How Poems Move #3

Monday, April 8, 2013

It’s National Poetry Month and TriQuarterly is proud to introduce a new web series by Reginald Gibbons, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. Professor Gibbons will report on his class discussion—what can be talked about with clarity and what is elusive, too.  And also what his students find most interesting and how they develop through the course.




It’s always a pleasure for me to begin talking about poetry with this little bit of folk poetry, first attested only in the 19th century, but it must be much older.  We spent a fair amount of time simply noticing everything that’s going on in these few words:

oats, peas, beans and barley grow

Beyond using that simple poetic line to notice sounds, rhythms, and ideas, these first few days of class I’ve spent reading just three poems with the students.

My idea is to get everything we can out of those three poems—they represent a wide range of poetic styles and effects—and start, just start, to map all the sorts of things that language-in-poems, or human-beings-doing-poetry, does, everything it and we make happen in terms of thought and feeling and in terms of using more of language than we do in most of everyday life.  Which doesn’t mean that the language in a poem can’t be everyday, casual, intimate, personal.  It can and often is, in our day. But because we encounter that language in and as a poem, we know that there’s more meaning in it—if we listen for it—than we’re used to hearing or reading.

We talked about Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist”: we looked at the kinds of words he uses (so many with Old English roots—earthen words, used originally in a culture and time where technology was limited to crops and animals and weapons and ships), and at how these words create so many visual images, and how these remain “literal images” for the most part, without creating symbolic resonances in us.  He sets a scene very vividly, in order to narrate (another thing the poem does) a moment of awakening (at least, that’s how it’s narrated, whatever experience he may have had, or not, and may still have remembered, at the time he was writing the poem). He invites us into what seems an autobiographical episode. We also looked at where the poem takes a step beyond where it has been hovering. It’s especially obvious where Heaney breaks that line two thirds of the way in, into two parts. That’s when the poem gets darker. And we listened to the speech stresses, and began, just began, to put them in relation to his “loose” iambic pentameter. (But notice that the first line and the last are very neatly done as impeccable pentameter lines) (including that extra unstressed syllable at the very end of the poem—almost as if he had barely gotten his fingers out in time—from where he didn’t, in the poem, actually put them). 

Then we talked about Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.”  

I asked students to read on their own the story of this hate-crime murder, and of how Till’s mother kept the coffin open for the funeral in Chicago.  When we looked at the imagery, the word choice, in this poem, we saw the superficial resemblance to the imagery in Heaney’s poem (the words for things: taffy, coffee, mother, room, boy, prairie, and for their qualities: pretty-faced, red, black, and so on).  And we also saw the great difference—in Brooks’s poem, we are witnesses to something real, historical, that has enormous symbolic meaning.  That is, the words are both literal in their creating our mental images, and many of them also have a symbolic value (three kinds of “black,” for instance, each of them pouring meaning into these simple lines).

We ended with Emily Dickinson’s famous poem number 359, “A Bird came down the Walk.”  There’s so much for us to notice, think, and feel, in this poem.  It’s far beyond the cute poem it’s thought to be.  At the beginning, there are those visual images that create the scene of the poem.  Simple, direct, amusing—and a little odd.  ”A dew,” “a grass.”  The little narrative has begun impersonally, then there’s an unsettling moment when the narrator shows up, and we see that by implication either the bird or the narrator, or both, feels anxiety, caution.  There’s something dangerous for the bird in the presence of the human being—and there’s something dangerous for the human being in the *ideas* that will now bubble up with an almost joyous rapidity of metaphorical invention.  And there’s all the ambiguity of that metaphorical profusion and overlap—things that can’t entirely be figured out, syntax that works in two different ways, words left out…

So in the first few days, we’ve got a fair amount to be placed on each student’s map of poetic technique: the rhythms created by the speech stresses; phonetic figures (repeated sounds); the movement from idea to idea or feeling to feeling or image to image, etc., families of words (from Old English roots, from Latin ones—the two biggest ones in English); the way these aspects of craft and others “mark” the language of a poem as poetic, and set us up to pay attention to that language much more closely, and how the poetic devices also vouch for the poet’s artistic skill.  And more.  We’ll see such things (and more yet to be named and pondered) over and over, as we go, and we’ll see how the individuality of each poet’s voice is created.  And we’ll get a sense of the artistic range of the possibilities of poetry, and a little of a sense of the historical evolution of poetry—from Homer (we’ll look at one brief episode) to Jay-Z.   

-Reginald Gibbons