Notes on reading poetry

Most of this discussion is based on the excellent book How to Read a Poem by Terry Eagleton, Blackwell, 2007.

Terry Eagleton's admittedly clunky definition for poetry is rendered thus: "a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end." We can attempt to smooth out that definition, something like this: a poem is a product of the imagination. It is fictive, a made thing. It pays extra attention to the words, on the page and in the mouth. The sound of words, the patterns of words in combination. Eagleton is wary of using references to standard formal elements of poetry such as rhyme, meter, diction, imagery, and so on, because he wants to acknowledge that prose can be just as poetic as a poem in those regards. He has a point. The boundary between poem and fiction is an open border. This leaves him with the single, irreducible unit of the line. It is the poet who determines the length of the lines; whereas in fiction, the lines just run on and on, paragraph after paragraph. By "moral statement", Eagleton does not mean statements of right and wrong behavior. What he has in mind has more to do with "human values, meanings and purposes". I would dispense with the loaded term moral and revise the definition like this: a poem is an imaginative, verbally inventive expression or statement of human values, meanings, and purposes, in which the line forms the basic syntactical unit of meaning and aesthetic structure.

When analyzing and interpreting poetry, we must do what the new critics (who have by now become old fashioned) used to call "close reading". By this we mean sticking closely to the text, making detailed observations and inferences about the formal design of poems, beginning with those lines we mentioned above. We anchor any interpretation of the poem's content in an analysis of the poem's form, which begs the question, what do we examine when we read for formal design? Several elements can be considered.

Tone. Eagleton defines it thus: "a modulation of the voice expressing a particular mood or feeling. It is one of the places where signs and emotions intersect." Tone blurs imperceptibly into mood, and the terms are nearly interchangeable.

Pitch and volume. The range of pitch in poetic lines (high, middle, low) and the amplitude (from shouts to whispers) can help to evoke the tone or mood of the poem too.

Intensity. Eagleton defines this as a distinct "category of poetic feeling" apart from pitch, volume, tone and mood. How hot blooded are the lines, for instance? The trick to doing good close reading is to be able to provide adjectives and adverbs to your descriptive reckoning of what is happening in the poem. So for instance, the intensity might be described as "full-blooded," "muted," "earnest," "high-minded," and so on.

Pace. Pace is related to the musical term, tempo. Again, the more descriptive you can be (going beyond the simplistic fast, medium, slow), the more accurate and sensitive your close reading will be.

Texture. Eagleton adapts the dictionary definition of texture ("the feel or appearance of a surface or substance") to read "how a poem weaves its various sounds into palpable patterns". Poetry is a highly material use of language. It pays close attention to the sense of sound and sight, the roll of language off the tongue as it is recited. When analyzing for texture, you'll need to pay attention to consonance, dissonance, assonance, alliteration, rhymes, near rhymes or off rhymes, syllabic patterns, plays of long and short vowels.

Syntax, grammar, and punctuation. Syntax deals with word order, grammar the rules of meaningful structure, and punctuation with the signs that indicate grammatical structure. How does the poet twist the syntax of the lines? How are grammatical rules adhered to or violated in interesting ways? See if you can discover how the syntax matches to the sense of what is being said.

Ambiguity. The words in poems do not have readily delimited meanings. Connotations abound. Many possibilities for meaning can be fused and into the smallest units of language. Part of close textual reading deals with unravelling the semantic possibilities for double and triple meanings, where meaning overlaps, resonates, echoes, or rings with irony.

Rhyme. Rhyming has its undeniable pleasures. We enjoy the simultaneous blend of sonic identity and semantic difference. Repetition, mirroring, similarity — these phenomena bind and preserve our libidinous energies. By tracing the rhyme schemes and the irregular rhyming patterns in poems (e.g. internal rhymes), we further appreciate the formal aesthetic structure, and we may discover the cultural fabric woven into the poem's texture. For instance, a writer of a Sonnet is writing within a cultural tradition; the choices made with respect to rhyme (and meter) are to some extent culturally determined; however, we can examine the poem for areas where the poet is vying with that tradition — bending and sometimes breaking the form.

Rhythm and meter. Meter is the regular patterns of syllabic stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm is a more generalized, less formalized ebb and flow of the lines. This allows us to talk of the rhythm of a free verse poem, which otherwise does not follow a strict metrical pattern. The study of meter is called prosody, in which a critic studies the accentual pulses regularly running through the lines and divides the lines into so many metrical feet, or units of syllabic rhythm, such as iambs, trochees, and dactyls. Another important feature to be aware of is enjambement, the running of sense from the end of a line to the beginning of the next. Line endings of themselves want to suggest a pause or end point. Sometimes the poem's grammar cooperates willingly with the gravity of line endings. Sometimes the poem rushes over the cliff to continue the flow. Enjambement also assists poets working within fixed meters and rhyme schemes; they can avoid "sing-songy-ness", keeping their verse fresh and inventive.

Imagery. Studying a poem's imagery involves observation of sensory description, but further than that, the use of figurative language: metaphors, similes, metonyms, personification, and so forth. All figurative language operates on the principle of identity and difference, that is, an assertion of affinity, kinship, or hidden semantic identity between apparently dissimilar words. We find connections between that which is different, animal and human, inanimate and animate, concrete and abstract, part and whole, personal and universal.

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