Keeping a reading journal, owning a poem, crocuses

I’ve got into the habit of keeping a pen and notebook handy when I’m reading a book or magazine.  Sometimes I simply copy lines of poetry I like into my journal, other times I might have a go at trying to put into words what it is about a phrase or word that has hi-jacked my emotions and compelled me to read the poem again. I’m hoping that some of my observations will seep into my own work and make me a better writer.

Here are some of the lines that I copied down last week, they’re all taken from a book I’ve been reading a lot of this year, Penelope Shuttle’s Unsent: New & Selected Poems 1980 – 2012. Out of context like this, they might not stop you in your tracks as they did me, but perhaps you’ll be tempted to read the poems they’re taken from, if you’re not already familiar with them.

“The chair recites its stand-alone prayer / again and again”  (In the Kitchen)

“I want to experience the cupboard’s weather”   (Cupboard Hyacinths)

“ flame of orgasm is innocence returning, yours breaks / on me like a sky of connubial indoor rain.” (Overnight)

“, if we ever meet again/ (and how can we?) / it will be in a summer time has lost track of..” (The Repose of Baghdad)

“When Happiness returns, after a long absence, she’s a very small creature indeed..”  (When Happiness returns after a long absence).

It’s likely that you’d choose different lines, if I asked you to highlight your most meaningful extract from the poems, and your experience and understanding won’t be the same as mine. I loved poet and publisher Chris Emery’s comment at the StAnza Poetry Festival a few days ago (I wasn’t there but watched a live webcast) that “the reader has as much ownership of the poem as the poet”. This is certainly evident during a group discussion of a poem and is something that’s been demonstrated recently in writing workshops I’ve run. We always do a lot of reading and talking about poems as well as writing.

One poem I’ve used in workshops is Jen Hadfield‘s Prenatal Polar Bear which begins like this:

“He hangs in formaldehyde / like a softmint or astronaut..”.

I use this as an example of a surprising and unusual simile and it’s always interesting to discover the different responses to this image. Just recently people have said they’re disgusted by it, that it made them think of a masticated mint, covered in saliva. Some were baffled as to why the writer had chosen it at all. Someone said that formaldehyde has a bitter, slightly minty, chemical smell; someone else observed that a prenatal bear would be without fur, so bald like a mint; one woman said the poem made her think of the advertisement for a hard mint which used a cartoon polar bear!

I find the many different responses fascinating and also helpful; just making a list of the different ideas and associations could trigger new work and, indeed, is another writing exercise in itself.

But all this is a reminder that there are no right or wrong ways to read a poem and that a reader’s interpretation is just as valid as a writer’s intention. I wrote a blogpost about this last year, when people responded in different ways to a poem that I had written.


In other news, the crocuses have come out again, as they do every year, which I’m grateful for because I really am a rubbish gardener. It is bitterly cold in the west of England today and tiny flakes of snow are falling as I finish this post, but Spring is surely on the way. Perhaps the daffodils will be out by the time I write my next post.

7 thoughts on “Keeping a reading journal, owning a poem, crocuses”

  1. I like the idea of keeping a notebook handy when reading. I always do have one to hand but use it for jotting ideas for my writing rather than recording thoughts about what I’ve read. There’s no doubt though that what I read does perculate through into what ends up on my pages.


  2. Nice post Josephine, I like the examples of different readings of line of the same poem. And it’s pretty funny when the discussion gets heated. As if there’s a right answer. Must check out Penelope Shuttle’s work, thanks for the prompt. A notebook -yes -I do have one, but I keep it by the bed and so it’s never with me during the day. I often want to make a note of something when I’m driving, which is particularly annoying.


  3. I have several notebooks on the go which can be confusing. I keep a small book in my bag – haven’t solved the while driving dilemma but at least it’s to hand once I’ve parked the car – plus I keep separate notebooks for blogging/diary/reading/writing. Probably too many but compartmentalizing in this way fits with my brain! Thanks for commenting.


  4. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere without a notebook and pen since I have been old enough to carry a purse. Like you I always carry a small one but I also have multiple notebooks for different subjects. I keep a personal journal online (private) and also dream journals that are in long hand. I find myself taking notes wherever I’m at. I scribble down prose and poetry, citations, ideas for future blog posts, doodles, mandalas and small drawings in my notebooks.


  5. Yes, using private blogs is a good idea. I have several and use one for drafting new work although I don’t use it every day. Writing prose I prefer to type straight onto a computer and then redraft by hand but I always write poetry in longhand first, then transfer to a blog/wordfile once I have a first draft.


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