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How to Watch a Poem

Posted By Sridala Swami On May 7, 2012 @ 5:30 am In Poetry and Poetics | 7 Comments

(This post was to begin with a quote that I remember as having been said by the filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard: “You don’t read a film; you watch it”. While trying to chase down the quote, though, I found it had disappeared so effectively that I began to doubt both the words and the person to whom I was attributing it. Regardless of who said it and whether they said it that way, here it is, the quote as epigraph:)

You don’t read a film; you watch it.

A poem, like a film, is a different beast. It is both an event and an object; which it to say, it occurs in time and it occupies space. It is music and it is drawing.

It may not be both things at once, but it has the potential to be either.  And both (though not necessarily, of course, at once. See previous sentence).

When poetry functions as music, when it is spoken aloud, when it unfolds in time, it trusts to memory. All music is memory. Poetry recited is, for the listener, a path unfolding where none existed before. A listener does not know what comes next; only the poet and the speaker know.

A listener may only have the haziest notion of what came before but there is no way of retracing her steps. Poetry spoken aloud moves in only one direction: forward. (It also ‘moves’, for the most part, from left to right, but we will come to that later).

The recitation of a well-known poem is to the listener what a recorded song is to a live performance. The listener has a particular way of reciting the poem and may be out of step with the ‘live’ version now being performed in front of her.

When a poem is read aloud, the speaker is an object who can be read. No: watched.

When a poem is recited, there may be more than one performer. Poetry spoken aloud may ripple outwards.

Poems on the page are not read; they are watched.

Poems on the page are read, but only after they are watched.

When I choose a poem to read, I first look for the ones that occupy less space. Or at least, ones that occupy one space: a page or facing pages. I view the poem at once, without reading.

Think of it as an aerial shot or a bird’s-eye-view of the poem. In saccades, I take in information about density of text, patterns and repetitions, empty space.

I am reading – no, viewing – Kazim Ali’s ‘The Return of Music’. (Kazim Ali, The Far Mosque, Alice James Books, 2005).

One poem over two (facing) pages. I catch the words ‘orange’ and ‘sapphire’. Then, in a cascade, the words ‘unfold’, ‘Unopened’ (from the next line, because my eyes slide down), ‘unsummon’ and ‘uncry’ (back to the previous line).

In my mind, I have attached the prefix ‘un’ to the ‘you’ in ‘you will’. As my eyes drift to the facing page, I am thrilled to see that what my mind made has been made again on the page. This line: ‘Unyear you will. Unyou you will.’

There are other thoughts I have before I even read the poem – from top to bottom and left to right, the way poems in certain languages are usually written and therefore must be read (what if a poem must be read in a different order, actually read against the grain in order to make sense?).

These other thoughts, such as: that I might have used the word ‘cascade’ above because this poem contains the words ‘course’ and ‘carved’ and ‘wends’ and ‘went’. Such as: is it really a coincidence that I picked a poem about music in order to demonstrate how I watch a poem?

Such as: the instant I use the word watch to describe an experience, I describe the experience in time. The object may not move in time, but time passes anyway. See: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five Dedicated to Ozu. It occurs to me that regardless of my wanting to separate a poem-as-event from poem-as-object, it is both, simultaneously.

As I read, I go back and forth, moving between the lines, refreshing my memory, reminding myself of what went before. I tell myself this is freedom because if I were listening to this poem, I would be bound by the pace of the speaker and my attention span.

(I remember that I am able to memorise poems only when I record them and listen to the recording constantly. Learning poems is like knowing the lyrics to songs: you know it without knowing when you learnt it.)

When poems are long, longer than two facing pages, I panic. I want to have a sense of its ending before I begin. I flip the pages to get an idea of how long the poem is.

(Pages are to minutes what distance is to time. I say, ‘It’s 15 minutes by bus.’ I don’t say, ‘It’s 3 kms from where you are.’)

While reading a long poem, the attention slips and affects the experience of the poem in the same way that inattention affects the heard poem. What occupies these gaps?

When I read a long poem – a book-length poem, say After Nature – I hold the book in my left hand and flip it as if it were a flip book and something would animate itself.

I expect persistence of vision.

I get end words from lines. The beginnings are firmly (with)held by my own hands.

Beginnings are only entry points. The poem-as-object has more than one point of entry.

I think of Jean-Luc Godard (again!) releasing the full version of Film Socialisme on the film’s website (now defunct). It was the whole film, but it was a speeded-up version, lasting 15 minutes or less.

When I flip through a book of poems to get a sense of what it is about, I think I am performing a blurb. Or do I mean a précis?

(I ask myself: is it possible to have a photographic memory for text in an unfamiliar language?)

I think: ‘This is impossible’. I decline to say what ‘this’ is.

In the Mahabharata, when the sages in the Naimisam forest ask Sauti to recount the events that form the epic, they ask him to tell them the story in detail. Sauti, in response, gives them a history of the versions of the epic and how Vyasa came to write it and says, ‘It is the wish of the learned in the world to possess the details and the abridgement.’

The poem viewed or watched, then, may be the poem first as précis then in full.

Can a poem ever be only read?


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