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How to Read Poetry (and Why) with Kevin Prufer

On the podcast: Poetry is great, right? Why don't we read it more? Poet and professor Kevin Prufer gives us practical ways to start reading poetry and why it's (sometimes) better than fiction.

Poetry is great, right? Why don't we read it more? Poet and professor Kevin Prufer gives us practical ways to start reading poetry and why it's (sometimes) better than fiction.

This episode is all to get us ready for National Poetry Month, where we share a poem a week and the inspiration behind it. 

Check out last year's poems:

For more information on Kevin Prufer, our MFA in Creative Writing program (where Kevin is a faculty member), and a transcript, visit our episode page.

About our guest

Kevin Prufer is a faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program. Among his many awards are four Pushcart prizes. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry multiple times. Kevin has written a number of poetry collections, including How He Loved Them, which was long-listed for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and The Art of Fiction. Read more about Kevin Prufer.

Find all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and follow us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play Spotify or your podcast player of choice.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode we bring you conversations with authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life. My name is Georgia Sparling, and today, my guest is Kevin Prufer. Kevin is a member of our faculty and teaches in our low residency MFA program. He's the author of a number of books of poetry, including "How He Loved Them," which was long listed for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and also last year's "The Art of Fiction." Today, we're going to talk about the importance of poetry. And Kevin is going to convert us all into poetry readers, is that right? [laughs]

    Kevin Prufer

    I'll do my best

    Georgia  

    [laughs] And so before we launch into a defense of poetry, I'd love to hear about your relationship with poetry. When were you first introduced to it

    Kevin 

    Well, I mean, as a reader of it, I would say my first heavy introduction was in high school. I went to one of those boarding schools, sort of like Dead Poets Society, kind of an ivy-covered boarding school, and I had a very mean, but ultimately, terrific English teacher who required that I memorize poem a week. And every Monday, he'd give me this poem, all of us in the class, and every Saturday, we'd have to sit in this room and write out the poem. And we kind of grade off for every error that we made, including commas. And I'm kind of convinced that the reason he did this was at least partly to teach us the comma rules, because you can't possibly memorize all the commas in a poem, especially when the poem gets longer and longer every week, which was his game: every week is a little longer than the previous week. But at least for me, I think it instilled a real love of poetry when I got through the pain of having to be graded all the time, because I learned to appreciate the music of the poems that I was memorizing, partly because it helped me memorize them. You can memorize the beats a little bit easier than the words, and by memorizing the beats, I learned to appreciate the beats, and I found that years later, I still had those poems in my head. And I'm sure it started there for me.

    Georgia  

    Can you think of like an "aha" moment, where you really connected with a poem?

    Kevin 

    Yeah, for sure. It was at the same time; one of the poems we had to memorize was "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It was obviously really late in the year, because that's a very, very long, poem.

    Georgia  

    It's really long. [laughs

    Kevin 

    [laughs] But I remember just thinking it was the coolest poem I could imagine. I had no idea what it meant, or who was talking. It's a famously dodgy poem, and I didn't even understand who the speaker of the poem was or what he was talking about. But the images were so shocking to me and sort of mysterious and suspenseful and mystical. I found that I couldn't stop thinking about that poem and I kept going back to it. And it was definitely part of what made me want to do this was to sort of recreate that for myself, if I could.

    Georgia  

    Yes, that was my next question. Appreciating poetry is one thing, but writing it is a whole other thing. So how did you transition from a reader of poetry to also writing it?

    Kevin 

    It was sort of circuitous. When I went to college, I wrote some poems. I majored in a program that sort of combined European literature, history and philosophy. And then went from there to a job in the news, working for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in DC, and sort of secretly writing in the evenings, but it got hard to do. At the time, I was writing more fiction, but it's hard to work all day long, come home from work it's 6:30, you're tired. The last thing you want to do, at least for me, was to sit down and start writing some more. That's all I did at work. So I called a former teacher and said I was unhappy with this job, even though by many accounts, it was a sort of a dream job. And she sort of offered to help me get a fellowship to move down to the Blue Ridge Mountains and write a novel. And I did and when I got there, I found that I was better at poetry. [laughs] I just wasn't very good at this novel writing thing, but I got to go back to my first love, which was the poems.

    Georgia  

    That's great. And so as you were saying, school is when you were first introduced to poetry, which I think is probably the same for most of us. And I remember not having to memorize as many as poems as you did, but definitely memorizing a few and those have stuck with me. But there seems to be something like, where a lot of people find it very intimidating to read poetry or to study poetry. And why do you think that is?

    Kevin 

    I honestly think it's because it's often not taught very well. I don't want to say bad things about my teachers or your teachers, but I think one of the ways I was taught poetry was that a poem is a kind of secret code, and that the relationship between a poem and a reader is that the reader has to crack the secret code. And often, since we get it in school that involves writing a five paragraph essay that shows that we've cracked the code. And the problem with thinking about a poem this way and teaching it this way is that it makes poetry something that's only interesting to people who are interested in breaking codes, first of all, and that's not most people. And it makes writing poetry only interesting to people who might want to write codes, and that's also not most people. It also suggests that once you've broken the code on something, why would you ever want to go back and look at it again? I mean, you wouldn't. You've broken the code, you're done. It's really the opposite of how a poem ought to be brought to the world, because it's not a code, and it's also not a puzzle, like a crossword puzzle. I always tell my students here that a poet and a poem, they are trying to communicate, they're not trying to obscure communication, like a code or a puzzle. And if they're difficult, it's often because what the poem or the poet is thinking about is difficult. I mean, poems and poets are interested in complex things. I'm thinking about the big subjects: love, class, war, race. I mean, all of these things that nobody can solve in 7 or 15 or 20 lines, and nobody really wants to put it into a secret code. I think they're things we all really want to talk about, but when we talk about them, things get complicated. So when a poem looks difficult, or scary, or makes someone want to just close the book and pick up something more accessible, it's often because it's dealing with something that we're all really interested in, and it's trying to do it justice

    Georgia  

    So what is the reaction that you get from people, when they say, "What do you do?" [laughs] And you say, "I'm a poet?" How do they respond?

    Kevin 

    I never say that. [laughs] Because I always get, somebody says, "Oh, I hate poetry."[laughs] If you said to me, "I'm a veterinarian," I wouldn't say "Oh, I hate animals." But I just get that so often that I say I'm a teacher. And then they always say "What do you teach?" And I say "English," and they say, "Oh, I hate English."

    Georgia  

    Wow. [laughs] You need to hang out with different people

    Kevin 

    No, these are always people on an airplane.

    Georgia  

    So poetry doesn't have to be difficult. How do you give people an entry into that, for the reluctant poetry reader?

    Kevin 

    Well, I say poetry can be difficult, it's just always trying to communicate. Sometimes, as I'm sure we both know, trying to communicate difficult things to people, it can be difficult. But I often say that what a poem can be most exciting about is often that what it's trying to communicate resists paraphrase. Or it might be trying to communicate two or three or four feelings or ideas or concerns simultaneously, that are mutually exclusive. For instance, think of a great poem by Emily Dickinson, that is asking what the nature of God is and what the nature of the afterlife is. Well, none of us know any of these things. But in the poem, she seems to be asserting simultaneously, that there is a God and the God is all good, that there isn't a God, and there is no afterlife. There's only science and reason. That there is a God, but he might not be all that concerned with things as small as we are. That there is a God in the world, but not a God in the poem, that the only thing of the poem is maybe Satan or something like that. And that there's only a void. All these things she's trying to say simultaneously. And if one is true, than the other four or five of them can't be true. But what she asked us to do is sort of believe for a moment in this force field which all of these things have been presented to us at once, not in order to answer the question about what is God or what is the afterlife, but in order to open us up to new ways of thinking about what this question implies or how we can go about this question in a new way. And that, I think, is really actually quite an inviting way to think about a poem. It's that it's not teaching you a lesson, it's asking you to engage in sort of rethinking how you think about something.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, I love that. As you said before, the themes are things that poems discuss, they're kind of universal things that everybody deals with their experiences. What is it about poetry that's distinct from fiction in the way it does that? How does it separate itself?

    Kevin 

    I like to think that poetry has finer tools in its toolbox than fiction does. And the reason is that a poem has in its sort of toolbox everything a short story does: words, sentences, even paragraphs if the poem wants to have paragraphs, narrative, plot, character, image, metaphor, all of these things poets share with fiction writers. But poets also have this sort of magical thing, which is the line, the individual line of poetry, which is the sort of unit of the poem, and the line is a complicated and musical thing. And the line brings with it not only things like meter or rhyme, but also various kinds and qualities of silences that fiction writers just don't have access to. There's that silence at the end of the line, while your eye goes back to the line below it, and begins again. There's a big silence at the end of the stanza. There's a huge silence at the end of a poem. And the last word of the poem, the little midline silence is called caesura. And all of these silences have vast importance to poetry and of much less importance to fiction writers. A way to think about it is this: often, at least for me, the experience of reading a free verse poem is a lot like listening in on a mind other than my own, that does that work on an unsolvable problem. And I get to listen in or sort of be part of that mind, as that mind thinks. And I think we also probably both know that some of our best thinking happens without words. Like you're having a problem in your life, and you're not sure how to solve it. And you're sort of resting in wordless thought, then suddenly you think, "Oh, yeah, right. I know how to do this." It's that silence, that wordless silence, that's so important to how we think, and that's really available to poets through line break, or stanza break, or whitespace on the page, or caesura. All of that sort of expressing unarticulated thought before thought bursts into articulatio, and it can do that and make it music. And I think that's what poetry has the fiction can never hope to have. I don't [laughs] want to besmirch fiction writers, I love fiction writers. But I went into poetry because this excited me so much.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, definitely. And so when we were kind of discussing points of this discussion, one thing you brought up is that poetry is the oldest form of literature. So why do you think that is?

    Kevin 

    Well, I think, initially that is, because poetry predates literacy, mass literacy, literacy at all, I think. And it was originally not just a way of thinking about a big issue or telling a story, it was those things, for sure, but it was also a way of preserving cultural memory. And it's very hard, I mean, if you've ever tried to memorize a paragraph of a novel, it's very hard, much less a whole novel. But you can memorize a poem, because a poem has a rhythm, it has a rhyme, all of these things lend it to memory. So the earliest poems were poems that spoke to the identity of a group of people. And it spoke to it through myth, or legend, or foundation story. And these get passed down from one person to another person through memory. And only much later in the history of poetry, did they get written down. So that's why it's our earliest form. You can't have a novel without literacy, but you certainly can have at poem.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. So, how do you read poetry? What does it look like for you to pick up a poem?

    Kevin 

    Well, if I'm gonna do it, right, I prepare to read it a few times. And the first time I read a poem, I don't try to even think about what it's talking to me about, I just try to hear it; what does it sound like? But then after I hear it, I go back and I think I ask a couple questions of myself and maybe the first one is what is this poem thinking about? Not what is it trying to teach me or what is the lesson or what's the conclusion? I don't read it like I would read an essay. I just asked myself what seem to be the concerns and how are the concerns brought to me in the music of the poem? And how are they brought to me in just the paraphrase level, meaning of the poem? And then I asked myself, honestly, is this interesting? Are the concerns interesting? Are they dealt with in a way that seems complex? I think that's really how I read a poem.

    Georgia  

    It feels like poetry is a lot more meditative than maybe other forms of literature that tend to get all the limelight. Do you have advice for slowing down? [laughs] I think that's a hard part for me. I read a lot of fiction, and I will just plow through books, but then I think this book of poetry seems so intimidating, because I know I need to stop to really engage with it. You don't just flip through the pages. And well, now I've read an 80 page book of poems and retain nothing. So how do you slow down?

    Kevin 

    Personally, I have a lot of friends who have disagreed, but at least for me, it's a bad idea to read a book of poems all the way through, unless the poems are very complicated, and if they're not very complicated, I'm not very interested. I mean, if they're just simple in a bad way, I guess you could breeze through it. But I mean, for me, a poem is a unit of literature, the way a story or a novel is, and it deserves your attention in that way. It's not something you just flip past. So I think it's a good idea to read one poem, just read one poem and call it a night. Let it be a chore. [laughs] I mean, I think that's a really nice way to do it. Maybe two poems. I mean, you wouldn't read 17 or 24 short stories before you go to bed, would you?

    Georgia  

    I would not. [laughs] Maybe chapters of a book, though. [laughs]

    Kevin 

    I mean, you're a big reader. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    [laughs] That's true. So, I find that, I don't know how to find the poems that will resonate with me. Sometimes, I'm on social media, and somebody shares a poem, and I think, "Oh, that's amazing." Or it'll be in a preface to a book or something like that. I'll see something that really captures my attention. But how do we find the poems that resonate with us? Or what's your advice for starting to delve into this world?

    Kevin 

    Well, I remember, I had a very good friend named Tony Hoagland who died a few years ago. But I remember one of the things he told me that I really liked was, "If you come across a poem you're supposed to like, and it doesn't speak to you, that's just fine. Turn the page. Maybe it'll speak to you another day." I think that's fine. It's a way of saying "Don't make a chore out of it," don't make it something that you have to conform to the values of other people with. I think that's the first thing. Secondly, ask around or think about what kind of subjects am I interested in? There's so many. We're living right now in a real Renaissance for poetry. There's so many good poets at work right now, thinking about so many different things. And if you poke around, read around, turn the page that doesn't appeal to you, go somewhere else, you're going to find somebody who really speaks to you.

    Georgia  

    Who are you reading right now that you've really been enjoying?

    Kevin 

    I'm reading Kay Ryan right now.

    Georgia  

    Is that K-A-Y?

    Kevin 

    Yeah, K-A-Y, who I think of as a sort of a descendant of two of my favorite poets, who are Emily Dickinson and Stevie Smith. So she writes very contracted type, complicated little poems that are never more than a page, often far less than the page, and they're hilarious. They're often hilarious, and then you start to think, "Oh, that was simultaneously hilarious and sinister, actually." It's a kind of mode I love. I love trying to figure out like, how can you be both of those things at once? And why? What's she trying to get at by being simultaneously frightening and funny? You know, I often think what makes a poem exciting to me, at least I tell my students this, that a poem often creates force fields, that is, the music of the poem might say one thing to you and the words of a poem might say another thing. And neither what the words are saying is necessarily interesting, nor is the music necessarily interesting. What's interesting is the force field that's created between the words and the music. That's what's interesting. For instance, that Emily Dickinson poem I was telling you about where she's wondering about whether there is a God or not a God, it's all constructed in the metre of a Protestant hymn. You can sing it to the tune of most hymns. And always think, "Well, what's that about?" Like, a hymn is pretty unambiguous. It's obviously in praise of God. Why write this poem that says, I don't know if there's a God? Maybe there's just science. Why do that In the container of a Protestant hymn? That is interesting to me. There's a force field that's been created there between those two things, and it'll keep me up at night trying to understand why would I do that.

    Georgia  

    Do you recommend reading poems out loud to get that sense?

    Kevin 

    Yeah, I do. I read poems out loud. I have my students read poems out loud. When we look at a poem in class, we read it twice out loud before we can talk about it. I think a poem has at least part of its ancestry in music, so I wouldn't want to not read it out loud.

    Georgia  

    Yeah. And last year, you were on our special series that we did last year, for National Poetry Month, which if people haven't listened to it yet, were like four short episodes of poets discussing a piece of work and then reading one of their poems. And for me, that was just an amazing way to engage with it. Because I love hearing, I know I can read it out loud, [laughs] and it'll be one way, but listening to the person who wrote it read it is just a really cool experience. And I think it was such a like, rich way to engage with the work. We're going to do that again this year. I have to work on that. So what are you working on now, is my next question.

    Kevin 

    Well, I have a book coming out next year, called "The Fears," and it's a book about fear. It's a book of poems. So I've really put that to bed. I sent it into the publisher a few months ago. And I always, after I finish a book, I spend a few months writing something that's completely not poetry. And I do that because I don't want to be the same poet in every single book, and it's tempting to do that, because you know, it works. It got published, it got good reviews, so you know it works. So it's very easy to be seduced. It's just doing all that again, and again, and again, and I need to take some time off. So I'm writing something that's absolutely not poetry right now.

    Georgia  

    Do you still write fiction?

    Kevin 

    I do. I've written a lot of detective fiction, for magazines, like the pulp magazines, the ones on the cheap paper? [laughs]

    Georgia  

    [laughs] I'm glad they're still making those.

    Kevin 

    But I always do something like that after I finish reading a book of poems. I'll get back to a new book soon.

    Georgia  

    That's great. Well, thank you so much for coming on this episode. I feel like I learned a lot, and I really am excited to try out some poetry, especially without that feeling of hanging over your head of like, "I have to read all the poems in this book," but just being able to read one, enjoy it, read it again, try something new. I think that's a great way to approach it. So thank you.

    Kevin 

    Thanks a lot, Georgia. I hope you do. I hope you find something great.

    Georgia  

    Hello listeners. I'm assuming you all want to delve into some poetry now. As I said before, we have a series coming up in April for National Poetry Month. We'll bring you a short episode every Tuesday featuring a Lesley poet. They'll talk about one of their poems and then read it for us. Those episodes start April 5. This will be our second year of National Poetry Month episodes. So if you want to get started early, you can listen to our archives, including Episode 55, where Kevin shares his poem, "The Translator." You can also find a link in the show notes to Kevin's website where you can learn more about his books, and his translation work. Thank you so much for listening, and we'll be back in your ears April 5.