Articles and Reviews

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ways of reading Poetry


     Let me begin with a few general statements.  The ‘meaning’ of a poem is not its summary or paraphrasable  ideas.  Poetry does not convey what can be conveyed in prose.  In other words, a poem does not only tell us something, but it also attempts to convey a unique experience, feelings, and emotions associated with it.  Such a poetic experience is called by Indian aestheticians ‘rasaanubhaava.’

     What are the various ways or poetic strategies a poet exploits to convey such poetic experience?  While Kuntaka, an eleventh-century Indian aesthetician, calls it vakrokti,’ Russian stylistician Mukarovsky calls it ‘Deviation’ –at different levels of a poem.  Let us consider these in detail.

a)      Deviation at the level of sounds or phonological deviation:
Repetition of the same or similar phones /sounds and words, results in Alliteration, Assonance, and Onomatopoeia.  Consider these lines:
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free.”  Or
“The moaning of doves in immemorial elms,
And the murmuring of innumerable bees.

Such a repetition of ‘f’ and ‘b’ in the first (by Coleridge in “Ancient Mariner”) and ‘m’ in the second (by Tennyson) creates a suitable atmosphere, of cheerfulness in the first and of calm twilight in the second. 

b)      Deviation at the level of metre:  Whereas metrical regularity is
an inviolable rule in Indian poetry, metrical variations are of special concern for English poets, with which they achieve extraordinary effects.
          “ The woods decay, the woods decay and fall;
          The vapours weep their burthen to the ground;
          Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath;
          And after many a summer dies the swan.
          Me only cruel immortality
         Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms.”    

In this passage, after four lines of regular Iambic pentameter, we find a trochee “me only cruel” and a five-syllable word “immortality.”  Through such  unexpected metrical deviation, Tennyson in “Tithonus”  foregrounds or stresses the tragedy of Tithonus who, though old like a shadow, cannot die; hence, in his case, it is ‘cruel’ immortality.

c)      Deviation at the level of morpheme or word
     Normally, single words are not broken at the end of a line; when a poet does so, that particular word gets foregrounded;  for instance:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
 Dom of daylight’s dauphin”

Here, Hopkins, in his celebrated poem “Windhover,”  breaks ‘kingdom’ into ‘king’ and ‘dom,’ thereby foregrounding ‘king’; that is exactly what he wants to convey –that the bird kingfisher is not a mere bird but a king among birds, a symbol of the endless mercy of ‘the king of kings,’ ie. God.

           Similarly, Eliot in “The Waste Land” uses the Sanskrit word ‘Ganga’ instead of the anglicized ‘Ganges’  in the line “ Ganga was sunken.”  Thus, he hopes to bring in all the collocations of purity, holiness, and sublimity that the Indians have towards the river.  If such a river as Ganga goes dry, then there is incurable spiritual dearth in this world.

d)     Deviation at the level of ‘Register’ or diction
     When a poet, consciously, imposes an alien register on a subject, he creates pointed irony.  An excellent example of this usage is W. H. Auden’s “ The unknown Citizen.”  He begins the poem with a file number ( To JS/ 07/M/378, This Marble Monument Is Erected By The State), and then he goes on to describe a citizen in a purely bureaucratic register.  The effect is one of total loss of individuality of a citizen in a modern state, who has no private life of his own, and who is only a number in the state-records.  The poem ends with these ironical words:
Was he free?  Was he happy?  The question is absurd.”

In fact, such clash or juxtaposition of registers is very common among English poets.  Donne, the 17th-century poet, uses the registers of warfare and love in his famous religious sonnet which begins with the lines “Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend,”  and ends with
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

     We find similar very successful use of this strategy in such poems like “Naming of Parts” and “Judging Distance.”

e)       Deviation at the level of syntax:  Normally, in the
‘object position’ of a sentence, a noun or a noun-phrase has to be used; but occasionally, a poet may break this usage to achieve poetic effects.  Consider these lines:
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.”   

In these lines, taken from a modern poem called “Love Song,” Alan Dugan uses a very unexpected word ‘a you’ which is grammatically wrong; a pronoun cannot succeed an article.  Hence, the words ‘a you’ stand out, suggesting that, the poet wants a woman as his wife who has her own  personality and not his better or worse half (‘a you’).  

f)       Connotation and Denotation or Structure and Texture
In a poem, as in any other communication, we find a message or a statement; this is denotation or structure.  However, while making this statement, the poet uses certain words, idioms and images which are charged with emotion; this aspect of the message is called connotation or texture (dhani in Sanskrit).  Often, in a good poem, there is a clash or tension between structure and texture.

Consider the famous poem, “ Ode On a Grecian urn” by Keats.  Its
denotative meaning is very simple: “ Life is trivial and transient; but Art is meaningful and permanent.”  However, when we consider the description of the urn, many questions arise.  To start with, the urn, symbolizing Art, is “unravished bride”; if  a bride is ‘unravished,’ it defeats the very purpose of marriage.  Then, the poem is full of unanswered questions: “What men or gods are these?”  “What maidens loth?”  “What mad pursuit?” and such.  The urn is only a “fair attitude”; and it is a “cold pastoral.”  With such evocative details, the poet succeeds in convincing us that ‘what appears to be an ideal is only an illusion.’  The bold lover (on the urn) near his beloved may be young forever, but he can never kiss his beloved.  In other words, Life may be transient, but it is fulfilling; but art is cold and unfulfilling.  Hence, the poet suggests that he prefers transient life to deathless art –totally opposed to the earlier statement.

g)      Allusions and Symbols: 
     Though any poem (or play/story) can talk of or show only  limited time and place, it aspires to envelop unlimited time and space.  A poet attempts to achieve this seemingly impossible objective through the use of allusions, symbols, and archetypes.

    Wordsworth begins his famous ode on Tintern Abbey with these lines:
… and wreaths of smoke, / Sent up in silence, from among the trees, …”
What Wordsworth is doing here is bring to the reader’s mind similar lines in Homer and Virgil, of wreaths of sacrificial smoke, ascending from the groves in gratitude to the gods in heaven.  In his “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley identifies ‘spirit’ and ‘wind’ as found in pagan cultures –what is called ‘praana vaayu’ in Sanskrit.  Eliot, in “Four Quartets,” alludes to Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna, regarding ‘nishkaama karma.’ 

       A symbol or an archetype is an incident or a detail in a poem, which, due to the contextual connotative pressure, suggests something more than what it means.  A brilliant example of such symbolism is the ‘Chestnut tree’ in  Yeats’s “Among the School Children.”   Along with the poem the symbol also develops, and in these lines (“O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?”) it becomes a great symbol of ‘the perfect man’ who harmonises intellect and emotions, rootedness and branching out, and this world and the next.    
     In short, poetry is a complex network of various linguistic and semantic structures; and, if we respond to its totality what it gives us is delightful instruction and instructive delight, experientially.
Dr. C. N. Ramachandran 


Laxminarayana Bhat P. said...

Dear Sir,

Namaste. What a poet 'does to language'is brought out very illustratively in this article. I like it immensely, especially 'a you, a wife'.

Sonia Kabra said...

Dear Sir

Your blog was very useful. Can you give us some tips on analysis of poetry.
(I am a 12th grader)