Pacific Ocean, Oregon Coast. A Poetic Day.

Hi everyone. The Northwest Poets’ Concord in Newport, Oregon is a gathering of amazing poets. David Biespiel gave the keynote address: “A Poet’s Three R’s.” Below is what I got (and my commentary) from the first poem which he spent the most time on! – katie

At the Northwest Poets’ Concord in Newport, Oregon, David Biespiel taught us how to read a poem without actually reading it. Here are my notes which include some or most of what Biespiel said along with my questions and musings. (My questions and comments begin with a dash [-].)

– Could this technique of reading without reading be helpful for other things? Like how to change a tire without actually changing it? How to run a mile without actually running it?

Biespiel’s first example was The Illiterate (William Meredith). He instructed us to read only the first line:

“Touching your goodness, I am like a man

What is goodness?

“I am like a man” raises questions of what is (one) (her) (it) and the question of being not a man but like a man.

Next, Biespiel shows us the last line of Meredith’s poem:

“That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?”

Here is mystery of the simultaneous coexistence of “rich” and “orphaned” and “beloved.” Not impossible given a nice estate and some romantic luck. Biespiel asks, “what words are of interest?”

– I think we have a road map with no clear route between origination and destination.

The third step (Biespiel says) is to read the last word of each line and see if any of the words connect to the title of the poem, The Illiterate.  Lines end with these words:


– I am interested in the rhyming scheme (a b b a [a b b a] c d e c d e) since, as far as we know without having read the entire poem, someone or anyone, a man, or the beloved might be “the illiterate.”

Biespiel next extracts words that interest him, but still does not read the poem in its entirety: goodness truth afraid shame uncle parents dark girl

– The words “letter” and “orphaned” also leave me hanging.

– The man sitting next to me in the audience has run out of patience with quite a loud harrumph.

At last, Biespiel says he’ll check the first word of each line for anything of interest. . .

– Now I see, he’s walking along a beach looking for interesting shells.

– What is this discussion? I’m half in the camp of the man in the next seat. Biespiel plays two diving clips. One a synchronized dive by two male divers where (the practiced eye sees, Biespiel says) one diver is slightly out-of-sync, finishing too early (or too late, I don’t recall). The other dive is Mark Lenzi’s Gold Medal Olympic dive. How many somersaults did he make? Biespiel asks us, the students, the audience. It takes a practiced eye (or coaching), he says, to count action that fast.

– What does a diver see, I wonder, a spot on the water or everything spinning? It seems unlikely that fast spinning helps a poem succeed.

Biespiel continues: “The Poem requires emotional investment and a strong attitude.”

– Indeed, I was taking notes.

– What about trust? Must you trust your poem? Trust the ideas to bring them to fruition? I am now fixated on the risk-takers who need a strong attitude, who must have topnotch skills and their equipment in order, and trust that no one has overlooked anything—those are the rock climbers, parachutists, deep-sea divers, astronauts. . . .

– Is “stubborness” a synonym for “strong attitude”?

Eventually Biespiel allowed us to see and read the entire poem which now (after three-quarters hour of pedantic discussion) seems absolutely obvious.

And for about the tenth time today I’ve thought about the line I read in Richard Hugo’s book The Triggerting Town where he described an arbitrary rule he had devised when he was young:

. . . when I made a sound I felt was strong, a sound I liked specially, I’d make a similar sound three to eight syllables later. Of course it would often be a slant rhyme. Why three to eight? Don’t ask. You have to be silly to write poems at all.” (10)

Maybe you have to be silly to devise roadmaps through a poem like the blind men who felt the different parts of the elephant and only if they combined their knowledge could they get an elephant from the experience.

Now, though, after David Biespiel’s lecture, I am well acquainted with The Illiterate but am not certain I’ll abandon my hasty scanning of new poems, or perhaps this is what I already do, look at the page to see which words jump out at me first. Below is William Meredith’s poem in its entirety, and a link to an article about the poem by David Biespiel.

The Illiterate by William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.
His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

— William Meredith

Another version of Biespiel speaking of W Meredith’s poem.