General Thoughts About Poetry (B. Bauld)

Poetry has two equally important dimensions:


1.Meaning: a) Lyric poetry expresses its meaning through a single emotion. It is short, tight and compact.  Ex."Lovliest of Trees" by A. E. Housman. These poems may offer bits of narrative, but are usually about intense experiences. The rule of great poetry is that it reveals the universal through attention to the particular.

                    b) Narrative poetry uses character, setting, and plot to express the meaning.  Ex.  "Death of the Hired Man" by Frost

                    c) Dramatic poetry uses many of the same elements of narration, but has no narrator using dialogue for the stage 

                        Ex: Macbeth


2.The Art of the poem involves the look and sound of the poem.  The poet is concerned now with rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia (all sounds), imagery (pictures) and the achievement of forceful, tightly-worded expression.


To read poetry well is to experience the poem on both levels.  One changed word way not change the meaning of the poem, but it will drastically alter the effect of the poem.  Poetry is much more than information.  You might think of it as a secret language used to open our minds and hearts to the deeper experiences of life.  Poetry invites us to operate - mentally, emotionally and spiritually - on a higher level than we are used to.


Poetry often requires time. It gives up its secrets slowly. Even when you think you fully understand a poem, it usually harbours secrets.  Great poetry has earned the praise of great minds over the course of time for a reason.  Don’t be too quick to judge as bad what you may not yet understand.  Not only does this show a lack of respect, but "judging" closes your mind and kills your chance of reading the poem successfully. (Coleridge recommends "a willing suspension of disbelief")  Poetry deserves several readings.  Often (almost always) a poem will reveal more when read aloud; remain open to the built-in rhythms and sounds. Be brave and find a quiet spot to read aloud and so allow yourself to find the pace and sounds of the poem. Keats relates poetry to a psychic state called "negative capability" – a sort of emptying out of yourself so as to make room for the poem. Reading a poem may be just as creative an act as writing a poem (Borges says: "I am more proud of the books I have read than the ones I have written"). Reading poetry well is one of life's great achievement. Be patient.


Poetry follows the dictum that "less is more." Beginning readers usually feel that a poem could have delivered its message in much less space.  The experienced reader marvels at the economy of language, saying so much with so little.  Poetry is "physically fit"; the “flab" has been entirely worked off.


Poems use lines (not sentences) and stanzas (not paragraphs). Traditional poems use regular rhythms and rhyming patterns (schemes). Modern poems often use irregular rhythms, without rhyme.  This is called  free verse. Poetry tries to show rather than explain.  To do this it uses images (pictures, or other sense stimulating words), which create a feeling, which then leads you to the idea or meaning of the poem.


               Imagery can be made more forceful by using figurative language such as metaphors (but there is such a thing as weak metaphor, and literal language can have remarkable potency).

          Ex. "My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water

                        Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently"

             Or: "The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here."  (both by Plath written from her hospital bed)


Consider the following poem by e e cummings titled "l(a"













After the initial confusion, some words emerge, - finally, four. “A leaf falls: loneliness” is what the poem says, more or less, and I hope that after a further few looks you will agree that it is much less.  It might be the reverse: “loneliness: a leaf falls” but this, while different, leaves an equal amount out. The word outside the brackets is loneliness, an emotion, an abstraction, and something human. Indeed it invites the image of a lonely parkbencher watching the leaves fall. Inside this emotion is the concrete image which either has produced the emotion in the lonely person, or which reflects an emotion already deeply rooted. It is a single leaf, appropriately alone and single, as the human emotion of loneliness is alone and single. By skillfully carving the words up, Cummings has emphasized this singleness by using the peculiar effect of the typed l to look like the number one, (as in not two). Four of these l’s stand out, joined further by an isolated “one”. Finally, the whole poem now shows itself to be an all encompassing “1”. Not nearly finished, cummings makes me see the movement of the leaf which now reads as a symbolic expression of the emotion by imitating the lonely separation and flight downward - first in a woozy back and forth described by the reversing letters - af...fa - and then a quick chute downward with the coupled ones (ll), then a sideways flutter before a last drop to the ground. There, in the gathering of letters on the floor of the poem, lands the leaf to be ground into rubble. The leaf’s descent through loneliness to anonymity beautifully reflects the emotion of the human onlooker.


In four simple words, cummings has produced a poem which moves us on many levels - visually, symbolically, rhythmically, emotionally. He might have said: “It is so sad to see old men sitting on park benches staring at the falling leaves - leaves which through their lonely fall to earth symbolize so terribly that drifting into nothingness, that worthless anonymity, which being alone in life only can produce.” Or, he might have written a story about some old Jack, homeless and forgotten, to reveal the force of loneliness. But, if you are especially impressed at how the poet has used just four words to say so much, and perhaps more than the story ever could, then you are ready to read some poems.