Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Poetry and Prosody


I use a lot of poetry in my teaching. There are a lot of reasons why. I like reading poems, for one thing. The poems I like the most are the ones in which the poet turns his or her attention to an idea or a question or a memory and thinks it through, re-presenting it in a way that allows me to work through the same process on my own. A good example of a poem like this, and one which I often use with students as an illustration (and because the is referenced by Adah, one of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, which the students read second semester) is William Carlos Williams' classic eight-liner:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

It's a simple enough poem. The students are quick to observe that it's built around a single image, the red wheelbarrow, and that it's tightly organized: one sentence, four two-line stanzas, the second line of each stanza a single two-syllable word. If Williams had omitted the first stanza, the poem would consist entirely of the image; it would be in essence a snapshot. But he didn't omit the first stanza, and in including it he puts the reader into a field of play: the play of the mind which considers the assertion that this image has significance, that "so much depends" upon this particular wheelbarrow. That assertion raises the obvious question: what depends upon it? That question opens the door to a whole raft of interpretive possibilities. How you might choose to go about answering the question depends, for example, on which critical stance you choose to adopt or feel most comfortable with. A New Critic would insist that the answer to the question has to be embedded in the words of the poem itself, and so would begin asking further questions about word choice. Why "glazed with rain water?" Why the chickens? Why these particular colors? According to a New Critic, any plausible interpretation would have to account for those choices in a systematic way.

Adah's comment in The Poisonwood Bible, by contrast, comes at the poem from the point of view of the Biographical Critic, who would argue that in order to understand the poem we must understand the context in which it was written. She says, "He wrote the poem while he was waiting for a child to die." I'm not sure if that's true, but if I put that information in my head and then reconsider the poem, it certainly changes the way in which I find myself thinking about and interpreting the poem.

So much depends upon the point of view we adopt when we read. A Marxist critic, a Freudian critic, a Feminist critic, a Structuralist, a Deconstructionist, an aspiring writer: each would come at the poem from a different set of interpretive assumptions and thus would experience the poem in a different way than the others. The point I make with students is that there is not one right way to read the poem. But what you start with influences where you wind up. As a reader, you have options. Not just in the reading of poetry, obviously; every kind of reading one does is embedded in a point of view, whether or not one is explicitly aware of it. One of my goals as a teacher is to help students begin to become more self-aware about how they read. Poems provide the opportunity for little mini-workshops in how to go about doing that.

At another, more practical level, there is a lot of poetry out there that is short enough and thought-provoking enough to read, write about, discuss, re-read, and come to grips with in at least a preliminary way in one class period. I always feel, in dealing with a novel or a Shakespeare play, for example, that we are never so much finishing with the book as abandoning it for lack of time to do it adequate justice. So poems, at least some poems, offer the opportunity for something like closure in a finite amount of time.

Also, poets tend to be thoughtful, articulate writers who aspire to deploy words with artfulness and grace, and thus can serve as good models for certain kinds of writing and thinking moves that are applicable in pretty much any kind of writing, whether it be poetry, or fiction, or expository prose. I find, for example that while my students have a pretty thorough understanding of sound devices like rhyme and alliteration and even, to some degree, consonance, they have almost no sense at all of the way the meter works: why how a writer might choose to set up a metrical pattern and then, with design and intention, break that pattern in order to call attention, however subtly, to certain words.

I recently ran across a poem by the 19th century British poet John Clare, the subject of a recent biography by Jonathan Bate, which illustrates how this works. Here is his sonnet "Beans in Blossom":


The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face

It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace,

I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side

Of this old wood, where happy birds abide,

And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill,

Utters wild music when the rest are still.

Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,

As o'er the path in rich disorder lean

Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,

Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.

The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play;

And often stand the stranger's steps at bay,

Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white,

Strong scented with the summer's warm delight.

The poem is written, as most sonnets are, in iambic pentameter. The first line is an almost perfect iambic pentameter line: ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm ba-DUm. But there are places in the poem where the rhythm is off, where an attempt to read the line with a walloping rhythm would not work at all, as for example in the second line. It BREATHES while SAUNTerING in A musING pace doesn't work. It's too many syllables and the accents fall in all the wrong places in the second half of the line. It BREATHES while SAUNT'ring IN a MUSing Pace is better, but it makes IN a stressed syllable, and no one would normallly speak that way. The solution which gives the clearest reading of the line seems to be to simply allow "sauntering in" to speak in its own non-iambic rhythm, ba-da-da-da, an pick up the iambic beat with aMUSing PACE. What THAT does, significantly, is to make the word sauntering stand out. The word, which denotes a sort of proud stroll, is given its own pride of emphasis by being allowed to break the pattern the poem has already established. It's subtle, but it's there. A quick scan of the rest of the poem shows other places where the words which break the pattern are words signal what the tonality the writer wants to establish:


The south-west wind! how pleasant in the face

It breathes! while, sauntering in a musing pace,

I roam these new ploughed fields; or by the side

Of this old wood, where happy birds abide,

And the rich blackbird, through his golden bill,

Utters wild music when the rest are still.

Luscious the scent comes of the blossomed bean,

As o'er the path in rich disorder lean

Its stalks; when bees, in busy rows and toils,

Load home luxuriantly their yellow spoils.

The herd-cows toss the molehills in their play;

And often stand the stranger's steps at bay,

Mid clover blossoms red and tawny white,

Strong scented with the summer's warm delight.

At the denotative level, it is, like countless others of its genre, a pretty tame little poem about nature. But it's the "wild music" that Clare is trying to convey as he writes, the luxuriousness, the sense of sensual overload bordering on ecstasy. I've read a lot of student (and adult) sonnets that pounded away with all due denotative earnestness at a subject, but did not convey much in the way of emotion. John Clare here is giving us a lesson in how use rhythm to convey depth of feeling.

2 comments:

Sarah McIntosh Puglisi said...

Hi,
I haven't read outside my own preoccupations for awhile.
As you say posts back somewhat not keeping up on writing here .
And just scrolling with quick eyes picking up some reverberations. Have I told you lately how much I enjoy that about my visits here?
Have I expressed respect for what you do?

I'm going to, with a bit of imposition of concentration...go read what is new.

Hoping as ever things go well.

After taking a great many photos I remind you that I admire the eye you have, I don't know if you just have a fluid relationship that quickly recognizes "good" and snaps in an intuitive just do it. Or if a structured and "thought" process selects, frames and takes. Or both.
What I do know is I enjoy many of the pictures .

Bruce Schauble said...

Thanks, Sarah.

As far as the pictures go, I do try to frame them with some explicit concern for composition while I'm taking them, and then I usually re-crop them in iPhoto once I see what I've got. What I learned from the abstract expressionists is that whether or not there is any recogizable content, there is always color and shape and texture, and so even when I'm being very literal I try to attend to those things as well.

I've been following with sadness and sympathy your own travails with unsolicited negative commentary at your site. I hope that that works itself out. I admire your energy and your dedication and all the thought and hard work that goes into your posts, and I hope that you don't get discouraged by the negativity of whoever it was that decided to go off on you.

- B