Monica Cure: How to Read Poetry [Torrey Honors Context Lecture]

[upbeat music]>>Welcome to the lecture
on reading poetry. And what I want to know first is how self-selecting this group is. So how many of you love poetry? [cheers] Okay, okay, so maybe about half. Now I want to know how
many of you hate poetry? [cheers and laughter] Okay, a decent number, a decent number. And some of you guys, then, of course, fall in between or you don’t want to say, you’re reserving the right to be silent. So apparently, you know, given
myself kind of a hard task with a title like “Reading Poetry”. So in under an hour, I want
to give you an approach to reading poetry that
will both inspire you, if you’re not yet a fan, inform you, if you are, possibly even inspire you to write poetry, that’s a big possible, I have
a secret weapon for that, if I don’t manage to do it in my lecture, which I will reveal at the end. So besides that, not to mention, I actually want to hit
on the range of the poets that you’re reading and
the different houses in Torrey this semester. So some of you are
reading Dante and Chaucer, from the Middle Ages, mm-hm, others Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, from the Renaissance. We have Blake and Wordsworth,
among the Romantics. And with Frost, we’re
even starting to move towards Modernism, so it’s quite the range, but here we go. In part, for part of
prepping this lecture, I was doing research
and I found three books in the Biola library, all entitled, “How to Read a Poem”. I kid you not, three books, all
called “How to Read a Poem”. So it’s a thing, it’s a thing. [laughter] Yeah, it’s a thing. And the first book I looked
at was by Shira Wolosky, and she’s a literature professor, in some ways I think that might actually be the most helpful book for you guys, and I’ll be referring to
all three of these writers. And the second one is Edward Hirsch. Now he’s a professor,
but more principally, he’s a poet, an award-winning poet, and right now he’s the current president of the Guggenheim Foundation. What’s interesting about his book was that it was a surprise best-seller. And it’s kind of a surprise, right? ‘Cause poetry, not always
the biggest audience, except for tonight, when you sort of have to be here sort of. [laughter] But one of the reasons I think that is is because it was, he
used his readings of poems in some ways to show his
own personal response, so he did his autobiography by way of his readings of different poems. And the last one was a
book by Terry Eagleton. He’s a pretty famous Marxist
literary theorist and critic, probably the most famous among the three. But what all three of these have in common is that they themselves
all start by talking about the need to grapple
with the definition of what poetry is, and they are all filled with poems. So it’s kind of like you’re
stuck in a vicious circle. In order to learn how to read poetry, you have to read poetry. And the way Hirsch puts it, he says, “My idea for teaching
you how to read a poem “is to present certain emblematic poems “I care about deeply
and to offer strategies “for reading these poems. “My readings are meant to be
instructive and suggestive, “not definitive, since poems
are endlessly interpretable.” For those of you who do
not like poetry that much, that seems kind of problematic, right? A little problematic. It gets worse. [laughter] Yeah. Besides reading those three books, I also looked at a couple books
about how to write poetry, and they sounded very similar. Reading poetry and writing poetry actually seem to have a lot in common. So I looked at books by John Redmond and Mary Oliver, both poets. Oh good, yeah, some fans. And Mary Oliver writes, “Good
poems are the best teachers, “perhaps they are the only teachers.” Okay, now some good news
is there is actually a reason for this difficulty, because poetry itself straddles the line between being able to speak
to a large group of people with diverse experiences, and putting a particular
precise experience into really specific words, and it has to do both of
these at the same time. So if a poem is about someone
who’s traveling to India, it must convince you
that it could have used no other words than the
one it used to convey what it conveyed, but it
also must make you believe by the end of the poem
that you have, in some way, traveled to India, even if
you’ve never left California. So another way of saying this is that each poem is unique, which
sounds like a platitude, right? Each poem is unique. But the problem is if it’s utterly unique, there’s no way to transfer a concept from one poem to another. So it both has to be
unique and not unique. And as I will explain shortly, the one way that poetry reconciles that is the way that it thrives on surprise. So that will come later. But since you guys are expert pre-readers, let’s try to apply that concept. What might pre-reading be for a poem? How would you pre-read a poem? Especially a short
poem, what would you do? Any guesses?>>Student: You could look
at the form of the poem.>>Okay, could look at the form. [background noise drowns out other sounds] No, no, no, that’s good, look at a form. Yes?>>Student: You read the title.>>You read the title, mm-hmm. [laughter] Right? All good ways. But I would suggest even before then, with poetry, you actually
have to shift the way that you’re thinking about what it is that you’re looking at, and so I want to say you have to, when you come to a
poem, you have to expect to be surprised, and I mean that in a very
rigorous, intellectual fashion. You have to expect to be surprised. You have to be looking for the surprise, and that will continue to
be clarified as we continue. So that’s why you have this
really nice blank screen when I come to reading poetry, because that’s what we’re talking about. So the first thing you need to know is that poetry is meant to
wonder about poetry itself, and Wolosky writes, “Poetry is language “that always means more.” So the very first thing
you can know about poems is that they are made up of language. Again, seems perfectly obvious, but I present for your perusal, a conversation between
the Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and the French Symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, and Degas was trying to write poetry. He was a very accomplished
painter, thought “I’m gonna try some poetry.” And he was having some writer’s block. Anyone want to be Degas? You can say it in English or in French. Yes?>>Student: “It isn’t ideas I’m short of, “I’ve got too many.”>>And then, you can
see, he’s really pained, his expression, he’s just
very thoughtful about it. [laughter] What does Mallarme say? Yes.>>Student: “But Degas,
you can’t make a poem “with ideas, you make it with words!”>>That’s right, you can’t
make a poem with ideas, you make it with words. So how a poem is saying
something is part of the what. You cannot come to a poem and just expect to look for an idea. You have to look at the language. That is the idea. That is absolutely how the idea happens. Another way to put this is in
the words of Terry Eagleton, and he writes, “People
sometimes talk about digging “out the ideas behind the poem’s language, “but this kind of spacial
metaphor is misleading, “for it is not as though
the language is a kind of “disposable cellophane
in which the ideas come “ready wrapped, on the
contrary, the language “of a poem is constitutive of its ideas.” Wow, you can’t really see that that much, I made that slide very light, but it’s interesting right? So we’re getting that sort
of theoretical explanation of poetry and that it’s the
language but not the ideas, but in here, in his very
way of talking about poetry, he’s using a metaphor which we associate with poetic language. What other things do we
associate with poetic language?>>Student: We associate
rhyme and like musical quality of the words and the
timing the words will take.>>Mm-hmm, that’s one way, yeah. What else?>>Student: Allusions?>>What’s that?>>Student: Allusions?>>Allusions, mm-hmm.>>Student: Personification.>>Mm-hmm, all good things. You guys are a little more
advanced in your poetry reading, and I know a lot of people, when they think about
poetry and don’t like it, they think, well, it uses
all this flowery language, it talks about thees and thous even though we’re in the 21st century. Right? That’s what is a sort of conception of of poetic language. But the thing is there’s nothing special about the language that poetry is using. The language in and of
itself is the same language that we’re using in day-to-day life. It’s the same sort of
metaphors that we’re using. I like to think that
that’s sort of a metaphor for candy, right there. There’s an idea in the middle and the language is the cellophane. But it’s not special language. It’s language. The poem makes the language special. Poetry has been described
as putting a spell on words, and it’s language that
calls attention to itself, it says “I am language” when you read it. Don’t just look for the meaning, that’s actually part of
what poetic language is, and it’s doing this in a world in which we just expect to know
what everything means. When we see a stop sign
when we’re driving, do we stop to say “Wow, the word ‘stop’ “is written on that stop sign”? [laughter] No. If we’re lucky, we just stop, if we’re being good that day. Poetry is actually meant to say, “Look, there is a word, “there is a particular
word that is being chosen.” And the way that Terry
Eagleton is writing about it is he talks about the
way in which there is a close relationship between the signifier and the signified. So for example, there
are many ways of saying “take a seat”, but only one way of saying “the hare limped trembling
through the frozen grass”. That would be the difference. I have a little diagram for you. And this is from a theory
by Ferdinando Saussure, a linguistic theory about
how things mean something. So the top, you have the signifier, which is the word, it can be an image, it’s anything that’s used
to represent something, it’s the form. It can be a sound. It’s me saying right now
“tree” and you reading “tree”. Those are all signifiers. Now the signified is
the meaning behind it. So it’s what you actually
mean when you say that word. And here we have a picture of a tree, but even that’s misleading, because even the picture of
a tree itself is a signifier. It’s not the meaning. And so there’s a, in poetry, he’s saying
there’s a really close relationship between the two, where what you’re saying
is exactly what you mean, and there’s no other way of saying it. It’s that precise way
of saying what you mean. And what becomes part of that
is is it’s not necessarily stranger words, so it’s
not that you’re using a strange word or you’re trying to be, you’re trying to not get people
to understand the meaning. That’s not the point of poetry. So there is a close relationship between meaning and the
word that you’re using. And so part of what happens is meaning is bound up in the
way that you experience these words because it has
to be that precise words. And so we read poetry
not just through ideas, not just through thoughts that we have, but actually through our
experience of the words which translates to our emotions, the way that a word makes us feel and the way that we experience it is going to be just as much
a part of reading poetry as, as what the word quote unquote “means”. So this, this especially came to be true in association of poetry with
feeling during Romanticism, but when we say that in Romanticism, poetry became more
associated with feeling, it wasn’t that it’s a sort of facile way of thinking, “oh poetry, “it makes me happy, it makes me sad.” There’s actually a knowing
that comes from that feeling. You know something is true
by feeling that thing. And it also doesn’t mean that that it’s against reason, but it’s something that
is perhaps beyond reason. Something that you can’t explain solely through using reason. Hirsch writes it this way,
“We discover in poetry “that we are participating in something “which cannot be explained or apprehended “by reason or understanding alone.” Poetry’s also not apolitical. So that’s something else
that people can associate. It’s your off there, in some other realm, talking about things
that don’t really matter or don’t really have a tangible effect, but poetry can be very political, and we can see that even in something like The Divine Comedy, we
have lots of politics, which can sometimes be distracting, since it’s not your politics. [laughter] But poetry can absolutely be political. Now my favorite definition of poetry comes from this woman.>>Students: Aw.>>Yeah, Emily Dickinson. She’s great. And she writes “If I read a
book and it makes my whole body “so cold no fire could ever warm me, “I know that is poetry. “If I feel physically
as if the top of my head “were taken off, I know that is poetry. “These are the only way I know. “Is there any other way?” So here, we begin to get to this language of surprise, right? And she’s, because she’s a poet, she’s able to express it so well, but in a way that you almost
feel like that’s poetry, and maybe we’re not any closer. Right? Shouldn’t poetry, somehow,
as we keep wanting to say, involve rhyme, meter, some form, sonnets, maybe some images? Well. I think one of the
things that explains that is the way that these different things that we think of as poetry,
the rhyme, the meter, is the way that they actually
interact with each other is part of what creates poetry, and part of what creates
this very surprise that Emily Dickinson is referring to. And what I’m calling the
interplay of the different parts, Eagleton presents it as the
interplay of information. So this comes from a theory by the Russian semiotician Yuri Lotman. Semiotician actually means
someone who studies signs, so back to Saussure, yeah,
now it’s a thing for everyone. He’s a semiotician. And he wrote about how poetry
functions by over-coding. So poetry functions by over-coding. Here’s an example. When the word “book” which everyone, everyone, you know, knows what a book is. Does someone have a book? [laughter] Whoa, yeah, lots of it. Awesome. Everyone knows what a book is, right? But when a book appears in a poem, it’s most likely doing
several things at once. It may refer to a physical
object the speaker in the poem is holding, right? As you have held up your books. It may be a symbol of knowledge. It may be part of the rhyme
scheme or set up the meter, which allows the poem to be a sonnet, and most importantly, it may be doing all of these things at once. So that’s what it means
for a word to be over-coded and for poetry to function by over-coding. And so what happens is
you have all of these different systems working
together at the same time. So you have the system of the rhyme, the system of the diction, all these different systems
that you can analyze, but then what happens
is when they interact they create disruptions, and it’s information that is
created at the disruption. So let me give you an example. We’re trying to figure out in this moment what counts as information. What sorts of thing counts as information when you post to Facebook? Or what sort of thing doesn’t count as information, how about that?>>Student: Selfies. [laughter]>>Selfies! We already know what you look like. What else doesn’t count as information? You guys are so nice, and you’ve just been on Facebook and you don’t want to offend anybody. [laughter] How about what you ate for dinner? [laughter] Does that count as information?>>Students: Yes. [background noise drowns out other sounds]>>Student: It depends
on how you’re pegging information, ’cause in a
way it is a sort of data about someone, but it’s not
information that’s meaningful.>>Mm-hmm, right? ‘Cause it’s not actually a disruption unless you see it as a disruption. So it seems like, well
that’s just a normal part of your day, I’m not interested. That’s not really information to me. You know, I’m gonna count information if you start dating somebody. That’ll count as information. That’s surprising, for some
people more than others, right? [laughter] I count myself in that. So that’s what counts as information is in this information
theory, it’s the disruption. So it’s what’s not expected, right? And so this interference of
systems within each other in a poem is vital for
the effective working of poetic language. The more these systems
interfere with each other, the more information a poem will have. So what a poem is is
both a system of rules and a system for breaking those rules. It has to be both. You have to be able to
understand it, right? You understand something
when it’s a coherent system, but there’s information
when there’s a disruption in that system, when there
is a surprise, right? That’s poetry. And so what’s interesting is this way that poetry functions, actually then often becomes a subject in poetry itself in the epiphany. So a lot of times we come
to poetry for that moment of something unusual is happening. We’re gaining some insight that
we wouldn’t have otherwise. We read for that epiphany
in a lot of poetry, and again the way that Hirsch
calls, says, explains it, “The epiphanic moment is a radical attempt “to defy the temporal order and dramatize “an intense moment of monumental change.” Right? So when you’re reading an epiphany, the subject is very akin to what the poem itself is doing and how the
poem itself is functioning. Now this is all good except for the fact that there’s another part
of information theory, which is that when you have
an increase in information, right, when you’re getting
lots of information in, you have a decrease in
communication, right? So when you’re getting
lots of information, it becomes really difficult to think, “Okay well what am I actually supposed “to be receiving from this?” I think we all know what
information overload feels like, and that can actually
be happening in a poem. So what’s interesting is the poem, because it’s functioning
this way with surprise, actually has too much information
rather than too little. It’s actually trying to say too much when you don’t understand
it, rather than not enough. Okay. So then to read poetry,
one of the crucial things you need to do is you need to trust that there’s actually something
that’s being communicated to you and that poetry
actually wants to move you. It’s not, poetry’s meant
to be read by people. It’s not private. So I know some of us like
to write very emo poetry and keep it to ourselves. [laughter] Poetry and I dunno, I dunno, because it’s not just for one person, it’s not meant to be private. Even if it’s personal, it’s not private, and it’s not just about a
specific event or a strange event. It actually has to speak to somebody else in order to be poetry. And Eagleton, in his final definition, he talks about poetry
involving at least two things, a certain memorable or
inventive use of language, which we have already discussed, and a moral insight into human existence. So when he says moral quality of poems, he’s talking about moral as
dealing with human values and qualities more than facts. So poetry is essentially about people, it’s not about facts, even
though one can use lots of facts in poetry and actually
use them to describe the human condition. And sometimes these facts
can trip up our enjoyment. Dante uses lots of facts, right? [laughter] And he’s actually using them to describe the state that a human is in, but sometimes, as some of you
have experienced recently, the facts can be distracting. Okay, so as we said earlier, it’s of the essence that poetry deal both with the specific and concrete
but also with the universal, and even in that very first
stab at poetry that we took, we can see how there’s
an interplay of systems within the concrete and
specific and the universal that is itself productive of surprise. It’s surprising that
poetry can speak to so many different people and yet
be about this one thing. Dante’s Beatrice is about Dante’s love, but she’s about so much
more at the same time. And so, in the remainder of the lecture, I think we’re just gonna
try out some poems. I’m gonna take a page from
all three of the books on how to read poems and
we’ll go into some specifics. And so we’re going to take this approach of the way that poetry
works by different parts in conjunction with one another, but this whole time, we’re
going to be looking at the biggest division is form and content and that’s one of the ways in which, those are the two biggest systems, and they work together even
if we analyze them separately. So for example, a poem
has syntax, grammar, and punctuation, which is part of the way that we get the content, right? The meaning of it. But it’s actually a poetic device as well. You use syntax poetically,
not just to give a meaning. It’s actually doing more than that. Okay, so. One of the things you
have to know as well is whichever part you start
with, I mean, titles are good. It’s a good thing to start with the title, but sometimes you come to a poem and the title’s not the
first thing you see, maybe you see the first, the first thing you see is an image, and you can start with that part and spread to other things. So with each of these
different poems we’re gonna look at, we’re gonna start
with a different part and then start to see how they interact. So some of that can be whatever happens in your particular reading. The three writers that I
mentioned actually have different ways of approaching. Some start with the smallest unit, some start with a word,
and then go to a line, and then go to the syntax. Other ways to start is
starting with the genre, so let’s talk just a
moment about the genre, ’cause in some ways it seems
like that’s the easiest thing to pick up, which
you have in some ways already been trained to look at the genre of different works of literature. So there are three traditional divisions from Aristotle about poetry, and these held more or
less until the 18th century and I definitely say more or less. The first one is the
epic or narrative poem, so you’ve all read epics. You know lots about epics. That’s actually poetry that you’ve read. They have a narrator in first person, and then you let the characters
speak for themselves, and they tell a story, which is often very action-oriented, so think the Iliad, lots of action. [laughter] The next one is drama,
where the characters do all the talking. So these are the Greek tragedies, believe it or not, dramatic poetry. And much of Shakespeare’s plays, you can count that as poetry. And the third is the one I
think we tend to associate most with poetry, especially
after the Romantics, it’s the lyric, and this is
a poem told in first person, it’s usually in the present tense, and the emotions play a big role in how one gets a meaning from the lyric. So just by that description, it seems like it would be fairly easy
to notice what genre a poem belongs to, and it is
important to do that work. Which is pretty easy as you start to read to be able to place it within a genre, but it’s also important to notice, even within that genre,
if the poem is deviating, because remember, all these things are meant to be surprises. So it’s working off what you know and then giving it a twist. And the example that I’m
going to use is Milton, and the way that he is writing
an epic in Paradise Lost. Right? It’s the epic of creation
and the fall of humanity, but even within that he
has very lyric moments and so he’s doing both. So we’re going to do a very close reading of a moment in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This is in book four. Now, I don’t want you to be scared, because we’re going to go into much depth and as you know, many of
you know, you should know, Paradise Lost is a very long book, and if you were to read
every single moment in the book the way that
we’re about to read this, you would never finish it. [laughter] So I’m gonna put that out there, but I’m hoping you’ll read
at least some of the moments the way that we’re going
to read it right now. So the first thing that will
be really helpful to you in reading epics is to
make sure that you are aware of the context at all times, because there is action, there are things that are happening and you need to know what those are. Luckily, you have headings
for many of the books. You’re meant to use those
to know what’s happening. That’s not cheating, that’s reading. [laughter] Use them, and follow the action, because if you’re lost in the action, you don’t have any context. The next thing is to
make sure you’re aware of who is speaking. And so, yeah, let’s
actually just read this. I’ll read it for you. And this is in book four and Satan is now on Earth, he is looking towards Eden. He’s kind of looking outside
and contemplating it. “Sometimes towards Eden
which now in his view “Lay pleasant, his
grievd look he fixes sad, “Sometimes towards Heav’n
and the full-blazing Sun, “Which now sat high in his Meridian Towre: “Then much revolving, thus in sighs began. “O thou with surpassing Glory crownd, “Look’st from thy sole
Dominion like the God “Of this new World; at
whose sight all the Starrs “Hide thir diminisht
heads; to thee I call, “But with no friendly
voice, and add thy name “O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams “That bring to my
remembrance from what state “I fell, how glorious
once above thy Spheare;” So what we have here
is we have the narrator in the first part setting the scene of what’s going on, and
then we have the speaker, Satan, in the second part. And again, if you’re reading quickly, you’re going to miss that. So one strategy’s even
writing in the margin who is speaking to be able to keep track. And so what we have here, not only, we have a sort of action
that’s set up first. So what’s happening? What is the action? Can anyone tell me? Yes.>>Student: Well it’s
not an enormous action, Satan’s casting his gaze
in certain directions.>>Mm-hmm, which directions?>>Student: Well he’s
looking towards Eden.>>Mm-hmm.>>Student: And he’s shifting
to look at the sunset next.>>Mm-hmm, good. So that is the action.>>Student: And then he’s revolving.>>Mmm-hmm.>>Student: Which is interesting in the perspective with
the Earth and the sun, and where he’s not above their sphere, he’s turning like they are turning.>>Mm-hmm, yeah, that’s
another word for contemplation but it definitely has those associations. Okay, so let’s actually just
go with that first part. Let’s take a look at that. One of the things is
you’ve done really well in quote unquote just
knowing what it’s saying, identifying the action. One of the things we can
notice is that the syntax is kind of odd, it’s not said in the most simplest way possible. The syntax, how should it read, perhaps? What would be an easier
way of saying that?>>Student: Are you
talking about just like the easiest way to say that?>>Mm-hmm.>>Student: I mean, like the
first two lines you could say, “Sometimes Satan looks at
Eden, his view is pleasant, “but he looks sad”. I mean, you don’t necessarily have to say “his grievd look he fixes sad”.>>Mm-hmm, or “Satan is
sad when he looks at Eden”. [laughter] Yeah, good, I mean,
it’s interesting, right? Because we’re going with him, we’re giving him a lot of credit there. Yeah, Satan is sad when he looks at Eden. Now, when he says it that
way, where is the emphasis?>>Student: On Satan. Well when you say it the
simple way or the complicated?>>The complicated, or the
way that Milton says it. [laughter] Where’s the emphasis?>>Student: It’s on Eden.>>Student: It’s on his view.>>”Sometimes towards
Eden which now in his view “Lay pleasant, his grievd
look he fixes sad,”>>Student: It’s on his look, it seems.>>Student: I was going
to say Eden and sad.>>It’s sad. It’s at the end. He switches, when we’re
expecting to see it in one place which is more towards the beginning, and it switches to the end, it makes us pay attention to the end. “Why did he do that?” Our mind just implicitly asks us, and it makes us pay attention
to his emotional state is the sad. So that’s one of the ways
that he’s playing around with his syntax, and he
does it again at the end, “thus in sighs began”. Right? So in both times he’s switching the syntax to help us to focus on
what he really wants to communicate which is his
emotional state of sadness. Alright, and then the next part, who is he addressing? This is what we can call a dramatic monologue,
specifically a soliloquy, right? He’s talking to another character who’s kinda not there. Who is this to? Who is he talking to?>>Student: The sun.>>Mm-hmm, exactly, the sun. This is important to know, because of the ways that
soliloquies are set up, both the speaker and the
addressee are important. At one point do we know
that this is the sun that he’s talking to? Or what point are we sure? [students talking at once]>>Student: “I hate thy beams”?>>What’s that?>>Student: I hate thy beams.>>I hate thy beams.>>Student: “O Sun”? [laughter]>>”O Sun”! [laughter] And I add thy name, in
case you don’t know who I’m talking to, I add thy name, O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams. Who might it have been before we got that?>>Students: God.>>Yeah, so he, because he’s Satan, Milton is showing us very specifically, he is not, even though he
should be talking to God, he is not going to talk to God, right? And he does that by switching the syntax and waiting to say sun, the addressee, until the very end. So that’s one thing he’s doing, the other thing is how
does he feel about the sun? Is he worshiping the sun? Is he a sun worshiper? Is the sun just replacing god and he’s now worshiping the sun? He hates the sun. Why? [students talking at once]>>Student: Because he wants to be alone?>>Sorry.>>Student: Because the sun reminds him of the state from which he fell.>>Right, and now he’s lower than the sun when he used to be above the sun. So he is not liking that. And waiting to even
mentioning the sun’s name is another way of him sort of saying, “you’re not that important
so I’m going to wait “to even mention your name
until the end”, right? [laughter] Okay, good. So that’s one of the
things that can happen with syntax, alright? You have to understand
the syntax grammatically to even know what’s
being said, the content, but you can see the way
the syntax is actually moving you to understand the poem itself and the poetic qualities. Again, you don’t have to
do that for every single stanza of Paradise Lost,
but try that for a few. The next one we have
is actually another way in which our poets play with the epic versus the lyric. Here we have Wordsworth and the, this text is from The Prelude. And The Prelude is an interesting work because it’s also, in some ways, an epic. It’s a very different kind of an epic, it’s actually an epic about
the development of the poet. He’s writing about what
it means to develop a poetic consciousness, to write, and he’s using the form of an epic, so it’s very long, multiple books, very long phrases. We can see similarities in the syntax between The Prelude and Paradise Lost. And… Yeah one of the things again to remember is the addressee, it’s good
always to keep that in mind. He’s writing to his friend
who’s another poet, Coleridge. Yeah. So it’s very much about poetry itself, so whatever else is happening,
it’s still about poetry. Now the, the thing also about him is we’d seen in Milton, we
see some of the things that we think of as poetic language, and some of that might be the way in which poetry gets passed down the ages and we don’t speak in Milton’s language, but with Wordsworth, very intentionally, he’s trying to use common
diction, so common words. The words themselves are not
going to be what’s confusing, but he’s still playing with syntax. So let’s read that. “Thus long I lay “Cheered by the genial pillow of the earth “Beneath my head, soothed
by a sense of touch “From the warm ground,
that balanced me (else lost “Entirely), seeing nought,
nought hearing, save “When here and there,
above the grove of oaks “Where was my bed, an acorn from the trees “Fell audibly and with a startling sound.” That’s one of my favorite
moments in The Prelude. I just think it’s so beautiful. What’s happening there?>>Student: It’s sort
of makes kind of a void in the first you know six lines where it’s just peace and quiet
in the middle of the forest and he’s kind of it’s like
he’s dozing off to sleep or something, but then an acorn falls and it seems like such a profound event just because that’s the last
thing that he mentioned.>>Mm-hmm, nice.>>Student: And you can
kind of hear it yourself as you’re reading it.>>Yeah, the way that he’s setting up and the way that he creates
that peace and quiet, where there’s nothing
quote unquote happening, that thing that happens is
at the end of that stanza and it’s just a small acorn that makes this profound impression, and here he’s writing about
the kind of attention, the kind of mindset that is needed to, in his view, effectively write poetry. And the other thing that you can see is the way that he’s also
using what’s called enjambment and that’s when you see lines continue, so they don’t stop at the end, but they continue on to the next line. And one that’s really
significant is the fourth line. We’ll just read it a bit in context, but “Beneath my head, soothed
by a sense of touch “From the warm ground, that
balanced me (else lost”. So right there, if all
you had was that line, you would say if the
ground, if the warm ground, had not balanced me, I would be lost. Right? Right there, if that’s all you had, and that’s meant to be
something that you read. The line continues “lost “Entirely), seeing
nought, nought hearing,” I wouldn’t be conscious of anything else. But there’s a way in
which his relationship to the earth, to nature, is saving him, not just that he’s not
seeing anything else, not aware of anything else, and the way that that line works, it can be both at the same time, it needs to be both at the same time. Okay. Now, let’s continue with another Romantic, William Blake. So here we have very simple syntax, [laughs] quite the opposite from what we just got. A good example of lyric poetry. And, yeah, let’s, yeah, let’s just read that. “O Rose thou art sick. “The invisible worm, “That flies in the night “In the howling storm: “Has found out thy bed “Of crimson joy: “And his dark secret love “Does thy life destroy.” I really enjoyed looking up this poem because I had a really fun summary from one of those awesome sites, I think it was SparkNotes, [laughter] where it gives this summary. “The speaker, addressing a rose, informs it that it is sick.” [laughter] “An ‘invisible’ worm
has stolen into its bed “in a ‘howling storm’ and,
under the cover of night, “the ‘dark secret love’ of this worm “is destroying the rose’s life.” [laughter]>>Student: Wow, that’s so OG to read.>>Longer, longer than the
poem, if you will note. It takes more time to say it that way than the way that William Blake said it. So, syntax and diction are not at, well, syntax is not at stake as much and part of the reason
is because he wrote this in his cycle of Songs of
Innocence and Experience, a two part cycle, and he’s sort of writing from the point of view,
often, of children, or he’s writing about children. And they take on the
subjectivity of children. So part of what’s a
surprise in these poems is which of the poems belong
in the part of innocence and which of the poems belong
in the part of experience, and in his different versions, sometimes he switched the two. Yeah, interesting enough. But what I am wanting
to call our attention to here is imagery. Now when people talk
about imagery in poems, they’re often talking about similes, metaphors, and symbols. So an image that stands for something else that helps you understand
something better. And that’s a perfect example of how poetry takes something that is known
and makes it a surprise. So it’s kind of surprising if you’re able to really truly prove how
the door is like a donkey. Just saying, that would
be kind of amazing. If you really are able to show that and it makes sense but it’s
obviously very surprising. And within these different categories, similes use words that
signal this is a comparison. So it uses words like “as”, “like”, “so”, all of those ways in which it’s signaling that it’s a comparison. Metaphors sort of strike without warning, so it creates more of a surprise, which is often why it’s viewed as a sort of higher poetic device. Whether or not that’s
true is to be determined, but it is more surprising. The last one is the symbol itself. So here what we have is the
poetic symbol, the rose. Now the problem with symbols is also what’s great about symbols. So let me give a different example, not the one that’s up there. If I say “apple” right
now, what do I mean? And I’m telling you it’s a symbol, what do I mean, what am I referring to?>>Student: The fall.>>The fall.>>Student: Your computer.>>My computer.>>Student: Learning.>>Learning.>>Student: Snow White.>>Snow White.>>Student: A piece of fruit.>>Student: Death.>>Something delicious. You guys are all right, but what I was thinking about is it’s a symbol of what an
awesome professor I am that I’m giving you this talk on poetry. [laughter] Right. But you guys are still all right. You, I mean, legitimately,
that’s what that could mean. So symbol becomes difficult to use because it’s harder to
actually communicate because there’s more
information around it. So if I’m able to get, to
help you get more of a sense that this is an intentional
choice that means certain things and not
others, then it’s used well and that’s why you need
the context of the poem. And so within the poem, the rose, you have a sense in which
it’s innocent, right, because it’s something that’s
sick, it feels vulnerable. There’s something that’s invading it, and that something is, even
though we have secret love, which you know, could be bad or good, dark secret love instantly seems bad. So it seems like it’s the
victim, it’s being attacked. And so that changes what
the rose could mean, right? We don’t focus on its thorns
in this particular poem. That limits the range of
what this symbol could be. Okay, moving on to Frost ’cause we are almost out of time which is so sad. I could talk about these forever. Yes. Here with Fire and Ice we’re
going to talk about tone, the way in which, tone and diction, the way the words, the
specific word choice and the register that
they’re at helps us to know how to actually interpret this piece. So, here goes. “Some say the world will end in fire, “Some say in ice. “From what I’ve tasted of desire “I hold with those who favor fire. “But if it had to perish twice, “I think I know enough of hate “To say that for destruction ice “Is also great “And would suffice.” Right. So he, Frost once said about himself that he was willing to use diction that not even Wordsworth,
it was below Wordsworth. So his diction is almost slangy, right? In the way that he’s choosing his words. Some say it’s very colloquial. And it’s really the juxtaposition between the way he’s
saying what he’s saying and the sorts of things
that he’s talking about that creates the interest of the poem. He’s talking about these,
the destruction of the world, and he’s talking about it so casually, and you can see he’s also talking about everyday experiences, right? He’s likening them to desire. He’s likening the end of the world to tasting desire and hating other people, and you could say okay, well maybe that makes the end of the
world seem less important, or it could also make the
experiences of desire and hate have much greater impact. And it’s sort of up to you
to know which way to go, but from the tone you know
something else is happening in that moment. Side note, there’s apparently
lots of restaurants, maybe not lots, but several
restaurants called Fire and Ice, so they took it the other way, I think, unless they’re being hipster and ironic. [laughter] Okay, so little time. Okay, I’ll read this one
too, because it’s so good. Another Robert Frost poem. “I found a dimpled spider, fat and white, “On a white heal-all, holding up a moth “Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth– “Assorted characters of death and blight “Mixed ready to begin the morning right, “Like the ingredients
of a witches’ broth– “A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth, “And dead wings carried like a paper kite. “What had that flower
to do with being white, “The wayside blue and innocent heal-all? “What brought the kindred
spider to that height, “Then steered the white
moth thither in the night? “What but design of darkness to appall?– “If design govern in a thing so small.” And what I brought us here to is still an example of diction, but the sort of way that
he’s mixing positive and negative images and
words creates a sense of ambivalence, right? Ambivalence is different than ambiguity. Ambiguity is you don’t really
know what to think, right? And you’re not sure, you don’t
have all the information. Ambivalence is you have
all the information but you don’t know how
you feel about it, right? And so here’s he’s explaining
how all these things come together, in this first
section he’s just painting a picture for us and we
can almost follow his eyes, what he’s seeing, like
as if it were a movie, so the different panning in’s, right? We get the size in which he’s
really focusing on the small and the specific and he’s
telling us what he’s seeing which is this white spider
on a flower that’s white that’s actually usually purple, you can see it off to the side there, and it’s holding a white moth. And this picture, he doesn’t, he doesn’t know what to
do with it in one sense. He’s not quite sure what it means, but he feels like it means something. “What but design of darkness to appall?– “If design govern in a thing so small.” So if it does mean something,
if this is intentional, if this image that he’s
seeing that just seems like poetry itself, right,
with all the repetition of white in the image itself
seems to mean something, is it a good thing or a bad thing that something so small and so particular could mean something? That even that’s intentional. And he’s not quite sure
how he feels about that. And I could talk about this forever, but we are almost out of time. The last thing I’ll say is that there’s always so much more to talk about with a poem. A poem always means more, and every time you read
it, it will mean more. So when you read these
epics, get what you can, but know epics always reward re-reading. Poems always reward re-reading. They always mean more. So don’t feel frustrated if you don’t feel like you’re getting it all. Find where that surprise is for you. Find what is interacting with each other to create that surprise, and you’re well on your
way to that meaning. So, stop by. [upbeat music]>>Female Voice: Biola
University offers a variety of Biblically-centered degree programs ranging from business to ministry
to the arts and sciences. Visit to find out how Biola could make a difference in your life.

11 thoughts on “Monica Cure: How to Read Poetry [Torrey Honors Context Lecture]

  1. Monica please come to Ireland and discuss poetry with us….you are wonderful and have a lovely way about you.

  2. well done monica …nice lecture and you are art of lecture delivery and speaking is wonderful..keep it up and share more your lectres

  3. Monica's beauty , even while scrolling in a new tab, is captured by her voice that implants a physical image into the temporal. <3

  4. A fun and insightful account of poetry rather than the usual dry mechanical lectures I've typically seen in classroom lectures usually given by professors at Ivy League schools. What a nice surprise. Thank you Biola for this presentation.
    p.s. If you record this kind of presentation again, please consider using a split screen that would allow the video viewer to see screen projections of poems she uses throughout to illustrate some key points for the live audience …

  5. uberdriver & scratch-poet @rashaunps wuz here: mfa candidate 2019 @usfmfaw (silicon valley-sf, ca) 1 8 0 4 2 3

  6. Monica, that was a lively talk. Felt like l was in the audience. Learnt a lot, thank you.

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