I have a friend who writes poetry. I find this admirable. Poetry is not exactly the signature art form of this young millennium. There are reasons for this, of course — most of them reflecting rather large gaps in the modern cultural curriculum. Most of us did not attend a hoighty-toighty Ivy League prep school and have not had, in our formative years, the good fortune to come across a Peter Keating (the character played by the much lamented Robin Williams in Dead Poets’ Society).
By the time we get to college, many of our literary habits are already rather fixed and firm and those intimate freshman English classes with 400 in a lecture hall are not the best soil in which to nourish the poetic sensibility.
Without that good mentoring, most of us are at sea with a very flimsy rudder in this ocean of verse with its symbolic depths, cunning figures of speech, obscure references to classical mythology, arcane rhyming schemes, and ambivalent meanings. It doesn’t help much when you pick up an anthology and some literary critic blathers on about the use of synecdoche in the Wasteland. I venture that most of us just turn away in frustration.
Why does this matter? It matters because for the vast majority of the time since we started scratching symbols on caves in what is now France, the most profound, endlessly suggestive and mysterious surmises about the human condition have been written in verse. In fact, the dominance of literary prose in the artistic pantheon is not venerable at all. As late as Napoleon’s time the writing of novels was a not-quite respectable activity — an unsurprising back-seat art in the age of Wordsworth, Shelley Keats, Byron and Coleridge.
So, for most of us, interpreting poetry is hard, ergo we need some help. I never sat at the feet of a Peter Keating, but I have been able to acquire some invaluable resources and learned a few tricks along the way which I would like to pass on.
One of the very best primers I have, is a book called How Does a Poem Mean? Odd title, isn’t it? Well less so than you might think. The more predictable question, what does a poem mean is actually a much more slippery slope. No poem can be adequately paraphrased in prose, if it could be why bother? Examining what goes on underneath the words, the way form is built from images, rhythms, ideas and references is actually the only way to really get at meaning, although let me say again, the meaning of no great poem is ever fully construed. Another way of saying this, to quote John Ciardi the author of this book, is that “a poem is inseparable from the performance of itself.”
Some other hints for those who wish to dip their toes into these deep waters – start with the moderns and work backwards. Shakespeare and Dante are probably not the place to start in spite of the fact that you were force-fed Hamlet and Othello in high school. They are almost impossible to read without dense interpretive annotation. This makes it so hard to get momentum going that a poetic neophyte comes out of that experience with a few ringing phrases and a frustrated sense that they have bounced off the surface of two of the greatest minds who ever lived. It is actually quite odd that the curriculum bright bulbs throw Shakespeare at students before Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Another hint – read many poems by the same poet. All poets use similar tricks in different poems. (It is okay to call literary devices, metaphors, rhyming schemes, etc. tricks. Poetry is a kind of game play and if more people thought of it this way, verse would seem a whole lot less daunting.)
Do spend a little time learning about figures of speech and rhyming schemes. Synecdoche incidentally, just means using a word with a broader class meaning to stand for something more specific, as in the cattle rancher who boasts that he moved a thousand head (the word cattle left out) to the freight yard last week. It can also mean the opposite technique. These devices are not intrinsically hard to understand in spite of their weighty Greek-originated names.
Read poems aloud – a better way to master rhythms. This works fine in my family because my wife and children assume I have been talking to myself for years.
Don’t expect to read a poem once and get it. Multiple readings are essential in most cases. I suspect that the growing impatience and attention span issues that seem to exist in our increasingly light-speed digital world are bad mojo for poets new and old. There quite simply is some blood, sweat and toil associated with learning a poem. Again, the game analogy is telling. A game is a deliberate making of something difficult for the satisfaction of overcoming that difficulty. A poem can be, at least partially, looked at the same way.
There are good literary critics around who have spent their lives plumbing the inexhaustible depths of this literary form. I will supply a list at some point; but Cleanth Brooks “The Well-Wrought Urn” is one fine example.
What I am advocating here is not the easiest of tasks, but for those of us who, as they get older, find life more rather than less mysterious and who want to orient their lives to find as much significance as possible while the clock doth tick away, the effort is well worth it. I leave you with one of my favorite shorter poems. How does it mean? That is up to you.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable, — and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see .