Jan 152003

Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle
Part VI: Practice

“Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.” –Ezra Pound

It should also be at least as well read. Poems are in words, words have denotations, and strings of words have, or ought to have, a logical meaning. The reader’s first obligation is to figure out what that meaning is. This is as true in poetry as in prose. The critic Cleanth Brooks devoted a famous book, The Well-Wrought Urn, to debunking what he called “the heresy of paraphrase,” by which he meant that the meaning of a poem is not identical with its paraphrase. Of course this is true — there would be no reason to write the poem if it weren’t; but I think even Brooks would concede that if we can’t approximate the poem in prose then we aren’t likely to get very far. Consider this poem from Thomas Hardy:

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go,
When nightfall grays,
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

Forget about the rhyme and the meter for the moment. Just lay it out in prose and ask yourself, what is Hardy talking about? The narrator refers to “his spirit” his “tremulous being,” and his “phantom-footed shape.” The narrator is imagining himself posthumously, as a ghost; once you realize this the other details fall into place. The “mound above my breast” is the dirt on his grave; he will come out “when nightfall grays” because that is when ghosts appear.

A prose paraphrase would go something like this: I will live, after I die, in the places that I loved and in the memories of the people whom I loved and who loved me. Only they, the living, can bring me, the dead, to life again.

Perhaps this seems obvious. Yet two highly intelligent and literate people to whom I have shown this poem have been utterly unable to make it out, and I know they would have easily deciphered a prose passage of equal difficulty.

Tomorrow I will talk about some of the things that are left out of the paraphrase.

  3 Responses to “How to Read a Poem: I”

  1. Aaron wrote: "…but I think even Brooks would concede that if we can’t approximate the poem in prose [paraphrase] then we aren’t likely to get very far."

    Are you sure about that? I think you’re a bit off-base here. Paraphrase is not what’s needed to aid poetic comprehension. Epitome does it better, and much less intrusively. (And, yes, I got the full sense of the poem on first go-through.)


  2. Paraphrase aids understanding. Like all such aids it needs to keep its place, but I am convinced most readers of poetry would benefit by employing it more often, and more rigorously. Without its assistance I would be unable to follow a poem like Donne’s A Valediction: Of My Name In the Window, which like many Renaissance poems has a complex argument. It can also aid evaluation: if the poet has nothing to say in prose then it is likely he has nothing to say in verse. (Here Brooks would be annoyed with me.) Trying to paraphrase the first twenty lines of Collins’ Ode to Evening will convince you that the poem is hopeless.

    Epitome may be less "intrusive" than paraphrase, presumably because it’s shorter, but as analysts we ought not to apologize for intruding, which pretty much comes with the territory.

  3. […] Aaron Haspel gives us a multipart essay on How to Read a Poem. It starts here. […]

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