West Chester University
Home Notes for Effective Writing I Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Reading Poetry ~~
Approaching the subject of poetry, two questions arise before all others: what is poetry (which, to me, is the same as asking, "what is good poetry"), and what might be the most satisfying way to read it?
I gave you some definitions to work with, and I asked you consider definitions you carried already, and, based on some of the interesting response papers you wrote, you've already made some decisions about which definitions you think are useful.
A powerful poem, you said, can be defined in different ways, depending on the reader -- which I agree is a fair qualification to begin with. What's powerful to one person may not be to another. But that's part of the wonder of it all. What you thought was just a bore might not be once you see someone else's perspective of it-that's the value of looking at these things together rather than just individually. You might pick up some new assumptions about poetry-revise your old ones, and begin to enjoy poems in a new way, as a result of studying them together in this class. Or you might not. I hope you do!
What makes a powerful poem? Last semester, students replied:
Your own class' responses will appear here soon.
What is a poem? Before we pursue a reflection on poetic "craft" (the ways in which writers achieve all of those aims we just identified), consider these informal analogies.
I think of a poem as being like a really tightly packed suitcase. This is the analogy: you're going on a vacation. A long weekend vacation, and you're not sure what to bring. So you throw just about everything you own into a tightly packed, barely closed little weekend- sized suitcase, which provides a nice neat boundary around all your stuff, holding it in place. But now imagine you need to get out your sweatshirt because your best friend needs to borrow it. You know the suitcase is all neatly packed, and it will be a disaster trying to find that thing, but you say, go ahead, you open it up. You can find, it yours. To me, that best friend is like a reader coming to a great poem. The poem is that impossibly stuffed-tight suitcase and the reader wants something from it. And the very minute that reader makes the slightest move to open the latch or the zipper-whoosh!-everything that's been stuffed in comes flying out. That's like the meaning flying out in every direction when we start to analyze rich poetry. It can be that emotionally, intellectually volcanic. It's amazing.
Like one student wrote last semester, a great poem leaves you with a "sense of personal gain." It's like a gift, a burst of color, a priceless crystal gem sparkling in the washed out collage of meaningless verbal litter that populates our everyday lives and everyday speech.
But sometimes reading poetry is a little bit like work. It can be hard getting that zipper to budge. Sometimes not. A poem that requires a bit of work isn't necessarily a bad poem, although some of you might think so. It may end up being well worth the effort.
If a poem doesn't reach out and slap you in the face on your first read-through, what can you do to help things along?
Here's the short list, followed by a short elaboration:
First, you may have to adjust your attitude, and allow reading poetry to be a little bit challenging, a little bit of work. Sometimes reading poetry requires really close attention, close reading skills, your active participation.
You have to be willing to give close, conscious attention to the language the writer uses, ready to analyze word choices and to be receptive to the nuances of sound and connotative language. You have to think about the creative ways poets use all the varieties of structures available to them, and what meaning these structures add to the poem. You even have to be willing to perform flights of fancy, trusting your own imagination to take you someplace the poet has conjured. But above all you have to be willing to risk feeling what the text provokes you to feel. When you've danced with the text enough, a poem will emerge.
Although there are more "kinds" of poems than perhaps any other literary genre, it's possible to get familiar with a few poetic "conventions," the tools of the trade, so to speak. Sometimes getting familiar with these conventions can make reading poetry more satisfying because you become more familiar with "how" poets generally write.
A few conventions that poets make use of universally are things like using words in concrete specific ways, using figurative language. Poets universally use lines, stanzas. Many use rhyme and rhythm, and other tricks to make the sound of words pleasing to the ear. The sound poems make can be physically pleasing; but the sound might also contribute to the intellectual, emotional, or spiritual impact. Rhyme, rhythm, and verse are all important elements of a poem's being, and for some poets, meaning becomes secondary to sound, or at the very least, equally important.
To help you get more out of your reading of poetry, you can also follow some of the suggestions provided in your textbook: pp. 564-65, or follow Professor John Lyle's advice (see my weblog) -- he has some good practical advice as well.
READING POETRY: A THREE-HEADED APPROACH
Reading poetry deeply often requires the kind of close analysis discussed in these two sources, but another approach is to invite the poem to inhabit you more personally.
Consider this brief little gem by Robert Frost.
One of the pleasures of reading poetry is the opportunity it provides for personal reflection. This poem presents something that seems like a simple moment, but as soon as you think it's that simple, and you're ready to let it float out with the tide, it's larger significance starts ebbing back in. After I read "Dust of Snow," I found myself asking any number of questions that fed a quiet, private contemplation. What are the reasons for mood changes? Why is this brief encounter with a wild animal, the crow, able to lighten this speaker's mood? How would I feel if this happened to me? What kind of relationship does the speaker in the poem have with nature which "saves" him? What is my own relationship with nature? Has it ever "saved" me? Does my environment bring me into contact with nature? Does it allow me to have a similar kind of experience as this? What other kinds of encounters have I had just by virtue of being in my environment that have affected me in positive or negative ways?
In this brief poem, Frost invites us to imagine a scene, to imaginatively project ourselves into his character's shoes, and see what it feels like. You can observe and appreciate what's happening on a literal level, or you can try, through reflection and contemplation, to project yourself further in and explore the scene's larger significance with the kinds of questions raised above.
A close examination of the language of this poem, a deep reading of it, uncovers a richness just beneath a surface simplicity. And that's part of the pleasure here, too. Discovering that depth. Complexity wrapped in brevity is usually artful. Why a "crow"? Why a "dust of snow" instead of a big avalanche? Why a "hemlock" tree and not a maple, or an oak, or another kind of pine? Why does the speaker emphasize that it was his "heart" and not his "mind" which experienced a "change of mood"? In what way do you think he means the experience "saved" the "part of a day"? Why a "part"? Which part? Close readers ask these kinds of questions, with a kind of faith that the answers might reveal a bright, hidden pearl inside the shell.
Readers also take pleasure in the kind of readings that are highly personal. You may be reminded of a personal experience after reading a poem, and the feelings evoked by the poem might remind you of that experience. If so, follow those memories down. Pursue their significance. "Dust of Snow" is just such a poem for me.... I remember when I was trying to quit smoking and I was having a terrible time of it, like most long-time smokers who try to quit. I was about a month into things, and beginning to pathetically drift back, rationalizing the whole time, and on the verge of just giving in. Then one Monday I went to work and an older friend of mine (Kaye) asked me how I was doing. I started grumbling about "Monday..." when she asked me if I was still quitting cigarettes. I told her I was drifting back. Then she gave me a serious look and turned around. Next thing I know, she whipped out these doctors' papers, and pointed to the little checked boxes--these awful boxes that read "Emphysema" and "Lung Cancer." I couldn't believe it. I knew she had a cough, but everyone has a cough in February. Well, to make that long, painful story short, she told me in no uncertain terms to "Stop drifting." And then she died three months later. But addiction is a powerful enemy, and as I left work that afternoon, I still wanted to smoke. I remember sitting in traffic on the way home, miserable and conflicted about the whole thing, searching for some way to keep smoking, and thoroughly ashamed and disgusted with myself as a result. I didn't want to die, so why did I want to kill myself? I couldn't figure it out. And then, as I was waiting in that traffic jam, I caught sight of a big black crow at the very top of a really huge tree. It immediately struck me. What did that crow see that I couldn't? It must be able to see for miles all around. It probably had a great view of a really beautiful winter sunset (it was around 4:30 in the afternoon). It was just up there, looking all around. What did it see? At that moment that crow was more majestic than an eagle. It was totally "above it all"--it was the image of freedom, transcendence. It was up there looking down from a higher perspective. Free. At that moment I wanted to BE that crow. Maybe for that moment I was. All I know is that from that moment on, ALL of my conflict was utterly dissolved. I went home and threw everything away, in the trash--all my cigarettes, ashtrays, anything that reminded me of smoking. I attributed all my actions to Kaye. I dedicated my resolve to her. But when I came across that poem, and when I remember it all now, it wasn't just her. It was seeing that crow. It wasn't until I saw that crow, saw the possibility, felt the possibility of freedom that I finally arrived at a deep resolve to quit. And the truly amazing thing about it was how easy it was after that. I never struggled again, and I'd been smoking since age 11, an 18 year veteran of full strength Marlboros. That was nine years ago. So this poem has a deep significance to me personally, beyond all of the objective, artistic qualities we can observe in it.
The point that follows from all this can be summed up as follows. Poems can be appreciated in at least these three ways (hence the "three-headed approach"):
A CASE IN POINT: "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a very well known poem by Robert Frost. Even so, contemporary readers may be challenged to imagine this kind of scene today. Does that mean the poem is no longer significant? You can decide for yourself after reading it. Before you decide, though, consider how you can pursue meaning on several levels -- by reading for an appreciation of its sound and sense, your own personal reflection, or for a more formal exploration of its meaning through close analysis.
Sound and Sense
So we see him stopping, but we don't know why yet. Maybe he doesn't know himself, yet. Maybe he's a little ambivalent about the scene. Something about it calls to him and he finds himself stopping, vibrating and resonating to the beauty of it, not asking for meaning, but unconsciously open to it if some kind of message reveals itself. On a symbolic or subconscious level, the snow strongly reminds us that the poem is set in winter, which is widely known to be an archetypal image of death. Yet the image of the snow is wrapped in comforting language which gives this wintery, deathly scene a palpable allure. There's a positive tinge to what might otherwise seem bleak.
In the second stanza, we can see how this man is wholly at one and in tune with his surroundings, including his horse. That he wonders what his horse is "thinking" shows his interest in projecting his thoughts imaginatively outside himself, into nature, and he takes a certain pleasure seeing the scene from what he imagines to be his horse's perspective. His horse is the practical one, he muses, while he sits here dreaming, watching the snow fill up the woods, blanketing them in a peaceful, restful sleep, their snowy grave. He just stands there dreaming, and thinking about his horse's feelings is the one thing that brings him back to reality. Death comes calling again in the archetypal image of night, as we're told this is the "darkest evening of the year." It's the winter solstice, getting close to Christmas, which may be a significant, telling detail for some people. There's a lot of depression around Christmas time.
In the third stanza, our speaker is brought back to reality, barely. He's still drawn to the scene, evidenced by the way he notes the quietness of the country after hearing the harness bells shake. The "easy" wind and "downy" flake further extend the suggestion that there's an ease, a softness, a comforting, peaceful, relaxing quality to this death-invested scene (the dark night, the winter, the snow covering the forest like the ground over a grave). Although he's considered the needs of his horse, he can't easily draw himself away from the beauty of the woods. The quietness and the solitude are further symbolic reminders of death. (And perhaps we're talking about a symbolic rather than an actual death -- something psychological or spiritual rather than physical.)
In the fourth stanza, he seems to realize what the attraction has been; he comes forth and admits to himself his attraction to death. What has caused this attraction is ambiguous, however. Maybe his life is hard and death would seem like a welcomed rest from toil. The thought of resting alone on a quiet countryside, buried deep under where no harm can befall, is quite lovely, quite tempting. The promises he refers to are also ambiguous -- are they promises to himself, to his loved ones, to his horse? The resolution is as peaceful as the scene that has unfolded. It seems that this moment has given the man a rare opportunity to reaffirm life; though he's been attracted to death throughout the poem, in the end it is life -- with all of its toils and troubles -- which ultimately wins. And yet the speaker seems to have gained some measure of comfort, some kind of internal reconciliation, for his hard life by recognizing the deep and lovely rest that awaits him once he does die. Instead of being morbid, death becomes a well earned rest for those who have traveled the miles, met their obligations well. On the symbolic level, the speaker now rejects death in favor of meeting his earthly responsibilities. He wants to earn his sleep--he wants to reach death having lived a full life.
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