paid for a mid-shelf, $5.99 cabernet. We had already counted on holding our gathering overnight so we could stay up late into the evening discussing literary matters while our children slept.

That sort of happened. We made it to twelve. Well, except for one guest who missed the moment while rocking an inconsolable baby to sleep. Kisses were hastily exchanged, kids tossed into strange beds, and poets scattered to couches and futons throughout the house. When the morning’s snow rendered all roads impassable, our party extended into the next night. And the next.

Before forming so many close literary friendships, I envisioned them as intense, Eliot/Pound affairs, conversations laced with poetic references and philosophical flights of fancy, a steady stream of drafts and feedback in our inboxes. In truth, we do share in these activities. But the relationships are so much more.

As the wind rattled the windows, we did talk poetry and help one another with manuscripts. For a bit. We also negotiated with children about video games, improvised large meals in the kitchen, held babies and dogs, played ping pong, and napped. It was a long, loving, mundane, joyful, frustrating, and beautiful time together.

A writer who endeavors to live a writing life, rather than just a life, will often find her work—or at least her satisfaction in it—to ring hollow. When I first met my close-knit group of poetry friends at various conferences and festivals, we had words in common. Now we have the courage to move beyond the page to share our whole selves: marriage and parenting, jobs, insecurities, spiritual struggles and growth. We are close enough to get deep. We are also close enough to sprawl on the couch in sweatpants to watch episodes of New Girl. After spending time together, we return to the page, inspired and enriched.

The winter has been a beast, yes. And I am ready for the sun. But I hope on the eve of 2015, when I invite the poets over again, we get walloped with the blizzard of the century.