West Chester University
Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Photo by John Rosenthal
One semester a student wrote that a great poem leaves you with a “sense of personal gain.” I thought that was well said and so very true; I couldn’t agree more. Because you don’t tend to easily forget the poems that mean a lot to you, a poem can be like a gift—something you take away with you that will never leave you. It can be like a burst of color on a drab day. It can be the one thing that shines in the washed out montage of meaningless verbal litter that populates our everyday lives and everyday speech.
If poems are so catchy, why would we need to talk about strategies for reading it? The simple answer is that reading poetry is not like reading any other kind of language, except maybe the language of advertising.
It may seem strange, but advertising and poetry have a lot in common. Like ads, poems:
But unlike ads, poems tend to express complex, deep or multifaceted feelings rather than simple, sentimental, superficial, or canned emotion. If there’s drama in a poem, it’s more likely to be subtle, or tragic, or truly comic instead of melodramatic or silly. But the most important distinction to observe is that poems do not manipulate readers the way ads do; they are not propaganda messages seeking to control or manipulate your thinking and behavior. Similarities and differences aside, it’s possible that being good at interpreting the subtle, unspoken messages in ads makes a person more adept at interpreting poetry. It’s the same process f observation and inference. You observe the imagery in a typical beer commercial, for example, and are led to infer that the right bottle of beer is the key to companionship, popularity, happiness, liberty, and success. (Never mind that this might not be the whole truth; never mind the realities of alcoholism, binge drinking, or date rape.) This is the same process you would use to interpret, critically or uncritically, the images in poems.
As wonderful and easy as some poems are right away, it’s true that sometimes reading poetry—more so than reading prose—can seem a little bit like work. It can be hard getting that suitcase 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. But that tough to open poem actually be 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:
Adjust your attitude. You may have to allow for the fact that reading poetry can be a little bit challenging, a little bit of work. Don’t expect it to be like other kinds of reading. You can’t read a poem like you read the newspaper, or a cereal box. More often than not, reading poetry requires really close attention, close reading skills, your active participation. Other times it just flows inside you and you haven’t done a thing.
But when called upon, you have to be willing to give close, conscious attention to the language the writer uses, which means being ready to analyze word choices and to be receptive to the nuances of sound and especially to the poet’s use of connotative language. Poets don’t use words for their dictionary definitions alone. They choose the word that will have the greatest possible emotional, intellectual, or visceral resonance. A word that will reverberate with impact, a word that won’t be bland. Besides words, poets use form creatively, too, adding meaning just by structure alone (a haiku, for example, or a sonnet). To really read a poem, you 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 open up and risk feeling what the text provokes you to feel. It’s a kind of a dance that takes place between you and those words on the page. When you’ve danced with the text enough, a poem will emerge.
Learn the conventions of the poetic craft. Reading poetry becomes easier, too, once you learn some of the more obvious poetic “conventions.” Although there are more “kinds” of poems than perhaps any other literary genre (more than we can list or cover), it’s possible to get familiar with a few of the more obvious 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—the language they speak.
A few conventions that poets make use of universally are things like using words in highly conscious, concrete, specific ways, and using figurative language. Note the poet’s use of literal and figurative imagery. Universally, poets use lines and stanzas. Note the poem’s particular form, or structure. Poets work with the musical quality of words more than any other kind of writer; the poet works with meter and rhythm, and other sound devices like rhyme, alliteration, consonance, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Note the poem’s sound. A interesting sounding poem can be physically pleasing in and of itself, but sound might also contribute to the poem’s 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.
READING POETRY: ARRIVING AT A THREE-HEADED APPROACH
Reading poetry deeply can take the form of close textual analysis—and you can arrive at objective kinds of interpretations that way—but another approach is to invite the poem to inhabit you more personally. This is the way most people who aren’t studying literature professionally prefer to read.
To illustrate, let’s consider this brief little gem by Robert Frost, who said that “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”
Dust of Snow
By Robert Frost
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
From a reader-response perspective, one of the great pleasures of reading poetry is the opportunity it provides for personal reflection. The personal connections you make with a poem are often more important than their objective “meaning.” Billy Collins and Archibald MacLeish are both saying this in their respective, colorful ways in the two classic poems you looked in the handout “Defining Poetry”—“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins and “Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish.
“Dust of Snow” 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, its 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:
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. To achieve that brevity, each detail must have been chosen with utter care. For example:
Readers also take pleasure in the kind of readings that are less analytical and more subjective, sometimes highly personal. When you read a certain poem, you may be reminded of a personal experience, and the feelings evoked by the poem might remind you of that experience. If so, follow those memories down. Pursue their significance. You may be surprised at what you’re led to discover, and the kind of meaning you make, not out of the poem merely, but out of your own experience as a result of reading the poem.
“Dust of Snow” is just such a poem for me. In fact, I take Frost literally when he says that this crow of his “saved” some part of him, or his day (same thing). 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 drift back to my habit, rationalizing (pathetically) the whole time, and right on the verge of just giving in. Then one Monday I went to work and an older friend of mine named Kaye happened to greet me with a simple, familiar “how are you?” This was my cue to grumble about “Monday…” etc., etc. Then she asked me if I was still quitting. She knew I was trying to stop smoking. I told her I was really close to drifting back, that I wasn’t sure I could really stick with it much longer. Then she gave me a very sharp, serious look that is hard to forget, even 16 years later. She produced a piece of paper from her doctor that seemed to materialize in a blur. It was a form with various horrible diseases listed all over it and little check boxes next to each terrible disease. The ones that were checked for Kaye were “Emphysema” and “Lung Cancer.” I was devastated. I had no idea what to say. She had a tough cough, but everyone has a tough cough in February. To make that long, painful story short, she told me in no uncertain terms to “Stop drifting back and quit and quit for good.” And then she died three months later, in May. But addiction is a powerful enemy, and as I left work that Monday afternoon, I somehow still wanted to smoke. I remember leaving work and sitting in traffic, miserable and conflicted about the whole thing, searching for some excuse to keep smoking, and thoroughly ashamed and disgusted with myself as a result. If I didn’t want to die, why was I trying to kill myself? I couldn’t figure it out. And then, while I was waiting in traffic, I happened to catch sight of a massive black crow at the very top of an enormous bare winter tree. This immediately absorbed my eye; I’m very drawn to trees—and this one was ancient and striking, especially with the crow at the top. I sat there staring at that crow. What did that crow see that I couldn’t? What did this crow understand that I never would? I figured that crow must have been able to see for miles all around. It must have had a spectacular view of the setting sun. What was it thinking? It sat up there, looking all around. At what? At that moment that plain old crow seemed more majestic than an eagle. It was perfectly “above it all”—the image of freedom, transcendence. Looking down at the world from a higher perspective. Free. At that miserable moment all I wanted was to melt away and BE that crow. Maybe for that moment that’s what happened. All I know is that when I got home, I wrote something (very forgettable) about that crow. But more amazingly, by the time I got home that day ALL of my conflict was utterly dissolved. Everything went in the trash—every last cigarette, ashtray—everything. I attributed all my strong resolve to Kaye. I dedicated it to her. But there was something about that crow, too. When years later I came across this poem by Frost and when I remember it all now, I realize that noticing that crow, fixing my attention on that crow, was an important piece of the puzzle. Seeing that crow helped me see the possibility of being free—and it was that attraction to freedom that helped me take that last step toward a deep resolve to quit my addiction once and for all. The truly amazing thing about this whole experience was how easy it was after that. I never struggled again, was never tempted to go back ever again, and I’d been smoking since age 11; at that time in my late twenties I was already an 18 year veteran of the habit. So to bring this reminiscence to its conclusion, this poem has a deep significance to me personally, beyond all of the objective, artistic qualities we can observe in it. This crow saved this guy, and there was this crow that “saved” me, too, and I immediately connected with this poem in a very personal way.
To sum, up, here’s the essence of the “three-headed approach” to reading poetry:
SOUND AND SENSE: “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 the kind of scene he creates in this poem today. Does that mean the poem is no longer relevant? You can decide for yourself after reading it. Consider how you can use the other two approaches (#1, #3 above)—enjoying the sound and the literal meaning of the imagery, or objectively analyzing the poem to interpret its suggested meanings.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
SOUND AND LITERAL MEANING
There’s a regular rhythm (iambic tetrameter) and rhyme (aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd), which may have a different effect on various readers. Some might find the sound to be soothing, others might find it annoyingly simplistic or sing-songy. But either way, the rhythm and the rhyme give the poem a solid structure: each stanza has the same basic rhythm and the rhyme scheme interlocks the stanzas together. The last verse is the most intense, as all four lines rhyme instead of the usual three, and the last line is a repetition.
In the first stanza, the situation is established; a man is passing through the countryside and stops on his way home to admire the beauty of fresh fallen snow on the surrounding forest. In the second stanza, the speaker projects himself into the mind of his horse, conjecturing about his horse’s practical concerns. The speaker imagines that his horse thinks it’s “queer” they’d be stopping just to stand in the woods for a quiet moment, and in imagining this he seems to be attributing to him a rudimentary power of reason and a practicality he seems keenly aware he himself is not exhibiting. How weird, he imagines his horse (that practical side of himself?) thinking, that we’re stopping in the middle of the woods, with no shelter and no food in sight while it’s so dark out. Horses are usually more than eager to get back to the barn, and in the third stanza the horse communicates by shaking his harness; you can feel him tossing his head impatiently, trying to spur the homeward journey forward. It’s a very realistic scene. And the quiet of the surrounding countryside is further enhanced by the singleness of this little sound. The wind tossing the snowflakes is the only other movement, the only other sound. That extreme quiet and stillness is emphasized. Is it a peaceful stillness, a soft silence? Words like “easy” and “downy” have comforting feel to them. And in the fourth stanza, the speaker tells us straight out that the woods are “lovely, dark, and deep.” He’d like to stay and drink in their loveliness, but he decides to continue home. He has responsibilities to attend to--promises to keep. He’s got “miles to go” before he can enter into that rest, that peace; he’s got miles to go before he can truly sleep.
You could stop there and be satisfied with that way of approaching the poem. You enjoy the sound, get a feel for the movement of the words, and you follow the story on its literal level.
But you could also go on—you could try to analyze the poem’s language more closely, interpret it on another level—reach out for symbolic or connotative meanings. You can choose to interpret “objectively,” asking what a rational, general reader might suppose something means.
In the first stanza, we see that the speaker is familiar with the land; he knows who owns it…he even seems to wink a bit when he mentions this someone who “owns” the woods, implying that the whole idea of “ownership” may be a little absurd; after all the man doesn’t even live on this land that he owns -- he lives in the village. The speaker implies that he’s trespassing but since the owner isn’t there he can’t get in trouble. It’s not an ethical problem for him. He feels no guilt about trespassing. Instead, he’s seizing the moment, taking advantage of his unexpected freedom and privacy to stop and admire the woods without being noticed or watched. He seems to really appreciate this gift of … a moment. After all, if the owner were there, he wouldn’t be able to stop.
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 wintry, 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; 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 or terrifying, 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.
GROUP ACTIVITY: Choose a poem from the reading list and discuss it together using the three approaches explained and exemplified above. Choose poems the poems you like best and (1) observe the poem’s sound and literal meaning; (2) objectively analyze the poem’s meanings; and (3) read the poem subjectively, expressively, impressionistically, emphasizing your own personal experience in responding to the poem’s cues.
Questions? Contact me.
All materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright ©
2001-2008 by Stacy Tartar Esch.
The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.