April is National Poetry Month, and I’m sad to say I don’t read much poetry. I could blame it on the Internet. In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr says the Internet has turned us into a nation of skimmers. People don’t have patience these days for deep reading, and deep reading — slow, careful, thoughtful — is exactly what you need to do to appreciate poetry. Internet or no, I don’t think I’ve ever had a lot of patience for poetry. Which is unfortunate. I’m missing out.
I know so much about “Is Google Making Us Stupid” because in my job as a college tutor/mentor, I’ve helped two different students write essays on the article for their Freshman Composition class. And that same Freshman Comp class recently assigned a poetry analysis.
I nudged my student to write his paper about “Carp Poem” by Terrance Hayes (see full poem below). I had never read it before, but a quick glance made me think it would be easier and more straight forward for him (a nineteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome) to understand than the other option, a Sylvia Plath poem.
If all I had ever done was that initial skim of “Carp Poem,” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But, since I was helping this student with a paper, I read the poem again, more carefully.
I admired the way Hayes compared a pond of densely-packed carp to orange-jumpsuited boys in a crowded prison. And I loved the part about how maybe Jesus was able to walk on the water “that day” because of carp beneath his feet: “the crackers and wafer crumbs falling / from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish / so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed / into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs.”
I then forced my student to listen to me read the poem out loud so we could hear if it had any “sound effects” (something he needed to discuss in his paper). We noticed alliteration: “bangles, braids, and boots,” and “black men boxed and bunked.” And I liked the sound of the mouth-garbling line, “so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food.”
But it wasn’t until the third or fourth read-through that I really felt the impact of the last line, and suddenly I loved this poem. I looked over to my student, who had jotted down “hunger” as a possible theme. “What do you mean?” I encouraged.
“Like, the fish are hungry and the boys are hungry,” he said.
“What are they hungry for?” I asked, excitement mounting in my voice.
“Listen.” I grabbed the poem out of his hand and read: “A room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet, / packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.” I looked at my student pointedly. “It’s almost like they’re hungry for poetry.”
And I wonder if maybe the rest of us are, too.
It’s hard to read poems. They take time and effort and the slow, careful reading most of us don’t have the patience for. We don’t take the time to read them out loud and listen for “sound effects.” We don’t take time to process the words and let them conjure up images in our minds.
Plus, there are a lot of crappy and/or pretentious poems out there. Wait, let me revise that to something more PC — there are a lot of poems out there that are not to my taste. But there are also a lot of novels in the world that are not to my taste (and I’ve suffered through some of them); it doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading novels.
I was glad I helped the student with his poetry analysis paper because it forced me to read a poem deeply, and with that deep reading I ended up really enjoying it. (So much so that I forced my fiancé to listen to me read “Carp Poem” out loud when I got home that night.) There are probably a lot more poems in the world that would give me joy if only I could slow down enough to read them.
Because skimming isn’t going to cut it. If a poem is done right, each word has been chosen carefully; each word carries weight. If you skip a few, you miss a lot.
One of the things my student couldn’t understand about “Carp Poem” was why the author had broken up the stanzas the way he did. “What’s the point?” he asked. “Why not just write it as a paragraph?” But perhaps poems need white space as a way to slow down the reader — to give them places to stop and reflect.
This month, I’m going to try to read at least a few more poems. I’m not sure where to find ones I’d like, so I’d love suggestions. I know I won’t be able to cure myself of my impatient reading habits, but I’d like to put some effort towards the occasional deep read. In Carr’s article he says, “in the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading… we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”
In this way, reading a short poem can feel like a spiritual feast. It can become a meditation into our own mind.
Carp Poem by Terrance Hayes
After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite
grooves of the Fredrick Douglass Middle School sign
where men and women sized children loiter like shadows
draped in the outsized denim, jerseys, bangles, braids, and boots
that mean I am no longer young, after I have made my way
to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block
where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness
my prison guard father wears buzzes me in,
I follow his pistol and shield along each corridor trying not to look
at the black men boxed and bunked around me
until I reach the tiny classroom where two dozen black boys are
dressed in jumpsuits orange as the pond full of carp I saw once in Japan,
so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food
that a lightweight tourist could have crossed the pond on their backs
so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread to drop into the water
below his footsteps which I’m thinking is how Jesus must have walked
on the lake that day, the crackers and wafer crumbs falling
from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish
so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed
into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,
and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,
having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter
than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,
packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.