When I Read a Poem…

This is how the chapter should begin. Every student faces this problem, and the answer should come in the space indicated by……Whether it is the reading of a poem for enjoyment, or for examination purposes, the student has to answer the question in a highly per­sonalized form : When I read a poem, what happens to me ? A poem is a living entity, an organism and a complete whole in itself.

Thus, it demands a response, the reaction to this stimulus in verbal form and an expression to the vibrations in our person the moment we read it. It may be very difficult to explain the process by which a poem touches the various strings in our heart, yet the reaction in its final form is our answer. The process is mysterious and the student has to grope in the dark recesses of his heart with the aid of his sharp intelligence (manifested in his perceptive powers) and sympathetic outlook.

When I read a poem, what do I look for in it ? To put the question in this manner is a little naive. The literary “pundit” may pounce on me by saying that I am advocating preconceived notions. With the look of a large-hearted philosopher on his face, he might tell me that I should “go” to the poem with an open, receptive and sympathetic mind. But I would stick to my question, if not for our literary ‘pundit’, at least for our students for whom poetry apprecia­tion is to begin through a process of training and exercise. There are various things which a beginner needs to look for while tackling a poem. These may largely be grouped as : content and technique and the overall impression. What is the subject-matter of the poem in terms of the prose statement and the various subtleties arising out of it, would be covered under the first group. What is the form that this subject-matter evolves for itself, for its verbal expression, would be the concern of the second group. The second group would tend to account for various poetical devices with help of which the feel­ings intended to be conveyed are brought into focus. The third group would require the reader to sum up his impression of the poem. This may roughly be considered as satisfying, stimulating or not so satisfying. Given literary terms, it may refer to the tone and the I armonious combination of content and technique.
All these would be dealt with at great length in the subsequent chapters. What is of concern here is the background which every student needs before he is exposed to an exercise in practical criticism of poetry. All this is only systematic following of a set plan which has to be imposed on the book. It has already been made clear that there are no fixed laws for the appreciation of poetry, it is Only the student point of view that guides us to talk in this manner. As has been intelligently pointed out by Elizabeth Drew :
“It (the task of criticism) is not to lay down laws for what is good or bad in poetry, nor to be like a college professor des­cribed in one of the novels of H. G. Wells : “He was one of those who teach us how to appreciate poetry and prose, and when to say Oh ! and Ah ! and when to shake one’s head about it discouragingly like a bus conductor who is proffered a doubt­ful coin.” The aim of any critic who is a lover of poetry must be to make the reading of it an exploration, which constantly reveals new insights to the reader about himself as well as about the writers and writing of poems. It must be an invita­tion to look, to listen, to linger in the presence of poetry and to feel its spell.”
Appreciation of poetry thus becomes an education of the mind, profitable for its own sake.
The Age:
A poem, as an organism, is a product of many-fold things which the reader has to unravel for himself. As a poem is born in a particular time, a period and in a particular set of socio-cultural circumstances, it presents in some way or the other a mirror of the conventions, fashions, tastes and values of the period in which it was written. When the reader concerns himself with this aspect of the poem, he assumes the role of a socio-cultural historian. He considers the representativeness of the poet as a witness, he extends his inquiry into the socio-cultural history of the period and into the other writings of the poet. It is through this process, through diving deep into journals, magazines, books and other records, that the reader is enabled to form a picture about the age in question. Such an approach has been widely propagated by critical authorities like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, and by cultural historians like Spengler and Toynbee. A warning at this stage would not be out of place. Such an approach should not be practised in isolation. A poem, to some extent, does exist outside its age, or, let us say, exists within itself and for itself. Merely guided by this historical approach to criticism, the reader would be blinding himself to other insights, quite significant in their own right.
The Poet Himself :
A poem may refer to some aspect of the poet’s own life, his intense experiences of varying nature or at times his own dissatisfactions and satisfactions. This helps a reader to assert that art basically is a highly personalized form. It is later that a dimension of objec­tivity is granted to it. It is the intense heat caused by the magnitude of an experience that inspires an individual to seek different outlets. Our poet seeks the outlet in his creative work. Thus a poem throws sufficient light on the poet s manner of life, his qualities of mind and the structure of his personality. This general line of inquiry has a long tradition extending from Longinus in antiquity to the critical writings of such moderns as T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke and Ernest Jones. Much of the aid has been provided by advances in the science of psychology, the credit of which should go to pioneer psychologists like Freud, Jung, Adler and William James and many others. Elizabeth Drew refers to this aspect in a very lucid manner :
“……For though the sociologists tell us that man’s basic needs are food, sleep, shelter and sexual fulfillment, it seems that he has always had another need—something that on the face of it seems quite superfluous and useless—the urge to self-creation in art. Life under natural conditions may be, as Hobbes des­cribed it, “nasty, brutish and short”, but one of the things that has always distinguished man from his brothers the brutes, is his compulsion to make things of beauty out- of his own experience which embody his consciousness in some more endur­ing form. Even in his most primitive stage he adorned his cave walls with drawings. As he developed his civilizations, he fashioned jewellery and metal work and decorated his dishes and pots and funeral urns. He danced and chanted rhythmical incantations, and for the last two to three thousand years we have records of how he used his speech, not only for the utilitarian purpose of communicating directly with his fellows but to create in musical patterns the stories of his people and the records of his thoughts, his feelings and his sensations.”
The psychologist Jung bases a great deal of his observation of psychological phenomena on the existence of what he calls the Collec­tive Unconscious. He sees this as an inherited storehouse of related images and of large symbolic patterns which he thinks exists un­consciously within every human being. He believes this inheritance accounts for the appearance of these same patterns again and again in dream, in myth, and in imaginative art. Whether, the presence of a collective unconscious can be proved is very uncertain, but it is quite certain that literature can well be called the written record of the collective consciousness of man. “Man is the great venture in consciousness” said D.H. Lawrence, and we have an inheritance of thousands of years of this growing consciousness recorded in script on papyrus and vellum and parchment, and for the last five hundred years in the printed word.
Dramatic Images of Human Condition :
Poetry represents human condition, and the manifestation of human condition is in the form of verbal expression. It is bound to influence a reader’s life, his thoughts, his reactions to certain situations which were previously set or interpreted in a particular manner. Looked from this angle, the reader is stimulated to ask questions about the moral implications of the human action, the probability and fidelity of the dramatic representation, the quality of the characters and actions enumerated and the overall line of thinking embedded in the work. The reader may then go on to compare the breadth, complexity and truth of the vision of life that it portrays with that of the other poet or poets. This can be called, in broad terms, as relating literature to life, the social commitment of literature. Plato, Sidney, Shelley, Arnold, Bradley and T.S. Eliot are some of the critics who have heralded such a message in their writings.
The Poem Itself :
This is yet another approach to poetry appreciation. The reader, here, has to concern mainly with the poem without paying any attention to the historical background, the moral implications or the insights in the personality of the poet. The poem in itself assumes utmost significance, becomes an independent entity. It is here that the reader comes under the direct influence of what has been termed as New Criticism ; “Damn the other things, read just the poem,” is their clue. A poem comes into being because the poet makes it, gives it a design according to certain impulses which guide him at that creative moments The reader, in such a state, has to concentrate on the way the poet plays with the words. As we read widely the work of a poet, we begin to develop an awareness of a characteristic style. It may be elevated than ordinary speech (Milton), fastidious and exotic (Wallace Stevens), wittily urbane (W.H. Auden), sensuously opulent (John Keats), plain and straightforward (Edwin Muir) or casual and colloquial (Robert Frost). There may be many more ‘terms, for styles are highly individualized in nature. The next stop for the reader is to seek out the device of language which produces such a characteristic in an individual’s style. Is it in the choice of words that the poet’s individuality is marked ? The words chosen by the poet may be concrete or abstract, long or short, technical or everyday, strange or familiar, standard or belonging to dialects. Does the poet use the normal order of sentence construc­tion or inverts it ? Is he economical or generous’ in the use of modifiers ? Does he prefer simple or complex sentences? Does he withhold his meaning until the end of the sentence ? Does he rely heavily on similes and metaphors ? What. is the areas of experience from which these devices are derived ? Does he make use of sym­bolism ? , Is he fond of allusions ? Does he have a marked preference for certain kinds of metres and stanza forms ? Does he like to work out intricate relations between the stanza structure and the evolution of thought and feeling in the poem, or is he more content with a flexible blank verse that stamps no definite mould on the turns of thought ? Such questions as these do not exhaust the stylistic devices that may contribute to the distinctive quality of a poet’s style, these however act as guidelines for the beginner.
The Material Represented :
We come back to our original proposition : the content or subject-matter of the poem. What are the feelings, kinds of persons or ideas that the poet prefers to represent in his work ? With the vast poetical work with us, we can say that poets prefer a certain area of experience more than others for their work. Browning’s emphasis has been on human relationship, Frost’s on happenings of nature, Wordsworth’s on personal problems of value and conduct, etc. In almost every area of creative choice the possibilities are endless. The characters may range from grave and lofty to flippant and insignificant, from emotionally expensive to stoically restrained, from innocent to sophisticated, from exuberant to world-weary.
The Response :
After the reader has one through the fundamental acquaintance with the subject-matter and the various techniques and approaches, he has to tackle the problem of emotional response to this created whole. Is it pity, indignation, laughter, sympathy or surprise ? The problem of the emotional response to a poem is difficult in its nature. Readers with differing backgrounds would react to the same poem in different ways. Each may see a different thing in the poem. How-ever, training tunes one to being more objective in the response. As one reads more of a poet’s work, one learns to discriminate in a better way. This response would be guided by the way the poet has chosen to present his work. Here the reader is confronted with terms like the point of view, selection of detail, ordering of parts and the way these parts are handled. Some poets are fond of elaborating the circumstances which give rise to the lyric activity before presenting the activity itself. Others plunge immediately into the experience of feeling or thinking and withhold its causes until the end or leave them to be inferred. Some poets prefer to make the connections between one thought and the other to be solved by the reader. In different kinds of poems—expository, narrative, lyrical or dramatic—the poet will have different choices.
A Central Poetic Concern or the Poet’s Vision :
Is there some central poetic concern or some pervasive view of the world engaging the artist’s attention over a period of time which explains his predilection for certain poetic contexts, certain lyric utterances are exclamatory, marked by the strong but irregular rhythms of passionate speech, and intensified by heavy alteration, Internal rhyme, and onomatopoetic effects. And most characteristic of all, his impatient urgency causes him to jam nouns together without the connectives that normally accompany deliberate speech.
It is always important to remember that a poet may have more than one poetic vein, that he may work in a variety of modes. Indeed, it is useful to distinguish between poets who have but one voice and those who have many. It is also important to remember that a poet may undergo development during his artistic career. William Butler Yeats, for example, began as a romantic poet aiming at nebulous and tenuous effects, but in mid-career he began to sense the powers of plainess and directness in poetry. Thus, in seeking the poet’s vision, you will do well to keep in mind the possibility of diversity.
It may have occurred to you by now that the effort to define a poet’s vision can be an interesting inquiry in its own right. To grow familiar with the particular quality of an artist’s imagination, to observe the range of his interests, and to trace out how his imagina­tion forms, certain techniques of representation, and certain devices of diction ? This notion of a central poetic concern—what we have called the poet’s vision—might be understood if we think of a poet as having a particular susceptibility to certain kinds of experience, or a pre-occupation with certain moral or intellectual problems, or a reliance upon certain assumptions about life. These susceptibilities, pm-occupation, or assumptions are about life. These susceptibili­ties, pre-occupations may operate at moments of inspiration in influencing the many choices that creative writing requires.
The poetic vein that seems to nourish much of Hopkin’s poetry, for example, is his susceptibility to moments of intense religious feeling, a feeling that ranges from a fervent joy and wonder at manifes­tations in nature of “God’s grandeur”—a kestrel riding the air, a kingfisher in a flashing dive, or a fresh spring day, to agonizing despair when he feels no longer sustained by God’s grace. His interest in such manifestations is influenced by his technological as­sumption that each thing has its own peculiar essence and that when that essence is expressed in the proper functioning of the object or living being, God’s glory is most fully revealed. But whether he feels in or out of a state of grace, Hopkins tends to write lyrics portraying intense movements of passion. Consequently his poems begin at a fever pitch, elaborate a single burst of thought or feeling, and are soon done (the sonnet provides his favourite stanza pattern). H. and his interests are bodied forth in his art and are always increasing your awareness of human possibilities. But more important, an understanding of the poet’s vision allows you to return to his poems as a better reader and critic. Having learned to recognize his special habits of language, his favourite contexts, and his preferred techniques for disclosing his subject, you will be that much more adept at coming to artistic terms with any one of his poems ; and, having surveyed the range of his work, you will be that much more able to see how that poem was, perhaps, a tentative experiment, or that it achieved a triumphant solution to a persistent problem, or that it merely repeated earlier efforts, or that it marked a turning point in his career.
Changing Characteristics of the Poetic Art front Period to Period :
Here the aim is to acquire a sense of the changing characteristics of the poetic art from period to period. To trace the intricate lines of development in the lyric and to uncover the causes of change are undoubtedly the tasks of mature scholarship, but even the amateur may add zest to his reading by beginning his own list of observations regarding the evolution of conventions. One of the interesting experiments that may be carried out while you are reading through a poetry-anthology is to take as a constant one of the topics and then ask what changes take place in that area from age to age. For example, you may take a certain poetic form—say, the serious meditative of delibe­rative lyric which concludes with an important solution or choice for the speaker (perhaps Milton’s “Lycidas.” Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”). Then you might note what changes occur from period to period in the diction employ­ed with the form, the types of situations that provoke the response, the premises that are involved in the solution or choice, the types of characters engaged in the experience, the nature of the conclusion, the devices of representation employed, and so on. Or you may hold a certain subject-matter constant (say, love, death, war, childhood. nature, or feminine beauty) and consider what variations it undergoes over a period of time. In what poetic forms does it appear ? What images are associated with it ? Is it treated lightly or seriously ? Or you may hold a certain conventions constant, such as the con­vention of the pastoral poem or the ode, and observe the variations it undergoes from generation to generation. Or you may trace the changes in poetic diction over a period of time, as Josephine Miles has done in her detailed studies of poetic language. Experiments of this kind are limited only by your curiosity and ingenuity, but they should all be aimed at refining your sense of what characterizes each age and at locating the sequence by which changes came about.
These, then, are some of the broad and far-reaching avenues that lead out from the study of single poems. To grow intimate with the ways of an individual poet, to savour his distinctive qualities in the setting of his own time, to glimpse art of a given culture—these are all pleasurable exercises of the mind in their own right, but it should be remembered that their greatest value is that they bring you back to the individual poem with strengthened powers of discrimina­tion and enjoyment.
(Norman Friedman and McLaughin)

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