I found myself quibbling quite a bit with Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual book, but I couldn’t help but think recently about his plea for clarity as I was once again enmeshed in my first-round reader duties for a poetry book contest. Wow, I got some really good manuscripts — fresh, creative reading pleasure. Of my pile of 15 this year, 3 asserted themselves right away but many of the rest were strong maybes. Of the maybes and the no pile, several were just too hard to figure out what the heck the poet was up to. The maybes were at least being unclear in an interesting, energetic way that at least had me thinking the fault in comprehension and appreciation was mine. But in the end, if I can’t come away from a poem seeing the world differently in some way, or maybe not even the world, at least the world of the poem, or maybe the world of poetry, then what am I doing? If I the reader can’t hear what you the poet is saying, then has a poem been actualized? I’ve always resisted thinking of the reader when I write, but I did find myself sympathetic to Kooser’s call to have some regard for the reader, whoever your ideal reader might be. And now after this year’s reading experience, I may need to rethink my own approach. Maybe the reader is a necessary ingredient in the making of a poem — not in the initial impulse, as that would put a damper on it that energizing utterance. But as one part of the editing process, maybe this idea of considering the reader isn’t a bad one. This is a difficult exercise, as, of course, I know what I mean, so how do I go about imagining a reader who is NOT like me, and who may NOT know what I mean when I say the “rooster garbages the snow as a motocross,” or whatever. It will take a different kind of act of imagination. And how will I know when it’s worthwhile to make the reader take a leap with me? Sometimes those readerly leaps are what make reading poetry worthwhile. Hm. So much to think about.
For my earlier Notes from a First Round Reader, see here: