How to read a poem closely, Scallop Shell style


Richard O’Brien was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2006 and 2007. He runs a blog called The Scallop Shell, dedicated to the close reading of contemporary poetry. “I want to hold the poems I enjoy – both classic and contemporary – up to the light, turn them around a bit, and see what seems to be going on inside. I want to engage with the poem on its own terms, and see what follows.” You’ve probably done some close reading yourself, in your English classes, so you will have experienced how a poem changes with each new reading. Here Richard shares some tips for diving deep into an individual poem – in this case, one of the winning poems of the 2013 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award.

When I analyse a poem, one of the first things I do is look for similarities and differences. Firstly, similarities within the poem (a pattern of rhyme, rhythm, repetition); differences between sections, tones of voice and types of language; and especially, similarities between things we might not expect to be similar, and differences between things we might not expect to be different.

This essentially comes down to the relationship between form and content: is the poem ordered or disordered, in its appearance or sound? Are the things it speaks about? And is there a tension between the two – a dark, upsetting subject in a neat, clean couplet? Or a happy memory shattered into pieces, scattered across the page? These are the kind of choices that make a poem a poem, rather than the raw material of ideas or emotion from which it springs. The word ‘poet’ literally means ‘one who makes’; a poet is a ‘maker’ as much as a thinker, and that’s why it’s important to attend to form, even if there is no obvious formal structure. 

Phoebe Stuckes


Enough of pulling off high heels to run
Or else waiting alone in unclaimed ugliness.

No more crying out for guitar heroes
Or going back to old loves for the safety.

Let us build bonfires of those unanswered prayers
Let us learn how to leave with clean and empty hearts
Let us escape these attics still mad, still drunk, still raving
Let us vacate these badly lit odd little towns
Let us want none of what anchored our mothers
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
Let us spit and snarl and rattle the hatches
Let us never be conquered
Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles
Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze.

Are a mighty thing
A captive animal, woken with a taste for blood.
Feed it,

You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.

It’s never a bad idea to look at first words or last words – where the poem (or each individual line) is coming from, and where it’s going. Looking at Stuckes’s opening, I can see two oppositions, built around the word ‘or’: “Enough… Or else”; “No more… Or”. But in each case the alternative to the first option isn’t preferable either; neither ‘or’ is better that what went before. These undesirable oppositions offer a sense of entrapment, of restricted possibility, which inscribes in grammar what the poem is already saying about the limited roles in which society places women. I picked out words suggesting roles defined by relationships which supply a need for protection (“old loves”, “safety”, “crying”, “heroes”, “run”) and decorative fashion (“high heels”) versus “ugliness” (and isn’t “unclaimed” an unsettling, sinister word to apply to a person rather than, say, a parcel abandoned at the Post Office?). Against this sense of initial limitation, Stuckes sets two adverbs – “Enough” and “No more”. I’m interested by the force of those words: utterly certain and totalising, they have a scope and a weight which the options they reject do not.

It’s hard to ignore the series of lines beginning “Let us” in the middle of the poem, and when I checked back-and-forth I realised that the first four lines didn’t have any pronouns at all. As such, they seemed to speak for everyone – not the traditional ‘I’ of the writer (which is never used), the “you” addressed or the community of “us” which Stuckes builds, but somehow arriving from nowhere like a proclamation from on high. By contrast, something about the four ‘You’s at the end of the poem seemed to me like an important shift, particularly as two of them begin a line and one is allowed to stand wholly unaccompanied, with a capital letter, which reminded me of how God is often addressed in Christian texts. One major structural pattern that therefore interested me in the poem was that there was a progression from an impersonal, general way of speaking about female experience, to a direct address, a finger pointing out of the white space, to ‘You’ as a reader.

So how does Stuckes get there? By sheer volume, I decided that the “Let us” section was probably doing something important, and its repetition of the first-person plural “us” was clearly central to its aim. I wanted to work out it what it reminded me of, and having a suspicion based on its length, I counted the lines: as well as all beginning the same way, there were ten of them. Given that their contents serve as advice on how a group of people should live, this struck me as strongly reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. The repeated use of the verb phrase “Let us” also led me to the ‘Let us pray’ of a Church liturgy, and so I started hunting for other elements in the poem that had a religious resonance.

I found a reference to “unanswered prayers”, and wondered if the whole poem might therefore be a different kind of prayer, for an action to be carried out by a group of people taking matters into their own hands rather than requesting answers from a higher power. Having already considered the Commandments, I thought “Let us” had a very different spin to it than ‘Thou shalt not’, and wondered what exactly ‘we’ were being urged to do. Looking at the verbs used in this section, I saw that while some were very directly physical – “spit”, “snarl”, and a use of “run” which seemed far more invested with positivity and ownership than the same word in the first line – many were abstract and intellectual concepts, such as “want” and “learn”. Some suggested things to be done right away – an escape, a bonfire – some referred to longer processes, and some insisted “never”, “none”, with the full force of rejection. I noticed that I didn’t want to pause as I read through the list, and realised that Stuckes had mostly chosen to leave out full stops.

Because the last line of the poem was so striking, I wanted to work out what had led up to it in my experience as a reader. I felt like the sense of drive created by the absence of punctuation, coupled with the diversity of the actions, was central to that experience. Stuckes, in the middle section, seemed to be exploring forms of rebellion in a wide range of areas of life – and for me, the combination of variety and danger seemed to connect to the weaponised, resourceful and multi-faceted femininity suggested by the final image: “you Swiss army knife of a woman”. This single spiky metaphor felt to me like the crystallisation of Stuckes’s ideas and techniques. It also does exactly what some of the best metaphors do, which is to find something very similar in two very different things, and to reshape your idea of each; but its conclusive complexity was unlocked for me by focusing on the many smaller differences and similarities which I noticed along the way.

The Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award is open to poets aged 11-17 from all over the world. It’s totally free to enter, and 100 winners receive an amazing selection of prizes. Deadline 31 July 2014. 

Photo of Richard

Richard O’Brien’s first pamphlet, your own devices, was published by tall-lighthouse press in 2009, and his second, The Emmores, by The Emma Press in January 2014. A themed sequence, The Emmores tells the story of a long-distance relationship and features illustrations by Emma Wright. Richard’s work has also appeared in Poetry London, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and The Best British Poetry 2013, and in July 2013 he read at the Royal Albert Hall for a radio broadcast in the BBC Proms Plus Late series. A third pamphlet, A Bloody Mess, is forthcoming this year from Dead Ink/Ink Lines. His blog, The Scallop Shell, is dedicated to the close reading of contemporary poetry, and he lives in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is studying for a Masters in Shakespeare and Creativity.

Published  May, 2014

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