What Writers and Poets are Doing
I think that writers and poets vastly underestimate what it is that they do.
As human beings brought up for the most part in a literate age, we are surrounded by these things called words and grow used to their effects, from the revelatory to the mundane. The glorious magic of words is quickly lost to us - they become things that we write or type out without giving them much thought, without realising their power, without being cognitively aware that what we are doing when we use a word is tantamount to employing supernatural abilities.
As children, we learn first that there are such things as these marks on paper called letters, then that they have sounds, then that they can be added to each other to form words. Then, miraculously - but now so commonplace as to appear prosaic - we learn that these ‘words’ mean something. These apparently random signs on the page are symbolic: they indicate something that is frequently not present to our senses; they conjure up images in a non-physical world inside our heads; they empower us to relay those images and thoughts from one mind to another without any intervening objects or actions, but simply through the utterly incredible practices of ‘speaking’, 'writing' and ‘reading’.
This is wild magic. We have largely mastered it, developed laws of syntax and punctuation and so forth to control and enhance our transmissions. It is not for nothing that the word ‘grammar’ only later restricted its meaning to a ‘systematic account of the rules and usages of language’ - in the Dark Ages, it meant ‘learning in general, knowledge peculiar to the learned classes' which included astrology and magic (and hence the Scottish word ‘glamour’). And the Old English word ‘spell’ had the meaning ‘story, saying, tale, history, narrative, fable; discourse, command,’ which included those utterances with supposed magical or occult powers. Writers are magicians: they evoke things that aren’t physically present, and they do so by applying the laws of their magic in various ways.
And poets? The word ‘poem’ comes from the Greek poēma, an early variant of poiēma ‘fiction, poem’, from poiein ‘create’. If writers generally deal with magic forces and learn to manage and direct them so that they have control over what appears in readers’ minds, poets step closer to the fiery crucible of those forces and often do not control or direct at all, or do so in new, experimental ways. In poetry, the stability and order that has been engendered through syntax, punctuation, grammar and so forth is sometimes abandoned, or wielded freshly. As you will see in this collection, the forms of language with which we grow familiar in prose are often modified, twisted or dispensed with altogether. In reading these poems, you will need to keep in mind T. S. Eliot’s maxim that ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’. You also need to keep in mind that, in poetry, the sound is often as important as the meaning - reading aloud is recommended.
Reading and Studying Poetry
Most readers will probably sit and read each poem ‘in their heads’, which is totally fine. However, to gain the maximum results from reading poetry, there are a number of other things that you can do. In light of what I’ve said above about magic, when you study poetry in depth you are in effect exploring how magic works - which can be very worthwhile both in terms of pleasure and in terms of learning as a writer or poet. Here’s an approach to studying a single poem that tries to cover some different aspects of that.
1. Choose a poem.
There’s no shortage of examples in this volume, but for our purposes let’s select a more famous one, Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
2. After you have ‘taken in the communication’ per Eliot’s maxim above, look all the words up in a dictionary.
That sounds laborious. There are about a hundred words there, some of them commonplace English words which one assumes one ‘knows’. But it’s a valuable exercise. Done properly, it takes about an hour to look up all the definitions and become familiar with them. Then an interesting thing happens: reading the poem again, one feels that it has become transparent somehow; something shines through it. Not light, of course, but a kind of clarity of meaning. Try it.
3. Read it aloud three times.
If you do this properly, by the third reading you might be tempted to grow theatrical about it, ‘acting it out’ either with your voice or your hands or both. And that’s to be encouraged: what’s actually happening is that you are contributing to the poem, rather than just receiving it. Play with it. You might be surprised to find that, whereas you initially thought three times was too many, you want to read it a fourth or fifth time.
4. Note key words and sounds (alliteration, assonance, sibilance).
This is where we begin to learn the skills of a wine-taster in poetic terms: instead of simply reading it as someone might drink a drink, to quench one’s thirst only, one begins to analyse the flavours.
Note the subtle repetition of the ’t’ sound in the first line: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land’; listen for the sibilance of the ’s’ in the second: ‘Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone’, which continues into the third and fourth, like the hiss of sand in the desert, perhaps: ‘Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk’. Pick out the emphasis on the ‘h’ sound in the line ‘The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed’. Then at the end, note the closeness of the alliterative ‘boundless and bare’ with ‘lone and level’.
Don’t try at first to connect these particular noises with any planned or intended meaning, unless that happens without effort - simply experience them as sounds, just as a wine-taster might sense flavour without attaching it to any disappearance of thirst. Meaning is still a little distance away.
5. Note images and figures of speech (metaphors, similes).
Figures of speech might include in this case the interesting use of the expression ‘antique land’, meaning ‘belonging to ancient times’ from the Latin antiquus, anticus ‘former, ancient’, from ante ‘before’. There aren’t that many distinct metaphors or similes, the poem being mainly a description of a scene. Personification exists to some extent with ‘hands’ that ‘mock’ and ‘hearts’ that ‘fed’, but the poem’s primary effect is to shock by contrast between what is expressed and the reality around it: an ancient statue, proclaiming an arrogant perpetuity, is surrounded by desolation. That image - the empty desert - is the central one, chosen by the poet to make his point: human ambition and perception are not as powerful or permanent as they might seem.
6. Note mood or tone.
We can glean mood from the words chosen: ‘vast’, ‘trunkless’, ‘Half sunk’ and ‘shattered' contrast with the human expressions meant to daunt us: ‘frown’, ‘wrinkled’, ‘sneer’, ‘cold command’. Even the powerful are meant to be frightened by Ozymandias: ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Immediately we are informed in a blunt short sentence ‘Nothing beside remains’. The expression ‘colossal wreck’ is almost an oxymoron, contrasting immenseness with disaster. Tone is also contributed to by the positioning of the poet relaying these things to us: he tells us of the scene not directly but through the words of a ‘traveller from an antique land’. This adds weight to the viewpoint - someone has actually seen this and is reporting it to us through the poet.
7. Note meanings and themes.
Adding all this up, the theme and overall meaning is now clear: human reality isn’t a guide to absolute reality. Our perceptions of what will last and will be seen to be true are ephemeral.
8. Develop your own thoughts.
What you might want to say about the poem depends on how it relates to your own experience. Often developing a personal response is difficult: your own inner emotional world is often kept purposefully apart from a text, for one reason or another.
One thing is almost certain, though: taking this simple checklisted approach, you will usually become much more familiar with a poem and thus draw closer to having a real opinion about it and finding a poem’s true worth.
Try this approach with some of the poems in this volume - I think you’ll be surprised by what you find with many of them.
A whole range is here, from the almost incomprehensible but energetic, to the light-hearted and the profound, to the serene and transcendent. You’ll find poets who are raw in their talent, and others who are well-practised; you’ll discover things that you never dreamed of and have thoughts you could never quite put into words appearing on the page before you.
Enjoy the magic.