Diving into Poetry

by Matthew Koslowski on June 23, 2010
in Essays

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”
– John Keats in the film Bright Star

Bright Star has become one of my favorite movies since I saw it twice in theatres. And my favorite scene from the film is the poetry lesson that John Keats gives Fanny Brawne. Fanny states she does not know how to work out a poem, as so many of us would say if someone asked us how to work out a poem. Keats responds with the above.

The last few nights I have watched again and again and again this particular scene. Keats gives an entire year’s worth of poetic instruction in that single scene.

* * *

Lately in discussing poetry with my friends, they say, “I am no expert in poetry,” or “I do not understand poetry,” even before we have discussed a poem. If I were to ask a friend what they thought of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Hubert Selby Jr.’s Requiem for a Dream, would they say, “Oh, I am no expert in novels”?

No, they would not. The very idea is ridiculous.

Understanding a Poem

So, how does one understand a poem “through the senses”?

A poem requires that we flex our imagination at least as much as a novel does. Perhaps a poem requires more than does a novel. Where a novel so often allows the writer time to explain, the intensity of a poem does not afford the poet the same luxury.

But just because a poem is intense does not mean we need to ignore the narrative of the poem. When one begins immediately to seek out the meaning of a poem, it is as if one is swimming immediately to the shore hoping to understand the lake by measuring its shore.

Mountains Beyond Mountains

In my reading of poetry, I find that the poem says what it means. Now, there are peaks of meaning. There are heights to scale. If you see a mountain from afar, would you allow someone to say that you have not seen the mountain? Nonsense, you have seen the mountain. You know something of the mountain.

And so it is with a poem. If you read a poem, if you understand it at its first level — its most obvious — you still have understood the poem. Just as a mountaineer will understand a mountain in a different fashion than does the recreational skier, so will a professor of poetry understand a poem in a different fashion than does the casual reader.

But does that mean the skier — the casual reader — does not know the poem?

Let me put this all another way. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t get song lyrics”? Not just saying they failed to understand a particular song, but they failed to understand “song lyrics” as an entire category of expression?

I never have. And I find the the very idea a little silly.

And yet, people will dismiss poetry before they have spent time with it. They will say they do not understand it to save themselves from having to read it. So, let’s dive into one poem today.

Sound and Sense

In his long poem on poetry and criticism, Alexander Pope wrote, “The sound must echo the sense.” What does that mean?

A poem must be internally consistent, yes. Its tenor of voice must mirror the emotion that it expresses. I imagine a woman shouting, “I am calm!” This is an example of the sound not echoing the sense.

A. E. Housman gives us an excellent poem that says what it means while having some depth to explore.

Loveliest of Trees

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

– A.E. Housman

Find the Sense

First, does the sound match the sense? Did the poet choose words and images that conveyed a consistent tone of expression throughout?

Though Housman uses some inversions in grammar, I think he makes his meaning quite clear. The first stanza is a straightforward description of a cherry tree in bloom. Housman’s speaker thinks the cherry tree in blossom the loveliest of trees.

The second stanza is a bit more allusive — it refers to something outside of the poem that explains why Housman assumed he only had “threescore years and ten” — and he piles the various references to years atop one another.

First, he states how long he expects his life to be, seventy years. Then he states that he’s already lived twenty years and thinks, “It only leaves me fifty more.”

Here, to climb to the next peak of the mountain, question why Housman writes, “only” in that sentence. When you think of the next fifty years, does the word “only” come to mind? If so, in what way? Is it the same as how Housman means it here? Can you understand what “only” means from only this stanza or need you see how the meaning of “only” is changed in the final stanza?

And the final stanza further reveals the speaker’s temperament. Rather than despair, the speaker expresses hope. Rather than finding only the spring beautiful, knowing there is a limit to the number of springs he will see, he seeks beauty out in other seasons. When he writes he will see the cherry tree hung with snow, does he mean actual snow? Is he comparing the whiteness of cherry blossoms to the whiteness of snow?

The meaning of Housman’s poem is there. Were you able to dive in?


2 Responses to “Diving into Poetry”
  1. It’s beautifully phrased, and actually reminds me of something Richard Feyman wrote in “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” – he wrote of people attempting to know about a bird: “Now, he says, you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that, he says, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now, he says, let us look at the bird.” I feel that is very like how people approach poetry and literature – they judge beforehand by the (very loaded and feelingly lofty) words of genre, and never take the time to read the piece for what it is. They are intimidated by the idea, not the actuality.