Interpreting Poetry

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Interpreting Poetry


1 Introduction

2 Sound Patterning

3 Images

4 Word Choice

5 Metaphors

6 Themes

7 Tone

8 Structure

9 All together



Interpreting Poetry[edit]

 

Introduction[edit]

This book develops the set of interpretive techniques needed for a reader to respond to various out-of-the-ordinary uses poets make of words. Running through these interpretive techniques are the following more abstract concerns: foregrounding, associating, and patterning. These ideas will be explained more fully as we focus on each of the following traits of poetry: sound patterning, images and image patterns, themes, word choice, figurative language, and finally structure and tone. Many of the poems in the book are my own, but I will also bring in poems by other writers to illustrate a point.
 Here as a poem that "asks" the reader to see and hear the simplest kind of sound patterning, end rhyme:

To my Wife[edit]

If love is like a bridge or maybe like a grudge,

and time is like a river that kills us with a shiver,

then what have all these mornings meant but aging into love?

What now is straight must have been bent; what now is whole must have been rent.

My hand is now your glove.

 One of the "out-of-the-ordinary" uses of words here is the echoes heard at the ends of lines. The speaker throws a slight curve ball at the beginning--"bridge" and "grudge" don't rhyme perfectly. they are an example of slant rhyme. But from that point one, we have perfect rhymes, though not in an exact pattern--"river" and "shiver"; then "meant," "bent," and "rent"; and finally "love" and "glove." Even that small bit of sound patterning pushes this statement out of the ordinary. I also asks you, the reader, to look at the way the statement is made and not just at its message.
 You notice that "bridge" and "grudge" oppose each other, one joining and one separating emotionally at least. The pair "river" and "shiver" introduces the theme of time and joins it with its ancient image of a river, with the added minor chord of our being killed, drowned perhaps, with a "shiver."
 The then-clause applies the imagery of bridge and river and shiver to the speaker and the person addressed. This clause tells us that the "mortalizing" passage of time may be redeemed by the growth of love. That can happen if the couple do the repair work suggested by straightening whatever has been "bent" and knitting together what has been torn apart ("rent" past tense of "rend"). And the "love-glove" rhyme rounds off the poem, the theme word ("love") being fused with the image word ("glove").
 You can see from our looking AT the rhyme words rather than through them the poem becomes deeper. You have begun to practice foregrounding.
 Here's another one

He Contemplates His Celibacy[edit]

In the gray air I look for a beginning and try not to care whether winter lasts.

Out of the sky the snowflakes whirl, bringing to my ears and eyes their childlike blows.

Children I have known or should father sleep in my bones. I hear their cries.

They would awake not for a night and brief breeding, but to feed on their father.

No crooked leg stirs in the snow. Winter drags. Nothing wishes to grow.

 "To My Wife" is a simple poem without much to push it out of the ordinary other than the use of rhymes that are semantically associated with each other. "He Contemplates his Celibacy" is more complex. (Anytime you want to understand a poem you should be ready to look up unfamiliar words like "celibacy." That's become ridiculously easy-- 

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/celibacy.) This one has only two perfect end rhymes, three slant rhymes, and one stanza (group of rhymed lines) that breaks the rhyme scheme altogether. See if you can find them.

 The "gray air" is associated in the speaker's mind with the winter, the coldness, that he tries to dismiss. He also associates the winter, this time the snow, with unborn children whose potential he feels within him. Then, breaking the rhyme pattern, he shifts to the image of insects. His unborn sons and daughters transform in his mind into offspring that destroy their parent, as some species of insects actually do. The last stanza has a perfect rhyme and a slant rhyme. The speaker insists that there is no buried life waiting to be born. Perhaps unconsciously the speaker's attributing the absence of a wish for life applies to him. Just as the speaker will father no children, so he himself will not grow. If you as a reader associate this denial-of-new-life poem with the winter solstice, to which it runs counter, that is your call. Associations usually need to be stated non-dogmatically, as possible meanings but not necessary ones.

He Contemplates His Celibacy[edit]

In the gray air I look for a beginning and try not to care whether winter lasts.

Out of the sky the snowflakes whirl, bringing to my ears and eyes their childlike blows.

Children I have known or should father sleep in my bones. I hear their cries.

They would awake not for a night and brief breeding, but to feed on their father.

No crooked leg stirs in the snow. Winter drags. Nothing wishes to grow.

 "To My Wife" is a simple poem without much to push it out of the ordinary other than the use of rhymes that are semantically associated with each other. "He Contemplates his Celibacy" is more complex. (Anytime you want to understand a poem you should be ready to look up unfamiliar words like "celibacy." That's become ridiculously easy-- 

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/celibacy.) This one has only two perfect end rhymes, three slant rhymes, and one stanza (group of rhymed lines) that breaks the rhyme scheme altogether. See if you can find them.

 The "gray air" is associated in the speaker's mind with the winter, the coldness, that he tries to dismiss. He also associates the winter, this time the snow, with unborn children whose potential he feels within him. Then, breaking the rhyme pattern, he shifts to the image of insects. His unborn sons and daughters transform in his mind into offspring that destroy their parent, as some species of insects actually do. The last stanza has a perfect rhyme and a slant rhyme. The speaker insists that there is no buried life waiting to be born. Perhaps unconsciously the speaker's attributing the absence of a wish for life applies to him. Just as the speaker will father no children, so he himself will not grow. If you as a reader associate this denial-of-new-life poem with the winter solstice, to which it runs counter, that is your call. Associations usually need to be stated non-dogmatically, as possible meanings but not necessary ones.













This is perhaps the most common set of modern lyrics:

This is the house that Jack built.

This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cat that killed the rat
That ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

This is the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
. . .

The nursery rhyme and cumulative tale "This Is the House That Jack Built" appeared in an 1887 book of children's stories. The poem does not actually tell the story of Jack building a house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to numerous things and people. It is believed to date back to the mid-sixteenth century, but the first printed edition was in 1755. "Modern?" [[1]]


Children's poetry is a good place to begin--a life or an exploration of poetry. In the lines above, by the time you get to the "cow with the crumpled horn," I hope you want to find out where this crumpled tale goes. But look at some other things. "Appeared in an 1887 book" says that poetry can lead you into the valuable past and that you may have to find out something you didn't know.

"Does not actually tell the story of Jack building a house" makes you wonder why a poem titled "This Is the House That Jack Built" does NOT tell you about Jack's handiwork. The answer is that poetry is oblique. Emily Dickinson, the great nineteenth-century American poet, says, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." "Slant" here means "oblique." Why should this be? Partly because the slantedness leads you to "numerous things and people." Poetry works by association.

Let's look at "The House That Jack Built." When you read it aloud you hear the rhythm, an alternation of unstressed and unstressed syllables. this poem is built mainly of one-syllable words so you don't have to worry if you have trouble dividing words into syllables. You hear "THIS is the HOUSE that JACK BUILT." You hear this alternation of one- and two-beat feet as you move along. "THIS is the CAT that KILLED the RAT"--every line beginning and ending with a stress, a beat.

What else do you notice about the sound as you read the poem aloud? Every line as a slight rest in the middle, a "caesura." And every caesura comes before the word "that." That is one reason we read poetry, because we enjoy all kinds of rhythms. We enjoy rapid pace suddenly pausing and then picking up again.

And you hear the vowel-consonant music. Obvious rhymes like "cat" and "rat," but also slant rhymes (remember slantedness?) like "malt" and "rat.