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Bob Shepherd: On Reading Poetry

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Bob Shepherd is a teacher, an author, a curriculum developer, and many other things.

On Reading Poems

Two thoughts, tonight, about poetry

First, a theory of poetry and how it means:

Perhaps the most important lesson that I received, in college, about reading poetry occurred on a day when, in a class on nineteenth-century American poets, I commented that unlike just about everyone else, I wasn’t a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry—that it seemed to me phony through and through. The guy made significant innovations in the short story. He invented BOTH the detective story and the madness/supernatural ambiguity on which so much horror and science fiction rides, but his poetry, mostly, seems to me contrived and false. The professor said, “Hmm. That’s a problem, your not believing him, because you can’t read a poem well without being willing to take the author’s trip.” And then he shoved everything off his desk and lay back on it and closed his eyes and recited “Annabel Lee” from memory. I still hold to my opinion about Poe. But I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

One thing I tried to teach my students about reading in general and, in particular, about reading poetry, is that they have to enter into it—they have to go into that world of the poem in their imaginations, and then they have an experience there, and that experience has significance of some kind, and that’s what meaning means in poetry. It’s the significance to the reader of that experience that he or she had. That doesn’t mean that any reading will do. If the poem is well-constructed, that experience will be quite specific, and the reader will be led inexorably to have something very like the experience and to gain from it something very like the significance that the writer intended. The whole thing is an exercise in bridging an ontological gap–my mind and experiences and understandings over here, yours over there. Poetry is a form of communication that tries—sometimes successfully! —to do the impossible. It’s the heavy-duty artillery for doing that job.

This is why it’s so awful that some English teachers approach poems by reading them aloud and then asking, “What does this mean?” as though poets were these perverse people who hide their true meanings and as though the meaning of a poem is some blithering generality (the answer to that English teacher’s question: e.g., Life is transitory. It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved. Some such generalized bs).

There’s an old joke that asks, “How many Vietnam veterans does it take to change a lightbulb?” Answer: “You wouldn’t know because you weren’t there, man!” The reader who turns a poem into a blithering generality hasn’t taken the poet’s trip, hasn’t had that vicarious experience, hasn’t learned things from the experience that mattered, that had significance, that were meaningful in that sense.

So, a poem is the very opposite, at its core, of a vehicle for expression of a general principle, though one can glean general principles from good poems, as from life. A good poem is incredibly concrete and precise. Every added detail further delimits the precision, the particularity, of the world of the poem. To be specific about this, to say that Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is about anguish at the loss of faith is true enough, but if that’s it—if that’s its sole meaning to you—then you weren’t really there, man. The moment that Arnold describes so precisely, has to be experienced—that fellow, standing at the window, looking at the receding tide, which no longer speaks but is a freaking thing roaring mechanically, who tries to have this conversation with the woman in the room who isn’t really interested, whom he fears does not love him, is experiencing loss on so many levels—of faith, of hope, of belief in the progress of the world, of love. And if you’ve gone there, if you’ve inhabited him as you read the poem, and if you’ve experienced his PARTICULAR experience, then it’s not one that you’ll readily forget. It’s wrenching, and heart-breaking. And it will be quite meaningful to you.

Great poetic writing renders with a few incredibly deft strokes that entire world into which the reader enters. A few words are enough to bring it fully, hauntingly, breathtakingly into being in the mind of the reader. This is what Derek Walcott was talking about in the opening of his “Map of the New World: 1. Archipelagoes”:

At the end of this sentence, rain will begin.
At the rain’s edge, a sail.

Poof. Rain. A sail. A world. He’s talking about the freaking ancient MAGIC by which, via words, one brings a world into being. It’s what’s left for Homer to do now that Helen’s hair is a grey cloud and Troy is an ashpit in a drizzle.

So, poems mean in a way that treatises don’t. And this is why authenticity is so important in poetry—why that’s what separates the good from the bad, “Dover Beach” from the typical high-school versifying of adolescent angst and Valentines. If the poem doesn’t create an authentic world, you can’t go into it. There’s no coherent there to go into.

There has to be a there there. I have a young friend, Brooke Baker Belk, who is a very great poet. There’s a there there in her work, and this separates it from almost everything else being written now.

Second, the need for poetry to have something to say.

I love Shelley. And I think that he’s far more important than most people realize. He wrote in “A Defense of Poetry” that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and ironically, that’s true of him today. HE FREAKING INVENTED the language that we use to talk about our emotions, and every stupid pop song in the 20th and 21st century owes an enormous debt to the language he used. No Shelley, no “Sounds of Silence” or “Stairway to Heaven.” But the writers of those songs and the consumers of them typically did not and do not have a clue that this is so. And he did it so, so, so much better, ofc, than rock star lyricists typically do, Lord knows. By all the gods, he could use words well. And what a spirit he had! He was probably murdered, you know, by British intelligence because of his rabble-rousing for Irish independence (this was the proximate and determinative cause, but he was also loathed by conservatives for being an aristocrat who hated aristocracy, for espousing republicanism and the end of monarchy, for being a model to young people, they thought, of atheism and sexual license).

But there’s an aspect to his work that really troubles me: He had a lot of really bad ideas. Platonism, determinism. Stupid, wrong, dead-end ideas. Stuff from his time. He died young. Too young, d**n it, for he was brilliant. He wrote sooooo well, and he was brilliant. At the age of 24, he could read ancient Greek as you read Google News. Perhaps in time he would have developed some good ideas (aside from his political ones). Poetry, like other writing, is supposed to communicate. It renders significant experiences, and so they have an earned quality, like actual life. And in the greatest poetry, what is earned is intellectually, spiritually, morally, or in some other way significant. It matters. It’s fresh and new and insightful. And so, it helps, a lot, for anyone who wishes to write poetry to have something to say. The very best poems always do. “A Tree Telling of Orpheus.” “Dover Beach.” “Credences of Summer.” “Directive.” ‘Mr. Flood’s Party.” “Lucinda Matlock.” “Among School Children.” “Easter 1916.” Almost anything by Blake or Rumi. These poems provide deeply significant experiences that teach, about life, about other people. It’s worth taking their authors’ trips.

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