Elizabeth Bishop Collides with Mockingjay

Autumn Trees The Hanging Tree To a Tree

The other night, I took Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems and a glass of red wine upstairs to the bathtub while my kids hung out in the family room with their dad. I call this combo my “mom medicine.”

I started off with some of Bishop’s well-known pieces, like “Filling Station,” “The Armadillo,” and “One Art,” inhaling some of the beautiful, witty lines I hadn’t visited since college. Then I flipped back to a section titled, “Poems Written in Youth ”– poems, according to the volume’s Publisher’s Note, that Bishop “would not have reprinted. . .for she was too severe a critic of her own work.”

Of course, that note made me want to read them all the more.

I began to recite some of the lines Bishop wrote when she was a teenager (still exquisite, of course). Then the marching began.

Two weeks ago, I had taken my middle schooler to see Mockingjay, Part 1. At one point in the movie, Katniss, the main character played by Jennifer Lawrence, sings the haunting “The Hanging Tree.” My daughter sat transfixed. And she wasn’t alone. The song quickly moved up the charts upon the movie’s release.

That night, my daughter taught the song to her younger sister, and now, to my annoyance, the two were singing the dirge-like tune quite aggressively, marching throughout the house. Their pounding feet sent waves through my bathwater.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out
For his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

And so forth, for several more stanzas. It is a disturbingly beautiful song, but now I wanted to keep reading the Bishop poem open before me:

To a Tree

Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,
For you ask nothing of a friend but this:
To lean against the window and peer in
And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss

For me, who stand behind its framework stout,
Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,
To lean against the window and peer out,
Admiring infinites’mal leaves.

Of course. I was getting distracted reading a young girl’s poem about a tree because my two young girls were marching and singing about a tree.

But then the connections began to hit me. One scene is haunting and one comforting; however, both capture the intimacy and mystery of our relationships with trees–how the young are drawn to them irresistibly as places to love, grieve, and imagine. As places to find oneself or lose oneself. Trees are our mirror selves of growth, change, and loss, limb by swaying limb.

I won’t get into any mystical theories about how or why these poetic connections happen, but they seem to happen for me all the time. Most people would probably say they are coincidences. Fine. I can accept that. But even with coincidences, why not have a little fun? Pick up a book of poems, and start reading them aloud. Don’t read with a goal to “get” the poems. Enjoy the sounds and images and see how they touch on the events, experiences, and feelings in your own life. Write these connections in the margins. They may change tomorrow or the next day. No matter. See how the poems speak to and reinforce your day now. These connections will make the poems more real. And perhaps your life.

Reading poetry. Strange things do happen here. And that is sufficient bliss for me.

Photo by pslee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

5 Great Tips for Reading Poetry Aloud

Yellow Flower How to Read a Poem Aloud

Formal poetry-recitation projects and competitions are important artistic ventures. However, sometimes we just want—or need—to read a poem aloud spontaneously, whether during a class discussion, solo reading time, or Mischief Café.

How can we read a poem aloud in a way that captures its essence?

The following five tips will help you celebrate a poem by reading it aloud with intentionality and confidence. We’ll use Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese 43,” one of the most-recited poems, as a model.

Sonnets from the Portuguese 43

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

1) Pay Attention to Lines (But Not Too Much)

When reading a poem aloud, remember, you are dealing partly with lines. Poet David Wright, author of The Small Books of Bach, likens a poetic line to a measure of music. Just as measures in a musical piece flow and connect with one another without jarring separations, so poetry lines keep their shapes, their individual counts.

When reading a poem aloud, think of the end of a line as signaling a slight pause, even if the line ends without punctuation. On the other hand, if you linger too long, you end up with a kind of marching song or limerick effect. Remember, lingering isn’t loitering. What is the impact of letting these lines from Browning’s sonnet linger for just a moment (but not too long)?

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

2) Pay attention to sentences

One of the top complaints poetry readers receive regards their use of Poet Voice. What is the trademark characteristic of Poet Voice? Reading every sentence, including declaratives, like a question? Perhaps that habit removes emotional depth and variety from a poem?

Paying attention to sentences means paying attention to punctuation. Often, beginning readers of poetry gloss over punctuation, not only employing Poet Voice but ignoring the subtle differences between commas, semicolons, colons, exclamation points, and dashes.

Browning’s sonnet employs the question mark at the beginning, of course, and a semicolon near the end. How might this mid-line break influence a reader’s expression? What would a reader lose if he or she were to treat the semicolon like “just another comma?”

Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,

3) Slow down and let the language come alive

Remember, you are reading a poem, not a market report. Don’t think about communicating information, but emotion and story. The poet makes language choices that are as subtle—and powerful—as our own facial expressions and body language. When you come across sound-play in a poem, such as alliteration, internal rhyme or repetition, don’t be afraid to emphasize it. A poem is a very small story, in its way, and your emotional expressions will help tell it.

How can you emphasize, yet vary, the repetition in these lines?

I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use

4) Target a line or two as your “nerve center” for highest expression

Of course every word of a poem deserves careful consideration. But as a reader, you will most likely find a line or two that really resonate with you. Luxuriate over those lines. Slow them down; adjust the volume high or low; pause between words. Don’t hold back.

Consider two of my favorites:

I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

I connect with these two lines because they seem to speak to a long-term, deep relationship. As one who has been married for twenty-one years (and married at twenty-one), I find a gentle, but strong, beauty here. Even without punctuation, I feel the need to focus on “thee” with a slight pause after the word and draw out “every.” I can practically whisper “sun and candle-light,” mirroring the light’s peaceful flickers.

5) Be human

Remember, you are speaking to people. Even when reading to yourself alone in a room, you’re sharing poetry with a person worthy of your attention. Keep good public speaking practices in mind, such as confident posture and eye contact. If you can prepare beforehand by memorizing an entire poem or at least the beginning of its lines, do so. If you are reading in the moment, still look up from time to time, and don’t worry if it takes you a moment to find your place. If anything, it will help you slow down the language. Enjoy the moment; it is what the poem was written for.

Photo by Gemma Stiles, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

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How to Read a Poem covers





Coming of Age: How to Read a Poem’s Linebreaks (or Write Them)

Coming of Age Monarch Caterpillar

During my recent visit to a state poetry society’s annual meeting, a man asked me how to write free verse.

“What are the rules?” he asked.

“There are none,” I said. “It’s free.”

“So it’s just random, then?”

“Absolutley not.”

“Then how do you do it?”

“I don’t know. But it takes me a long, long time.”

Free verse gets the lazy rap. It’s what today’s feel-good relativists write because they don’t want to put the intellectual commitment into sonnets and villianelles. In fact, when a formalist reviewed one of my mostly free-verse collections, she wrote that my linebreaks were random, arbritrary. That bothered me—not that she didn’t like my line breaks, but that she assumed I invested no time in the hateful things.

Now time does not always equal consciousness. When I work on my line breaks, I can’t always articulate why I’m doing what I’m doing, but I write, break, re-break, re-stanza, and cut—all while reading aloud—over and over and over, to help my poem come of age. The right line break resonates, rings in the bones. It echoes an emotion or idea in the reader’s brain, often without the reader realizing it until he or she takes some time to explore.

Consider the poem “Tree” by Andrew Hudgins:


I’d like to be a tree. My father clinked
his fork down on his plate and stared at me.
“Boy, sometimes you say the dumbest things.”
You ought to know, I muttered, and got backhanded
out of my chair. Nowadays, when I chop wood
and my hands gum with resin and bark flakes,
I hunker at the tap and wash them human.
But in math class, I’d daydream of my choices:
not hickory or cedar not an oak —
post, red, live, pin, or water oak. Just pine.
If not longleaf, I’d settle for loblolly.
My skin would thicken with harsh bark, my limbs
sprout twigs, my twigs sprout elegant green needles.
Too soon, Miz Gorrie’d call on me. “Why did
you do step four that way?” Who me? It looked
good at the time, I guess — and got invited
to come back after school and guess again.
And that’s when I decided it: scrub pine.

A lot can be said about this poem. Eighteen lines draw up a boy’s history and psyche better than many full-length memoirs. Every time I read it, I find a new angle or receive a new twinge in my heart. At the aforementioned poetry society meeting, several of us discussed the poem for over an hour then used it as a model for our own drafting. Without a doubt, it is a rich piece in its images, figurative language, sounds, and themes.

But for now, let’s look at the first line:

I’d like to be a tree. My father clinked

That last word. It rings like a flung fork. It hits against a plate’s greasy enamel and makes my teeth vibrate. On the heels of a little boy sharing his imagination, an instrument of nourishment and joy becomes a weapon of anger and intimidation.

I know. This past week, my daughter and I disagreed on the respectful qualities of her tone and body language at a groggy 6:30 a.m., and when I couldn’t take the conversation any longer, I threw my coffee spoon in the sink. Stainless steel on stainless steel. Clang.

It was a break, all right. She gathered up her things and left the room.

Sometimes the best way to figure out how, why, or if a line break works is to break the line at other places and compare the effects. What if the line broke after tree? Father? Fork? Down?

Poetry is the heart distilled, words in their most concentrated form. In his poem Introduction to Poetry, Billy Collins advises readers to “. . .drop a mouse into a poem/and watch him probe his way out.” When you crawl around these words, what do you discover? What happens when you linger on the edges, when you let the words make you catch your breath?

Read the poem aloud. Several times. Feel the end words. Then read just the end words themselves.


How do these words work together, work in you as a whole? Of course I’m not going to give you an answer. Mine is different from yours. It’s free verse, after all—in all its clinking, ringing, painstaking coming-of-age glory. And there is nothing random about it.

Photo by LadyDragonflycc, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.