How do you read a poetry book? Do you research the author first, learn of his biography, his psychological make-up to help you interpret the poems? Or do you prefer to read a book of poetry “cold,” without the background information? In the Boulder Bookstore Poetry Book Club, some of us approach the book for the month one way, others another.
The choice about how to read a book of poetry is analogous to books made into movies. How many of us read a book after we have seen a movie on which it is based? I typically don’t. But if I do, I tend to envision the movie as I read the book. Do you? We probably all have been disappointed in a movie based on a book we have read because – surprise, surprise! – the movie does not portray the book the way we imagined as we read it.
I prefer to read the poems without knowledge of the particular biography. That way, the poem seems wide open to my interpretation. If I know the poet was sexually abused as a child, that knowledge becomes a filter, causes a narrowing, limits what I might bring to the poem.
However, when we at Poetry Book Club struggle over how to interpret a poem, I am glad that at least one of us has researched the author’s background. That typically unlocks the meaning of the poem, or at least sheds light on it.
Of course, this raises the question of whether all poems are autobiographical. I think most poems are autobiographical in a sense. This is because I think we can only write about what we know. And on whatever subject a poet writes, the poem reflects the poet's view, says something about the poet, doesn't it?
When my family and friends read a poem of mine, they typically try to figure out what experience I am recounting in a poem, or whose situation the poem describes. This is perfectly natural for intimates of a poet. But I at least strive to let the poem be about more than the particular event or story, be more universal, be about the "big we," not just about the "small me."
I am reminded of what Robert Frost said when asked about the meaning of a poem. He said, something to the effect that, the poet may have an intention about what he wants to express, but that really doesn’t matter. Rather, the meaning of a poem arises in the way a poet’s expression resonates with what is already in the reader’s mind, her experience, his heart.
I suppose the ideal is to not read the author’s bio first, but to read the book cold. Then read up on the author. And then reread the book!