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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writing About Poetry


Copyright 2012 by Gary L. Pullman

Poetry is not difficult to analyze if a writer keeps certain points in mind.

Although it usually expresses a theme, poetry is primarily about feelings. It projects an attitude, or a point of view, concerning its topic, but this perspective is based on emotions rather than reason.

Poetry communicates indirectly; it suggests, rather than states directly. To do so, it uses rhetorical and stylistic devices. Some of these many techniques include allusions, diction, hyperbole, image, irony, metaphor, parallelism, personification, simile, symbol, synecdoche, and syntax.

Let's consider one of Emily Dickinson's poems:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

The verses are short (four lines) and simple (easy to read, if not to understand). The brevity and simplicity of the lines and stanzas suggest that the poem will present a simple idea about its topic. However, the opposite is true, so the poem's very simplicity is ironic.

The first figure of speech the reader encounters is personification: a snake (as it turns out) is described as a “fellow.” However, the “fellow” is being used ironically, because most people do not feel a sense of fellowship with regard to a snake. Many people are, in fact, afraid of snakes, regarding them as dangerous creatures that are about as unlike a human being as can be. The action verb “rides,” describing the snake's locomotion, suggests its undulating motion. The syntax of the last two lines of the first stanza is jumbled, as if the speaker, having been startled by her unexpected sight of the snake, has, in her shock, confused her words: “You may have met him, did you not,/ His notice sudden is.” Her fear at seeing the snake shows that it is not a “fellow” to her, despite her use of this term.

The snake crawls past her or near her, and she describes its appearance as it parts the grass, “as with a comb,” its “spotted shaft” appearing and vanishing as it does so, the grass closing at her “feet” before parting again, “further on.” Her continuous observation of the snake may suggest her fascination with the serpent.

She has encountered snakes earlier, as she'd walked “barefoot.” Seeing a snake sunning itself, she had even attempted to pick it up, or “secure it,” but the snake, which she had supposed “a whip-lash,” surprised her: “It wrinkled, and was gone.” The way in which she describes the snake's movement suggests how quickly it moves, as does her failure to capture it.

He describes animals as “nature's creatures,” and says that she feels a “cordiality” for them. She suggests that both she and “nature's people” have a relationship: “I know, and they know me.” However, the snake is a different kind of creature altogether. Its mere appearance is frightening; its presence takes her breath away, whether she is alone or with someone else (“attended or alone”):

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

By beginning her poem with the suggestion that the snake is like any of nature's other “people,” a “fellow” with whom she can have a “cordial” relationship, and then contradicting this initial characterization of the snake by describing its appearance, its behavior, and its disturbing effect upon her, the speaker suggests that, in fact, the snake is anything but a friendly “fellow” creature with whom she can have “cordial” relationship: it is something alien to her, something to respect, if not fear.

Let's try another, “The Snake,” by D. H. Lawrence:

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pajamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
Silently.
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.
He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honored?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness.

D. H. Lawrence based this poem on his encounter with a snake at his watering trough during his residence in Sicily in 1920. The speaker of the poem’s description of the snake is wonderfully evocative. The snake trails “his yellow-brown slackness softbellied down,” and sips “with his straight mouth,” drinking “through his straight gums, into his slack long body,” flickering “his two-forked tongue.” These descriptions convey the alien character of the snake. The speaker views the creature as a “he” rather than as an “it,” and, in fact, calls it a “god,” a “king,” and one of the “lords of life.” However, the serpent is no fellow creature; it is “a king in exile,” and it comes from another world, a subterranean realm which, unknown and strange to human beings, is both frightening and rather repulsive. Thus, the speaker has contradictory feelings about the serpent and what it represents. The conflict within himself between his admiration for the godlike serpent and his revulsion toward this creature that lives in the ground moves the poem to its climax, in which the speaker decides whether he will accept (or at least peacefully coexist with) the snake or reject it. Whichever course of action he takes will suggest something about his own character and, in general, humanity’s, since his actions are based, in part at least, on the “voices” of his “human education.”

There is something mesmerizing, if not frightening, about the snake, this creature from a subterranean world unknown and unseen by human beings. It is a creature that the “voices” within the speaker, the “voice of. . . [his] education” insist that he should kill, and a creature of which, the speaker freely admits, he is afraid:

On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

However, mingled with the speaker’s fear of this alien creature from the underworld is his sense of the snake’s having somehow honored him by visiting his water trough. The snake is like an ambassador from the world of nature and an emissary from the world of the unknown. The speaker has ambivalent feelings toward this otherworldly, subterranean creature. He fears the snake, but he also “likes” it and feels “honored” by its presence, even to the point of wishing that he could communicate with this visitor from “the secret earth”:

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?
Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

The speaker’s admiration for this godlike creature turns to disgust, however, when the snake returns to its hole and begins to slither into the earth. Its utterly alien nature reasserts itself when it returns from whence it came, and the speaker is overcome with horror, now that the snake’s “back was turned”:

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

Without the serpent’s unblinking gaze fixed upon him, the speaker is able to act, in a cowardly fashion, and throws “a clumsy log” in its direction, missing the snake. The serpent flees into the hole with “undignified haste,” leaving the speaker to regret his  paltry. . . vulgar. . . mean act” and to hate himself and the “voices” of his “accursed  human education,” which had declared that killing the snake would demonstrate his manliness. Instead, his attempt to kill one of the “lords of life” made him feel “paltry,” vulgar,” and “mean.”

Moreover, the sin of trying to kill the snake makes the speaker think of the “albatross,” an allusion to the seabird that the sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" repented of having killed. Like the snake from the earth, the bird from the sea (another dimension that is largely unknown and strange to human beings) represents realities beyond human knowledge and understanding, represents, perhaps, the mysteries of life and death themselves. The attempt to kill the snake was as wanton an act of cruelty as the ancient mariner‘s slaying of the albatross, and the effect is similar. Whereas the sailor in Coleridge‘s poem is cursed to wander the world and tell his tale as an act of penance, the speaker of Lawrence‘s poem is punished by his realization that his cowardly and petty act has made him less human and less a man. It has made him a sinner against the hidden, mysterious aspects of life itself, giving him “something to expiate;/A pettiness.”

The phrase “lords of life” is an allusion to lines in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Experience," in which Emerson writes of "The lords of life, the lords of life,” whom he has seen “pass/In their own guise" and of which, ironically, as a “little man,” he is puzzled, realizing that the mutable creatures of the “race” that he has founded is “least of all.”

1 comment:

Megan Potter said...

In addition to this when writing an essay about poetry, try to choose something to which you respond or something for which you have strong feelings. Great topic for my coursework examples.