Three Ways to Read a Poem
There is no sure way to define exactly what constitutes a "Poem", since this title applies equally well to an obscure Old Hittite sacral text written in an archaic word-conscious style, to an Ode of Pindar in coruscating strophes of Greek verse, to a whole volume of Vergil's Aeneid or Dante's Inferno, and also to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, let alone tens of thousands of pages written in the last hundred years in a thousand languages on every subject we humans have been able to imagine. Some are so pellucidly simple and direct that a child can read them or may well have written them. Others are so quizzical that a first reading may elicit no meaning at all, others might seem to be written for Form and Sound rather than Meaning, a sort of linguistic word-painting in its own right. Uneven lines won't help in this definition of a Poem, since a lot of what looks like prose, from Plato to Joyce, is finely tuned poetry at heart.
I: The Initial Approach
More to the point might be the various ways people approach poetry. For some who read poetry rarely, it might be a question of whether on first reading the poem makes any sense, on their assumption that poetry is suppose to tell you something. If not, initial poetry readers will turn the page or close the book, noting that this isn't my cup of tea. Take this example:
Reading pauses and falters. This isn't making much sense, is it? This is the time to go back to 'Field and Stream' or the TV screen with a suspicion that "Poetry, whatever it is suppose to be, is not for me". But that is OK, human interests are widely different, and the person who avoids poems may be fascinated by archaeology or history. There is room for us all
II: The College Approach
In a college English literature class, there is a standard practice called "Assigned Reading", which means that a group of perhaps twenty-five students will read certain pages in their ponderous Anthology and come to class equally prepared to discuss their comprehension and impressions. Statistics shows that if the course is labeled Modern Poetry, there will be more girls in the class than boys, which psychologists explain as a greater capacity toward words found in the female brain, while young men attuned to motion and action have little natural leaning toward an indoor art like Poetry. This may be challenged, but the statistics are fairly even and probably have some meaning overall.
The poetry course will pursue two threads in the academic class hour. First it asks what the meaning is, initially a check on whether students have read the assigned pages, but also a device which assumes that meaning is often not quite apparent and has to be dug for with some insistence. There is first of all the surface meaning which masks the 'real meaning', which is often psychological or social or nowadays socio-sexual. Grades reflect the depth of imaginative penetration into this terra incognita, with a sad C for 'reading done', a B for 'gets the point with understanding' while A should mean something surprising, ingenious or even brilliant on occasion.
Now the trouble with this is that the reading of poems has become part of an educational "System", where accreditation follows fairly formal sets of drills and quizzes, consolidated in a 'paper' or two. This is serious work since it aims at completion of a credit course, for which money is being paid in an educational contract. These things impinge on the joy and freedom of picking up a book of poems to read for pleasure, for seeing new ways of putting common or uncommon things, for exploring someone else's distillations of mind.
If the first question in a class is "What does it (really) mean?", the second raises the matter of how it fits into the social fabric of the author's world. Americans are unduly conscious of Society, as if it were our national Invention, like radio, TV and the automobile, and everything must finally be related to the Social Scene. One asks first: Does the poem enlightenedly reflect on the world in which we live?
But there is a variant to this: How does the poem connect to the author's biography, the times in which he lived (Dickens), or the way she saw the immediate world around her (Dickenson). So the poem leads us into history and biography and since those can be stretched in several directions with expansive readings and a good dose of historical revisionism, we move away from the Poem quickly and bury ourselves in Background. This is one of the surest ways to lose the Poem itself, and in a broader sense, to lose the sense of the Art of Poetry.
Let's try this academic pathway with the poem the fellow, in the Initial Approach section, put down in confused despair, and follow the treatment as in a typical college English Lit. class: Here at least since discipline and grades are involved, the poem will be read through entire!
Dialog in a College Classroom
After the latecomers shuffle to their seats, after the sounds of dropped pencils and the rustle of paper as pens poise to note down words of wisdom, there is a silence and the class begins........
(A nervous silence ensues while waiting for first person to speak.)
Professor is talking in the doorway with the one girl who hadn't spoken in class but seems to want to say something to him. He replies that since she seems interested in the poem, she might want to come to Dr. Newcome's Advanced Poetry Seminar at 4:30 PM and continue the discussion there on another level. They are pushed out of the way as a rush of students enters for the next class.
III: The Advanced Poetry Seminar
Dr. Roger Newcome, Visiting Lecturer from Univ. of Worchester:
Professor Oldham was discussing this same poem this morning with a Sophomore class earlier today, and he says they went through the usual topics of discussion without much sense of enlightenment. The students seemed to resist anything not perfectly explicit and clear, and what really interests them was this American penchant toward seeing the social setting as the basis of art of all sorts, including the ancient art of Poetry. You Americans incline to use our English language mainly for practical purposes, you like to think of English as direct and to the point, what we in the UK somewhat snidely call "Cowboy English". Not that John Wayne's style isn't wihtout charm, but it seems to block the road to highly wrought thought and language. A country style oval hooked rug is good enough for many homes, but it won't replace a handmade Oriental rug from a master craftsperson's (intentional!) hands. Great art can be terribly simple or terribly complex, and today I want to discuss some levels of complexity which we often find in poems.
Lets go around the table and talk about this for this hour. I am going to pass around another handout to go with the poem for the next class. This goes through the poem line by line, following the inner patternings of the words and lines in a manner which I believe will explain the "Micro-Structure" of the poem. I know this is going to seem formidable and perhaps overly detailed to you at first, and some of you will not want to pursue detail with such passion as I do. But read the poem and the Comments carefully and next time we may be able to talk about it with some perspective.
In the meantime some of you will want background for this approach, and I am going to offer a few suggestions. Here is an article on what a colleague describes as a new approach to "Form Analysis of Poetry". He distinguishes between our usual classroom analysis of Meaning and the detailed intricacies of Form, which involve phonetic analysis and the complex web of word arrangements and relationships in a verse, line, or paragraph. Another paper approaches the configurations of sound with a more detailed phonetic analysis using examples from a Sound Spectroscope, along with manual handwritten symbols which can be used to outline a phonetic commentary. These papers are both on the web, but I would expressly like to mention a remarkable book by Calvert Watkins "How to Kill a Dragon" Oxford U.Press l955, which works through detailed analysis in the most intricate terms on samples from a handful of ancient Indo-European based languages. Watkins is certainly too much for a week's perusing, but a quick look at the introductory chapters and the Umbrian Iguvine Tablets in Chapter 18 as a sample of fine tuned analysis, should be enough to enlighten us for the next week's seminar.
Now let's read the poem through together and start off on unraveling some of the thread of form vis a vis meaning, and see how far we can get before going into the "analysis" on my handout. I had to number the lines so we could navigate around the page in our discussion, which is not the way I like a poem to look, this will be but useful for our exegetical purposes.
1 I, Thom N. Hammond, having lived the perfect life
7 Then I cast up lists and reckonings of all those things
21 When all was settled and the inventories filled
The Handout: Detailed Analyis of the Poem
1: "Thom N. Hammond" --- dentals at the ends of phrase in a m/n sandwich "the perfect life" is short and brittle, breath sounds around stops -p-c-t-. Note the name, which will appear modified at the end in "ring configuration".
2: "Blessed --- began" encircle the line. The six light syllables of "infinite happiness" with vowels ranging from frontal -i- to one medial -a-. This mimics the notion of "happiness" as perhaps superficial?
3: The pivot word "provide" is not only emphatic as central, but flanked before and aft with 'm-l-y' and on the other side '-n-l-y'. And Line 4 does the same thing with an emphatically placed "future life" amid a cluster of patter words.
5: "pharaonic......royalty" is a formula perhaps fabricated here but clearly invested with an ancient tone. It occurs at the line center rather than trailing as Homer often does it with a formula. And Line 6: follows the same pattern with a surprise word "reconstituted" meaning metampsychosed in the midst of a patter of idle sounding words which however carry the semantic msg. of the line.
7: This line is markedly monosyllabic! with one central exception "reckonings", which is the clerk's word for the "list" made up of spot items, like most lists.
8 Now a good formula with a word twist: "trice happy state" is Greek "trismakaria", and inserted as suitable for a formula at line end after a break. But by changing from "thrice" which is the right word. to "trice" which is an etymological play of sorts (implying instantness...) the eye is caught to look again at the wording, perhaps to look at the notion carefully as well.
9: There is a Horace-like bilabial pattern to this line: "which-verged | well-walled | which". Then emphatically writing over the line to the initial word of 10: "Tomb" which picks up the previous "room" like an echo.
10: "Neatly laid" ' n-t-l... l-d ' prefaces a more tightly set "finely finished" which announces "cedar... shelves" with '-s---sh ' rolling to back of the mouth speech modifiers.
11: "chisels, saws and mallets" a typical tripartite formulaic itemization pointing to Indo-European origins lurking behind this XX c. poem.
12: The "staying-place of life" is a mock formula, none the less real because fabricated in the antique manner. Translated into Skt. I think it might look fairly real.
13: "sheets of solo score | softly (laid)". One doesn't have to be Piers Plowman with "In a somer season when soft was the sonne.."..to use alliteration naturally.
14: The phrase "long span of ages " matches metrically with "I would have hours" but across the line division, unbalancing the progress of the meaning, and perhaps preparing for the surprise notion of "achieving virtuosity", which is entirely out of place in this audience-less new world.. Line 15: proceeds with the surprise word "Item:" picking up the "lists and reckonings" of Line 7 and becoming an virtual list-of-sorts.
15: The encircling "Fine paper" does not match with "well corked" at the end, which goes with "sepia" however just as "quill" goes back to the initial paper. The elaborate mixing invokes a slow reading of these words with care, but then we have "Item,:" again with next line = abrupt and staccato.
Line 17: "pastel" and atmosphere" invoke a sense of dryness acoustically, which fits well with the idea of a sealed and dry preservative tomb. Again crossing the verse line to "Down there." is an acoustic shock, intellectually a double reference to the low room in the tomb, and even suggests the Christian "down there" pointing toward Inferno.
Line 19: has a flowing, conversational prosy tone, which contrasts immediately with Line 20 which is built of out heavy sounds, at first disyllabic words..... until the last four which are abrupt monosyllabic bursts.
Line 21: The two words which mark the meaning and also metric accent are "settled" and "filled", making this a bipivotal line.
Line 22: Strong -o- back vowels in "Would come the moment ", then would/when provide a link to the line conclusion, which is all tight, high vowels in six emphatic syllables ! Is this a tightening up when facing death..... or only phonetic variation?
Line 23: The three long = heavy syllables of "concrete blocks" echo the meaning and placement of these ponderous chunks, while "well mortared in" sounds like some semi-formula from the pen of Vitruvius, had he decided to write Augustan poetry. The poet alludes to Poe? But note the word-play: Are we talking about "mortar" or "mortality" cf. Fr. mort?
Line 24: "re-lax at last" has a tone of quietude, suitable here for a moment with a yawn. Cf. Lat. hiare "yawn" which IS a yawn also.
Line 24/25: A long string of back -o- vowels starts with "apprOach" and moves through the next line into "outside", rolling over with a lowered -u- of "pump" but reaffirmed in a still lower vocalic "tomb".
Line 27: There is a quizzical character to this "tailpipe feeding tube" since it could be a tube feeding the tailpipe, but of course isn't! Much more complex is the "tube feeding (into the tomb) from the tailpipe (of a car exhaust)", something a native speaker could probably deduce but..... ?
Line 28: Perhaps "contemplation of infinity" would be better and more conveniently couched in a Skt. type compound "Infinity-contemplation" in the Instrumental, suitable here since it must have been written to signify deep and mysterious levels of non-modern-Western devotional thought.
Line 29: The name of the Pharaoh occupies solidly the center-point of the line, while the verb "rejoining" does double duty: It connects with the poem's idea of passing to the next world with all needed belongings and paraphernalia. But it also connects with the punning name of the author at the first line (Thom N. Hammond) thereby giving a resounding and conclusive ring-configuration to the poem with first and last line tokens.
The Advanced Seminar: Tuesday Session II
The Role of Biography in the Poem
This is a good poem to analyze because you can have no clue as to the date of composition, the mode of writing, or the identity of the author. We usually preface a "Life" to the study of a new book or poem, in the belief that the man and his work are intimately connected, inexorably locked in the clasp of time on the one hand, and social setting on the other. After the reading world settled down to read and appreciate Moby Dick in the l920's, the first thing to be done was flesh out a detailed life of a largely unknown Herman Melville. Yes, he was involved with a whaling expedition in early youth, yes he drew on account of a giant while whale, but he also lived a stiff domestic life borrowing money from his father in law in order to live in an upper middle-class style, and when Moby Dick failed to sell as a book he bought up all copies in despair, making first editions now quite rare. He never knew he was along with Whitman one of the dominant authors of his time.
But this tells us nothing of importance about the book, other than it was based on some small facts combined with a great deal of deep thinking about life and the turns of good with evil. Now that we read Moby Dick as a proven Masterpiece, we find a mine of rich materials from which to draw rainbows of perceptions and insights. But this goes back to the private world of the book itself which Melville's private mind was generating, and there is little connection between the story and Melville the man, husband, father, citizen.
This is the modern and specifically American error, the belief that the times make the man, and we use it in our half-baked social psychology which reckons life experience as the major formant of personality and character. Many other factors are involved, those of genetics, personal voluntary choices, and often a great part of pure chance and luck. We have been barking up the wrong tree, the social tree while the roots of art which get their sustenance from inner consciousness are ignored. Well, class, perhaps enough of this tirade, this academic diatribe of mine. I think you get the drift of my thinking and I urge you to look elsewhere in this poem past the identity and history of the author. Perhaps more of that later....
So let us turn now to the analysis of the poem per se, the poem seen as a page constructed of meaningful and distinctive sounds strung together like beads on a thread of syntax, then modulated into phrases and metrical lines which impose rhythm onto the notes as they flow into sequences. It must strike you that I am talking here more of music than of Poetry, but that is my point. Poetry is a kind of Music with a coefficient of signified data which we call Meaning. Put the other way around, Poetry without its musical complement, is just another kind of conversational communication, the signaling we use worldwide in our daily lives. Even that can be artful, especially in the mouths of functional illiterates who take a more vivid interest in what they say than we academic readers of long pages by candlelight. Some African languages speak poetry all the time, they have raised daily speech to the level of a personal artistry ----- something we can now hardly understand.
But the Corollary: If we were properly attendive, we would get from our first careful reading the whole of the analysis instantly, as we proceeded word to word, line to line. It is our lack of perception which makes this kind of academic style analysis (which I am urging upon you here) necessary, as a remedial doorway into the complexity of an artist's mind. This can be useful for the present moment, it is suitable for this afternoon's quest into the workings as a poetic example, but if we were better tuned to the world of Art we would perceive everything together at the sound level, and never have to construct an analytical interface at all.
Consider Music. Listening to Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, and knowing it for years from student days through a long life, we imbibe the music with joy and still years later will marvel at its complexity. But the Album Notes tell us other factual things about the thematic sequencing which we might not have said to ourselves. And if one is interested in an advanced musical technique called Schenker Analysis, we would find myriad little inner connections, phrasal pointings, iterative reminders and overall directioning which we would never had been able to state out of our own intuition. So we might finally consider ourselves ignorant of Music, and wish we had taken more time with the academics of the art in college.
But NO! It is not lack of music education. We failed to listen to the music closely, we paid attention to the thematic thread, to the dominant Tune and Melody Line, ignoring the interplay of voices, the cues of the orchestration. That may be enough for PopMusic, for Country style balladry, and that is probably the best way to perceive the thin fabric of current pop-art musical textures. There are poems which can be seen this way also, some minor gems which use few articulations, preferring to do far more with much less, with a healthy dose of intellectual minimalism. But much art is complex, multi-leveled and initially obscure, especially to those who have not wet their feet in those unfamiliar waters.
Great art arises from the unconscious presence of myriad thoughts accumulated over a lifetime span. It is never self-conscious, it may not always flow easily, but it does flow inexorably and leaves few traces of whence it came or where it is going. So let me give you the essence of the notes I made from an interview with the author of the poem we have been studying. I found the author ready to talk with me recently on a bright October afternoon, we had lunch together with a few glasses of wine to promote conversation, and this is a rough transcript of his memory about the origin of the poem:
"All right, Roger, lunch finished and now we can talk freely. Now that I am retired from teaching, I have much more time to think about life and ask myself and where it is all going. Less talk and more thinking, I always tell myself. But having more space around me, I have become a better watcher of Life,. I was working among my woodworking tools one afternoon on a bright fall day, a soft light perfusing my workbench with dozens of the edged tools, mallets, scales and gauges which am always using. Over there were shelves of boxes, some with a thousand screws collected from projects over a lifetime of tinkering, boxes of unidentified objects which I can't exactly remember now. And I thought where does this all go when I am gone? Of course it will be a giant Yard Sale like those of old geezers from whom I bought much of my present treasury. So I have to consider myself the temporary custodian of a vast and cumbersome collection, a personal Smithsonian soon to be disbursed for others to collect. from. Sad thought indeed but that's life!"
"Then I thought of the Pharaohs and their idea of preparing all the details necessary for a happy afterlife, and compared this to my position as an outsider living in a Christian society, but one who has no faith in Heaven and less in Hell. I am not alone these days and many must be feeling a certain indeterminacy when considering the awful END. So I began to construct in flashes as I moved around the workshop a vision of what the Egyptians were so secure and sure about, and soon the flashes of thought began to consolidate into a system, a sequence of ideas, and then a Poem."
"I turned on the computer, opened a blank page and the words were already there tumbling out on the screen. I don't think it was more than a quarter hour from my new pen-named Mr. Hammond to the final decisive verse, which quietly signalled THE END.. Looking it over, I decided that I liked it, later changed two or three words, and read it to my wife in her bathtub through the closed bathroom door. I had said it all perfectly just as it was in my thoughts, so I knew it was finished and just what I wanted to say. I looked at it again, knew it was done and folding it, I put it into a mid page of the Greek dictionary to find someday later if I needed it for practical purposes.."
"Then I was talking with my colleague Newcome, the one who always takes the Devils' part in an argument, who asked me to try to accurately note and identify all the inner workings of the poem, as an exercise he could use for his class onThursday next. I refused this pedestrian idea at first, then thought it might be interesting after all, and tabulated the set of Comments which I gave you, Roger, for your seminar. It is all fairly accurate, sort of surprised me to see so much factual detailing in what I wrote so fast and deftly. I think I spent several hours commenting on what I wrote in fifteen minutes, and that may be the nature (and the flaw) of this kind of analysis. I had all that in hidden corners of my mind before I started to write, the substructure on which the poem rested. But only someone completely tuned to sound as music, words as orchestration, and also tuned to my specific way of thinking and putting things ------ someone like you Roger, perhaps an alter ego ----- would understand the poem fully while reading it through. So there is and perhaps there should be a mystery to a work of art, which refuses at first, then reveals itself bit by bit as you go back and recalculate, and perhaps becoming the end in good part open to the author's eyes. But some small percent will be sealed off, and should stay that way, because that is part of the secret of something by its very nature clothed in mystery. Some things need not be said at all."
That was a very enlightening interview, and if any of you are interested in the poet's remarks and are thinking of asking to come over and talk with him in his study, some questions about his thoughts about poetic creativity, please accept his apologies in the name of artistic privacy.You will not find him in the post office list of street addresses, he does not have a telephone, he never posted a Curriculum Vitae or list of publications other than this one salient poem, and you will not be able to reach him at all. But I confer with him on a regular schedule Friday afternoons in a library of books where nobody reads, and if you do really want his opinion on something you are writing, let me know and I will be glad to relay your questions. We are so closely tuned that you might almost consider me his alter ego, his guardian spirit and the one man who of the world has the best idea of what he will be working on in the coming years.
Questions, anyone? Well actually the hour is pretty well gone, and if some of you have a few minutes to spare, why don't we go out and walk around the campus for a few turns of exercise. I'd like to amble over to the library where there is a nice carved stone plaque of the 7th c. BC, wonderful way the Egyptians used their pictographic signs to cover the whole range of human aspirations and despairs. Whether the kings reached eternal happiness in their after-living days may be not clear at all for us nowadays. But the way they constructed their grand dream for the eternal Forever leaves us very little room for comment, addition or embroidery.
Poems are the fabric on which thoughts can be embroidered infinitely, using the bright colored threads of sonant words strung on the warp of that transcendental mist which we humans have tentatively identified as the world of Imagination.
"Class is hereby BY THE BELL now dismissed"3>