A month or so ago, I received an email from Glyn Pope. He attached a review copy of a new chapbook, Shh! and asked if we would review it. This book was a collection of poems by John Eliot.
Since I was a child, I’ve had difficulty with poetry. Even in school, when we had to do the Bahasa Malaysia paper and had a choice between deciphering Pantun (which is Malay poetry) and Sastera Melayu (Malay Literature), I always chose the latter because it was much easier to understand and many of the stories were derived from Hindu mythology. After all, Malay words like permaisuri, putera, singhasana, manusia and bumi were derived from Sanskrit words I was already used to.
I can’t decide if this reluctance to even look at poems is a mental block or fear. At one point, I thought it was laziness because I didn’t want to make the effort to understand that meaning and messages the poet was trying to convey.
What is certain is that all these reservations about poetry remain to this day. This was precisely why the moment I received Pope’s email, I swallowed hard. I quickly chickened out of reviewing the chapbook and asked my other writers if they would like to attempt this task. Finally, my ever-reclusive columnist, Jacinta, agreed, but she too admitted that she had never reviewed poetry. She had one condition, though, and that was that we would do some research on this subject together.
I decided to start at the very beginning – how does one read poetry. I was lucky and chanced upon a very good article. Here’s the link:
https://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/ReadingPoetry.html#top. The various steps about reading a single poem can be summed up in the following manner:
1. Get an idea of the basic subject matter of a poem.
2. Understand the context in which it’s written.
3. Try to learn something about the poet and his history.
4. Study the form of the poem and see if there is a rhythm to the words?
5. Consider the words the poet uses. Would another word be better? Would it change the meaning?
Now that I’d read it, I wanted to know how to write a review of a poem. For this, Jacinta found an article called How to Analyze Poetry: http://www.wikihow.com/Analyze-Poetry. There are altogether some 11 steps to this process. But what she was grateful for, as am I, was that this article provided a sample poetry analysis which you can download.
Finally, the authors of this article gave very encouraging tips:
‘• If you’re still having trouble understanding what the author is trying to say through the poem, go back and read through it a few more times. Pay attention to the kinds of emotions the poem relates to. Often a poet’s goal will be simply to help readers feel a certain way or sense the reality of an imagined scene.
• Try not to get frustrated. Some poetry can be very challenging to understand. All in all, just practice! Don’t give up. Learning to appreciate complex poetry is a skill that takes time to develop.’
With all that, Jacinta prepared her review of Shh! and here’s the link to it:http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2014/06/ssh-by-john-eliot-author-anne-lamali-illustrator/
What benefit did we both derive from this? An appreciation of how difficult the process of writing a review for poetry can be. And, perhaps, a smidgen more confidence of how to successfully approach this subject.
If you have any tips to share, please, we’d love to hear from you.