By Christine Norvell
Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words.
The more we read poetry, the more we appreciate what we read. Whether we read poetry for ourselves or teach it in any grade or subject, reading, appreciating, and understanding it is a skill that grows with experience.
Over the years my comfort and confidence in understanding poetry has grown. To stretch myself, I’ve recently pondered volumes by Emily Brontë, Louis L’Amour, and Billy Collins, each a different era and style. Happily, I think I understood most of what I read. I trust my interaction with lines of verse positively affects how I explain what I see and understand to my students. But many times I don’t understand what I’m reading. The meter might be difficult or the free verse too free.
Though I have searched, purchased, and skimmed many poetry workbooks and anthologies over the years, I have always returned to one because thankfully it happens to be a text I understand. It might not be for every teacher or student, but I would bet a number of gems within retain their value. Originally written in 1938, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry remains a splendid collection of instruction and poems, especially for older students.
I most treasure their revised introduction from the third edition printed in 1960. Here, they explain concisely how poetry is both knowledge and experience. Even better, they begin with what poetry is not.
THE BIG THREE
- Reading and understanding poetry is not message-hunting. It is not finding the moral, the theme, the purpose, the slant, or the main idea alone. The poem is absolutely not a riddle to be solved. Thank goodness! “The knowledge that poetry yields is available to us only if we submit ourselves to the massive, and subtle, impact of the poem as a whole.”
- Reading and understanding poetry is not an emotional experience either, where we equate poetry with “pure realization.” Those who believe this have given up on the idea of an inherent message. They read poetry for the expression of emotion, and that’s it. Unfortunately, this can’t work. In one example, Brooks and Warren speak of John Keats’ passage about wine in “Ode to a Nightingale.” If you read these eight lines looking for emotion, you’ll simply think Keats is thirsty. If you read it in context, you realize that Keats’ metaphor shows us the quality of life he wants through the quality of the cool “draught of vintage” he has described.
- Reading and understanding poetry is not identifying a “beautiful statement of some high truth.” It can’t be just “fine statements in fine language.” It’s too limiting. Warren specifically uses an intentionally disjointed speech from Macbeth to illustrate his point. Macbeth is debating whether to kill the king, and his speech reflects his despair. Stilted words and broken lines are not lofty. Shakespeare styled the monologue to suit Macbeth’s emotion. The talk of regicide is definitely not a beautiful statement of high truth.
Identifying these misconceptions is so helpful. I’ve taught them to high schoolers when we analyze poems together and have found great success. Perhaps it’s fun to point out the negatives, but the big three are simple to talk through and apply as a class. Yet before I teach the details of types, tone, metrics, I also like to present some type of context for the poem itself, either about the poet, time period, influences, et al. I know many of us as humanities teachers love this part. That’s why I know you’ll like one of Warren and Brooks’ final chapters titled “How Poems Come About: Intention and Meaning.” Through a number of extended historical examples, they investigate how poems come to poets and how they write them in this distinctive chapter.
Most importantly they explain that knowing a poem’s cultural context is important, but only if it enlarges our understanding. We cannot confuse information about the life of a poet or his time with the poem itself. Not every poem begins with a poet’s personal experience. It could begin with a general idea. Take Milton as an example. He writes that he wished to find a way to embody the concepts of guilt and atonement in an epic poem. Though Paradise Lost wasn’t born for two more decades, prefatory notes housed in the library of Trinity College show outlines for two plays, one on the Deluge and one on the Fall of Man. He simply had an idea.
Though their language is heavily academic at times, Brooks and Warren do approach poetry in a realistic manner. They get that we want to get it. I realize I’ve only written about the opening and ending chapters of this textbook, but maybe it’s enough. Their philosophy and general commentary relieve the burden of understanding every part of a poem at once. The juicy inner chapters walk through types of poetry and metrics with so many wonderful poems and discussion questions that, as a teacher, I learn from reading the type of questions they ask about a poem. It takes practice for me. It takes practice for my students. I want to be able to lead them to “confront” the poem itself without Brooks and Warren, without me, without online help. I hope for the day they can read a poem with meaning because they are ready to read it.