The difficult art of reading poetry


Metonymy cartonSynecdoche. Metonymy. Not exactly words that trip lightly off the tongue. Unless, I suppose, you’re Harold Bloom. Those are two of the four fundamental tropes in literature, Bloom tells us. Identified originally by Kenneth Burke, who, as Bloom calls him, was a “profound student of rhetoric.”

Bloom references Burke in his introduction to The Best Poems of the English Language (Harper Collins, 2004), which he both edited and selected. I’ll get back to that book, in a separate post, and discuss whether they are actually the “best” or in fact whether anyone can make such a claim for another reader.

What I was looking for was how others – scholars and writers in particular – define what is good, moving or important in poetry. Like most art, we believe know what’s good when we see/hear/experience it. But that’s just a personal, subjective and very ambiguous definition. What are the underlying structures, the rules, the guides to look for?

Think about pop music and the cycle of popularity: you first hear a song and love it. Just fall all over it. Can’t get enough. Have to listen to it over and over. And then one day you can’t stand it. You are weary of turning on the radio and hearing it played over and over and over. What changed? Not the music, not the lyrics. What changed is your perception of it.

Of course, pop music, with its predictable cycle from introduction to over-play and its commercial exploitation driven by corporate financial goals well outside aesthetic ones, may not be the best model in which to frame an artistic discussion.

What are the standards for art, for music and – what I was particularly looking into: poetry – that stand above and outside personal perspective? Finding those requires me to look more deeply into the nature and structure of poetry; the vertebrae that give a poem its posture. So I started with Bloom. Who in turn starts with Burke.

Burke’s essay on tropes was published in The Kenyon Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn, 1941 (available to read on Jstor) and in his book, A Grammar of Motives (1945). It’s a might dry.

The other two tropes he says are irony and metaphor. Burke himself wrote,

For metaphor, we could substitute perspective;
For metonymy we could substitute reduction;
For synechdoche we could substitute representation;
For irony we could substitute dialectic.

See? Doesn’t that make it clearer?*

Burke wrote that his primary concern with these master tropes is “not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth.'” By which I gather he’s also trying to define those same, steadfast rules and standards. Burke’s tropes seem the cornerstone for an entire literary debate, so I will have to keep them in mind as I progress. But Bloom is all over the figurative aspect of poetry.

Apparently I have also to learn a new glossary like this one, before I progress into the next Circle of this Dantean labyrinth. And here’s another. Personally I look forward to the day when I can confidently use words like zeugma, erotema, meiosis and prosopopoeia in everyday conversation.**

This site also lists these definitions for Burke’s tropes:

  • Metaphor is the substitution of a word, image, or idea for another, based on an implied resemblance or analogy.
  • Metonymy is substitution of the name of an attribute or an adjunct for the name of the thing meant. To put it another way, it is substitution based on contiguity or proximity.
  • Synecdoche is the substitution of part for whole or whole for part.
  • Irony is the substitution of a statement for its opposite. Put another way, in irony what is said in some way contradicts what is meant. The contradiction need not be absolute. In irony, what is said may be understood as true in one sense and false in another.

I think I had better clarify what a trope is first. In simple terms, it’s a figure of speech. Wikipedia defines it as:

A literary trope is the use of figurative language – via word, phrase, or even an image – for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices motifs or clichés in creative works.

As another explanation, tropes are “…figures of thought, as indispensable means to the discovery and representation of reality.”

Which isn’t all a trope is. It can also be a commonly used or even overused theme or device. Synonyms include bromide and chestnut, shibboleth and truism. For Burke’s and Bloom’s purpose, it’s more about the artistic usage: the literary devices of poetry.***

My own way to read poetry is not to deconstruct it into those components. Rather, I read it and let it wash over me, feel the tug of the words, the push-and-pull of the emotional tides it contains. Obviously I am an amateur; not a scholar in my approach.

Bloom himself writes (in these cherry-picked lines from the introduction, titled The Art of Reading Poetry):

Poetry is essentially figurative language, concentrated so that its form is both expressive and evocative… Figurations or tropes create meaning which could not exist without them… Language, to a remarkable extent, is concealed figuration: ironies and synecdoches, metonymies and metaphors that we recognize only when our awareness increases… Greatness in poetry depends on splendor of figurative language and our cognitive power… Our definition of poetic power is that it so fuses thinking and remembering that we cannot separate the two process. Can a poem, of authentic strength, be composed without remembering a prior poem, whether by the self or another? Literary thinking relies on literary memory, and the drama of recognition, in every writer, contains within it a moment of  coming to terms with another writer, or with earlier version of the self… The art of reading poetry begins with the art of mastering allusiveness in particular poems, from the  simple to the very complex… Recognizing and interpreting allusions depends on both the reader’s learning and her tact.

“What makes one poem better than another?” Bloom asks, rhetorically, since he then answers himself. “The question, always central to the art of reading poetry, is more crucial today than ever before…”

But what is the art here? The art of being an audience? I suppose, if it is being an informed audience, with the intent of appreciation, because that requires effort, and study. Knowing at least the basics can significantly affect the appreciation of any art.

is he referring to the art of being a critic? That suggests the art of critique is on par with that of the poet’s. That any outsider can, even without any of the experience, the education or the understanding of the artist, on an equal footing, disclaim on the acts of another who has put his or her life into creating an art or an act. I would think some artists like Oscar Wilde or Alexander Pope might not agree with that view.

As Pope wrote in his famous Essay on Criticism:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Bloom seems to take himself and his learning far more seriously than the reader need to, at least to be able to enjoy the poems he has collected.

I’m afraid that, for me, the art of reading poetry, such that it is, comes down again to the personal enjoyment one gets from the pacing, the placing of words, and the images they conjure in our individual minds. Bloom doesn’t lead the reader to poetry; he lectures it into your skull. Don’t get me wrong: I like reading Bloom, and bow to his mastery, but he can be a bit full of himself at times.

Over-intellectualizing poetry, or any art, distances us from that emotional connection. One cannot feel the tides of passion when deconstructing lines for potential metonymies.

Poetry was integral to own my reading and my cultural life from the 1960s. My shelves are still replete with volumes of poetry purchased as far back as 1968. I’ve carried a well-thumbed collection of Wallace Stevens’ poems with me all these years. But do teens and young adults read poetry today? Do young people still get shivers from reading sonnets? Dickinson? Marvell? Byron? Dylan Thomas? What about Ginsberg’s Howl? Does it still vibrate their minds like a taut guitar string plucked?****

But what is the future for poetry today, in this Brave New 21st Century? There are days I despair for its longevity in this aggressively commercialized world.

In his introduction to The Top 500 Poems (Columbia University Press, 1992), William Harmon wrote,

There is little poetry on today’s radio or television, even with the advent of cable, and the newspapers report that about thirty percent of our adult population is functionally illiterate. That cannot augur anything good for poetry, but I remain hopeful nevertheless…

TV and radio are not, however, good media for poetry. Mostly because we don’t use them as focal points for our attention, rather as distractions. I have T.S. Eliot reading the Waste Land on CD and it never fails to move me. I put it on the CD player and close my eyes when I listen. But I would not hear it if it came across on the radio, say when I was driving to the store. However, while TV may not be a good medium, YouTube videos can be, because the attention is focused on a short time span in these productions. See my previous post on Edgar Lee Masters for an example.

Harmon was writing pre-internet (at some point, we must begin dating culture and social interactions as Pre-I and Post-I), of course, so perhaps like with so many other things, poetry has seen a renaissance of its own thanks to the shared online culture. I don’t know. I do have fears that, like so much online, poetry will become adulterated, misquoted, mis-attributed, incorrectly replicated and mis-interpreted.

On the other hand, the internet has made easily and freely available thousands of poets and poems that were otherwise bound in printed books that may not have had such wide circulation. Plus it has made a wider variety of ethnic and regional writing available to a wider audience.  So perhaps I should have hope.

But meanwhile, I will scan through my books of poetry to assemble a collection of titles of poems I think are worth reading, regardless of their ironies or metaphors, and then ask why Bloom did or did not include them in his choices (which, by the way, chronologically start at Chaucer and end with Hart Crane, which leaves out almost the entire canon of 20th century work…)

~~~~~
* You probably recognized the word synecdoche from the title of the 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York. It starred Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Good, deep, but a bit slow. Wikipedia adds for our edification that, “Synecdoche and metalepsis are considered specific types of metonymy. Polysemy, multiple meanings of a single word or phrase, sometimes results from relations of metonymy.” Remember that. There’s a test later.

** That would drive the local bloggers into conniptions, I’m sure. It already makes them whinge and worry when I use multi-syllabic words like egregious and parsimonious. Well, perhaps that’s an example of hyperbole. Pretty soon I’ll be showing off my synecdoches…

*** I also discovered that, “In A Map of Misreading (1975), literary critic Harold Bloom adds “two more tropes–hyperbole and metalepsis–to the class of master tropes that govern Post-Enlightenment poetry.” In all of this, I wonder where satire and storytelling fit. Some poems seem to me to be outside the four, or even six, tropes. And I have whole collections of Japanese and Chinese poetry that seem to me outside these literary strictures. More reading is required.

**** I often wonder what will happen to these books when I die. They have such meaning, such powerful emotional impact for me today. Will they be seen as just detritus; clutter to be removed, and sold at yard sales, maybe tossed into dumpsters? Will anyone hold them dear to their heart as I did? Will their words move the minds, the emotions and the souls of someone after me? It saddens me to think they may not… As Stevens himself wrote, in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:

And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.