Poetry reading is a topic about which there is always something more that can usefully be said. This book explores key aspects of poetry by discussing poems which are quoted in full and then treated in a sustained way. It considers a broad range of poetry, using examples taken from the Tudor period to the twenty-first century. Some are very traditional, and some are very avant-garde, and most are somewhere in between, so it is unusually broad and eclectic in its generic range. The book invites readers to cultivate generic generosity, and entertain a willingness to be astonished by the bizarre practices poets sometimes indulge in, in the privacy of their garrets, and among consenting adults. The emphasis is on meanings rather than words, looking beyond technical devices like alliteration and assonance so that poems are understood as dynamic structures creating specific ends and effects. The three sections cover progressively expanding areas. The first deals with such basics as imagery, diction and metre; the second concerns broader matters, such as poetry and context, and the reading of sequences of poems. The third section looks at 'theorised' readings and the 'textual genesis' of poems from manuscript to print. By adopting a smallish personal 'stable' of writers whose work is followed in this long-term way, a poetry reader can develop the kind of intimacy with authors that brings a sense of confidence and purpose.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book aims to show that the meanings of poems are hardly ever deliberately or deviously hidden, nor are they usually encrypted in poetic devices like assonance or alliteration. A poem usually passes through various stages of development as it evolves towards its final form during the composition process. In the case of Neil Armstrong's 'poem', there is no known manuscript source, so the surviving audio-tapes of the event must be taken as its equivalent moment of origin. The book also aims to show that we do not have to tune into phonetic bat-squeaks from the hinterlands of language in order to read and appreciate a poem.
This chapter looks at Vicki Feaver's 'Ironing', Charlotte Smith's 'Middleton Church' sonnet and Roy Fisher's 'Sign Illuminated', trying to say something specific about poetic meaning. The success of the poem as a whole depends upon the complementary fusion of the 'showing' part in the main body and the 'telling' part towards the end. The extent of the reader's enjoyment and grasp of the poem will have a lot to do with appreciating the means and skillfulness of that fusion. The two aspects (telling and showing) are equally important to the construction of the overall poetic effect, even though they are not of equal length. The poetic effect as a whole is tightly shaped and crafted by the poet, and it is natural for poetry readers to be curious about how that process works.
A considerable mystique has gathered around the notion of the image in poetry, but the idea of the image is not in itself complex. A basic definition of the poetic image would be that it is an evoked object which is used to suggest an idea. In his book How to Read a Poem, Terry Eagleton considers the famous image which opens 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock', the first poem in T. S. Eliot's first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations of 1917. Eagleton sees this image as typifying the impact of modernism. Thomas Wyatt was the first English poet to make extensive use of the sonnet form, which he had encountered as a youthful aristocratic traveller in Italy. All the images in Wyatt's poem are readily comprehensible because they keep the object and the idea so rigorously separate.
This chapter considers diction in poetry from several points of view, beginning with a consideration of overall effects, rather than localised instances or phrases, using notions like 'pace', 'mood' and 'cohesion'. It looks at how grammatical and syntactical means can be used to slow the reader's arrival at a culminating phrase by re-ordering the way the words would probably occur in ordinary speech. The chapter illustrates poets' frequent preference for the apparently incongruous lexical item. It also looks at two examples of 'counter-intuitive' diction in poetry. The first example shows a poet's instinct for verbal counter-intuition at the start of Michael Donaghy's poem 'Liverpool'. The second example of counter-intuitive diction is from Ciaran Carson, whose 1989 book Belfast Confetti gives a series of disturbingly intimate insights into life in Belfast at the height of the 'Troubles' during the 1970s.
This chapter presents the opening lines of The Prelude, William Wordsworth's epic poem about the development of his own mind and poetic sensibility. The poem is revolutionary in many ways, being essentially a poetic autobiography, but nothing about the opening lines hints at that, for they are quietly reflective and unhurried. Poetry written in iambic pentameter uses lines of a fixed length of 10 syllables, each line having five main stresses and five 'feet'. Lines in iambic pentameter can be either rhymed or blank verse, as in the case of The Prelude. Poets other than Wordsworth often used iambic pentameter in the format known as heroic couplets. The ballad metre, as seen in popular verse narrative, might be regarded as a looser system of metrics than the other forms so far considered, because it combines lines of two different lengths to produce its characteristic running rhythm.
This chapter is devoted to the highly flexible and successful verse form. In its origins, the ode is much more ancient than any other form of verse, since it has a double ancestry which goes back to classical Greece and Rome. The Greek model is called the Pindaric ode, because it was perfected by the lyric poet Pindar, who lived from around 518 to around 438 BC. The other model is the Horatian ode, which is based on the forms used by the Roman poet Horace. The best-known example of the Horatian form of ode is Andrew Marvell's 'An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland', which Blair Worden describes as 'the most private of political poems'. The 'irregular' ode form, which became prominent in the nineteenth century, seems to take elements from both the Pindaric and the Horatian forms.
It is quite unusual to find in print discussions of whole poems rather than parts of poems. This is perhaps the inevitable result of the continuing influence of the notion of close reading, in spite of lengthy periods in which the study of literature was dominated by literary theory and various kinds of historicism. The suggested reading and study process is in four stages: the first and third involve what we call the 'distant reading' of aspects of the whole poem, while the second and fourth concern the 'close reading' of parts of it. So the four stages alternate between distant and close reading, and the process as a whole can be represented in semi-diagrammatic form as follows: think about the flow, think about a point within the flow, think about the flow again, and think about a point within the flow again.
Feelings can only be implied by lines of poetry, and have to be taken on trust by the reader, for there is no way of knowing whether the sentiments professed are actually felt by the claimant or not. The example of the poetic representation of feeling is an early poem by Lee Harwood, who was influenced by the methods of the New York poets of the mid-twentieth century. The three levels of feeling within the poem are brought to light by the considered act of viewing and re-viewing the poem from the standpoint of these three different forms of feeling. They are, firstly, the pain of bereavement and loss, secondly, the continuing sense of loss of selfhood which is the consequence of his blindness, and finally, the sexual deprivation which is the result of the poet's widowhood.
This chapter addresses the issue of text and context in poetry. The panel of poetic print takes up a relatively small area in the centre of the page, and the rest contains nothing but white space. The chapter presents two examples of Irish poets or poets closely associated with Ireland. The first poem is Ciaran Carson's 'Edward Hopper: Early Sunday Morning, 1939', and, as its title indicates, it is about Hopper's painting Early Sunday Morning. The next, and rather more complex, example takes us further back in literary history. It is a poem by Edmund Spenser from his Elizabethan sonnet sequence Amoretti and Epithalamion, which was written in celebration of his marriage to Irish heiress Elizabeth Boyle. Spenser is a notorious figure in Irish culture, being an English writer who received land grants in Ireland as a reward for taking part in a ruthless and punitive expedition against the Irish.