Monday, January 26, 2009

Reading Poetry #3

I was gratified by the response to last week’s reading poetry installment; very much appreciated the comments & the direct link on Kat's Poetikat’s Invisible Keepsakes blog. This week’s installment will look at poems by Emily Dickinson & Elizabeth Bishop, two poets I admire a great deal, & will examine the idea of “symbolism” in poetic language.

A while back a friend was talking to me about my own poetic endeavors & asked me about the symbolism in my poems. She was quite surprised when I explained to her that I don’t write “symbolically” in the sense that I don’t name a thing intending it to “stand in” for something unnamed—certainly not in any direct one-to-one relationship. & unless we’re talking about mediaeval poetry, which is often explicitly allegorical, I just don’t read poems in this way myself. Some critics (e.g., Veena Rani Prasad) have found a consistent color symbolism in Wallace Stevens’ poetry—for instance, according to Prasad:

green=the physical
purple=delight in the imagination

I’d agree with critic Helen Vendler, however, who characterized such “decoding” of symbols as “banal.” The most basic question about this is: “Can we enjoy the poems, & even internalize imaginatively valid readings of the poems without any 'decoding' apparatus?” My answer would be an unqualified “yes.” It’s a poor poem (in my opinion) that relies on some structure completely external to its own language to give it meaning.

I do believe—even know from my own experience—that a poet may have some underlying structures in mind as he/she composes a poem. For example, a number of the poems I wrote in San Francisco contained narrative elements that spun off from events in my own life, either in the past or the present. Does this mean that these poems are “autobiographical?” Not in any sense that I understand the term, since no one could construct a timeline or chronological narrative of my life from these poems, nor were they intended to be read in that sense. I can even believe that a poet may have in mind some sort of underlying symbolic system, tho more as a spur to creation—more as a sort of shorthand for him/herself to work from. If that underlying symbology becomes necessary to an appreciation of the poem, then (again, unless the poem is explicitly allegorical, which these days frankly would make it anachronistic) then the poem is considerably weakened by that. One must be able to read the poem on its own terms. I believe this is one concept behind Marianne Moore’s “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” You can read Ms Moore's wonderful poem "Poetry" (from which this line was tekn) here.

Let’s look at a well-known Emily Dickinson poem: “I taste a liquor never brewed.” One might be tempted to give this an allegorical reading: “the liquor never brewed”=x; the “Tankards scooped in Pearl”=y; the “Landlords” & “drunken bees”=z. To me, there’s no real internal evidence for such a reading; second, & most importantly, such a reading, even if one could construct it in a way that made some imaginative sense, would constrain the poem. The glory of this lyric would be the multiplicities it contains; it’s not that the “liquor never brewed” is only religion, or poetry, or love, or some more universal spiritual elation: it contains all these elements & invites the reader into a landscape where she/he can meditate on any or all of these questions. Here’s the poem in its entirety

I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling -- thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue—

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door—
When Butterflies— renounce their "drams"—
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints— to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the— Sun—

Let’s look at another wonderful poem, this time by 20th century U.S. poet Elizabeth Bishop. Before proceeding, I probably should note that this poem is written in a specific form, called the sestina. Sestinas are (in my opinion) great fun to write: you take 6 words to use as “end words” & these words are repeated in each stanza in a specified pattern. Sometimes, as in this poem, the sestina ends with a three-line coda that again repeats the end words in a specific order, this time using two per line. That information isn’t entirely crucial to this discussion, but I enjoy questions of form & structure, & so I assume (not always correctly) that others do as well.

Here’s the poem:

A Miracle for Breakfast

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
—like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

The first ferry of the day had just crossed the river.
It was so cold we hoped that the coffee
would be very hot, seeing that the sun
was not going to warm us; and that the crumb
would be a loaf each, buttered, by a miracle.
At seven a man stepped out on the balcony.

He stood for a minute alone on the balcony
looking over our heads toward the river.
A servant handed him the makings of a miracle,
consisting of one lone cup of coffee
and one roll, which he proceeded to crumb,
his head, so to speak, in the clouds—along with the sun.

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!
Each man received one rather hard crumb,
which some flicked scornfully into the river,
and, in a cup, one drop of the coffee.
Some of us stood around, waiting for the miracle.

I can tell what I saw next; it was not a miracle.
A beautiful villa stood in the sun
and from its doors came the smell of hot coffee.
In front, a baroque white plaster balcony
added by birds, who nest along the river,
—I saw it with one eye close to the crumb—

and galleries and marble chambers. My crumb
my mansion, made for me by a miracle,
through ages, by insects, birds, and the river
working the stone. Every day, in the sun,
at breakfast time I sit on my balcony
with my feet up, and drink gallons of coffee.

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony.

Elizabeth Bishop

The poem, which describes the poor & hungry waiting in a line to receive their “crumb” of bread & “drop” of coffee while an oblivious rich man eats on his balcony, could invite a strict religious reading: a sort of Dives & Lazarus morality tale, in which the imagined villa is “heaven” for the poor, while the rich Dives feasts on in a sinful lack of awareness. But I’d argue that this reading is limited. For instance, is the poem’s narrator also in some sort of oblivion, gazing on a dream world beyond the harsh reality of crumbs & cold? Is the “miracle” an “actual” event or a “fictive” one (even within the fictive framework of a poem)? Is the title “A Miracle for Breakfast” a sincere, straightforward statement or an ironic one (Bishop is certainly known for wry humor). These are all questions raised by the poem itself, & in my opinion any “key” in the form of “x=y” would do the poem a disservice.

In many ways, the argument her is similar to the arguments in the earlier posts in this series—again, it goes back to the “spreading of a fan of meanings”—poems raise questions, they point in various directions, they are kaleidoscopic. There is more “meaning” in a poem than allows for easy summary; the meaning of the poem is created in a circular fashion between the poet (poem) & the reader. Again, this is not to say a poem can “mean anything I want it to mean”—that’s the opposite of saying “the poem can only mean a very specific & concrete thing the poet intended”—to me, neither of these positions can be correct. The meanings develop along the circumference of this readerly/writerly circle, drawn from or by both.

Finally, does this sort of reading preclude external data? Is it important to know about a poet’s beliefs & social circumstances? A collection of folks called the New Critics tended to say, “no, we must read the poem as a text, isolated within itself.” Some people have said that more contemporary & ostensibly radical forms of criticism like Deconstruction also tended to view the text as a hermetically-sealed construct. Other schools of criticism, such as Marxist & Feminist & Historical criticism tend to contextualize a literary work in terms of outside forces & events; & ok, I’ll give you all the chance to say, “That Hayes is a wishy washy son-of-a-gun” by saying I can see value in both methods. As a poet, I tend to read poems based on the text itself; as a general reader, context is interesting & informative. I don't think context necessarily intrudes on the poem's imaginative world unless it's used to create meanings that fall completely beyond the poem's internal logic.

I hope this three-part series has given you some things to think about in terms of reading poetry—& be assured there’s plenty more poetry to come here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.


  1. Goodness...have I been reading poetry wrong?? I never knew there was so much thought required for it...I just read it as simply as I write it...and if I can't read it simply, then I simply don't read it! ;)

    I think maybe these poets are just a bit out of my reach.

    You make it all very fascinating, though.

    I still can't wait to read some of your poems! :)

    Or have you already posted some??

    Off to look around...

  2. Hi Ginger:

    Yeah, I have posted two. If you go all the way down to the "Labels" section on the left (under the Snow Owl label), you'll see the category "JH poems"-- that's me. For the very intrepid, clicking on the link to "My Poebiz" will take you to a website filled with tons of JH poems. I'll probably put another one up here-- oh, maybe February 9 or 10.

    I really do appreciate your interest.

  3. Not to over-simplify things, but I tend to look at a poem in the same way I view a painting - open to personal interpretation. I know it sounds like I'm contradicting myself here (in view of what I said on your last poetry post), but the difference is, I am not going to turn around and impose my interpretation on another person who may see something else. I think we all will respond to works or art, or poetry in different ways and that's what makes them so important -- we are provided with an outlet for emotion and thought and creativity, both as the poet and the reader.
    Speaking of my own process, I let poems come to me; I don't even know what their structure or tone will be until they start spilling out. Some are indeed better than others, but every once in a while it just works and you just know when that happens, don't you?
    I'd love to try writing a sestina. From what I understand, there aren't too many out there.


    P.S. Off to find your poems now...very much looking forward to them.

  4. Hi John, I don't want anyone to miss your fine series, so I've created another link.
    By the way, I love the cover of that Dickinson book.


  5. Kat:

    I don't find that contradictory: I assume anyone who's has an aesthetic sensitivity is going to "meet the artist halfway" in a sense-- sort of a colloquial way of talking about the "circle" I mentioned. In that sense (& in a second response to Giner), I don't see the act of reading poetry so much as work as being prepared to meet the poet halfway (or somewhere in the ballpark of halfway). & as Ginger says, sometimes that seems really worth it & sometimes it doesn't.

    Bishop has another sestina (titled "Sestina") that begins "september rain fell on the house"; Pound has one called "Sestina: Altaforte"; I'm sure Donald Justice wrote at least a few, but I can't recall titles. There are some to be found on the web.

    Thanks for your interest in the blog & my poems.

  6. Thanks for another excellent post. I like the kaleidoscopic definition. I, too, see poetry like I do any other art form. It can touch each of us individually, in various ways at various times.

  7. I've hd fabulous time on my first visit to your blog. Back soon!

  8. Willow: Thanks for the comment & the support you've given me on your fantastic blog-- "kaleidoscopic"-- something that often comes to my mind thinking poetry-- or just thinking about thinking!

    Dave: Thanks for stopping by, & so glad you enjoyed it. I looked over "Pics & Poems" & definitely look forward to reading more of your posts. Please stop by again!


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.