Chapter One Brief Introduction to British and American Poetry icon

Chapter One Brief Introduction to British and American Poetry


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Part One Introduction


Chapter One Brief Introduction to British and American Poetry


The earliest English poems appeared in the Anglo-Saxon period which experienced a Bookless Age. English literature was almost exclusively a verse literature in oral form. The oldest specimens which now exist are found in the Exeter Book containing the following poems Widsith, Doer’s Lament, The Wanderer and The Sea-Farer, The Battle of Maldon. By far the most significant poem of the Anglo-Saxon Age, however, is Beowulf which is the oldest poem and the oldest surviving epic in the English language. It is the representative work of Pagan poetry. The poem descended from generation to generation in oral form, sung by bards at the end of the sixth century. The present manuscript was written down in the 10th century or at the end of the 9th century.

The characteristics of Anglo-Saxon poetry are the abundant use of metaphor, understatement and alliterative meter. At the same time a number of Christian poets appeared. The most well-known were Caedmon and Cynewulf. They chiefly took their subject matter from the Bible, but their writing styles were almost the same as Anglo-Saxon poetry.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought forward a literary revolution. Thanks to the French influence, the language and literary taste experienced an enormous change. A new literary form named “romance” became prevailing. Romance dealt mainly with perilous adventures about courageous knights’ devotion to the king and church. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is the most charming and enduring example.

The first harvest in English literature was in the 14th century, in which several remarkable poets lived, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, John Gower and John Wycliff. Among them, Chaucer towered above all and became the representative of this century. He has won the title of “the Father of English poetry.”

The 15th century was an age full of wars which greatly affected the development of literature. There were no great names in poetry but a group of Chaucerians. So the fifteenth century in English literature is traditionally described as the barren age. Yet in this barren age, ballads became popular, for example, Lord Randal, Glasgerion and Robin Hood.

English poetry in the 16th century achieved an age of its prosperity. Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth poetry writing became a fashion. It was a golden age of poetry. There appeared a group of excellent poets, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Wyatt introduced into England the Italian sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with a rhyme scheme abba, abba, cddc, ee. It was Henry Howard who invented the English form of sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab, cdcd, efef, gg. This scheme was so skillfully used by Shakespeare later that it is usually called the Shakespearean sonnet. Wyatt and Howard are generally regarded as the founders of the golden age. Sir Philip Sidney’s best known book was his pastoral romance, Arcadia. His sonnets, altogether one hundred and twenty poems, were imitative of Italian ones, but they possessed a charm distinctly of their own. Edmund Spenser’s chief works included The Faerie Queen, The Shepherd’s Calendar, and the Amoretti. In his The Faerie Queen, Spenser planned twelve books, each speaking of twelve virtues and with a different hero distinguished for one of the private virtues. But it was a pity that only six books and two cantos of the seventh were completed. In writing this great allegorical poem, Spenser created a new poetic form known as the Spenserian stanza, consisting of nine lines rhyming ababbcbcc. This form was widely imitated by later poets, especially by the romantic poets of the nineteenth century. The best imitator of Spenserian stanza is John Keats. Christopher Marlowe’s entire reputation rests on his plays such as Tamburlain, The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus. Marlowe is considered to be the greatest of the pioneers in English drama. He is the first poet to make blank verse the principal instrument of English drama. The last one, Shakespeare, is undoubtedly the greatest. Besides his 37 plays, he also wrote two long poems and 154 sonnets. His sonnets figure among the greatest in the language.

At the death of Elizabeth in 1603, the Tudor dynasty was brought to a close and the throne was passed to the Stuarts. On the basis of different political and religious beliefs, people of this period were separated into two vastly different groups: the Cavaliers and the Puritans. In the field of poetry, two schools of poets appeared: the Cavaliers and Metaphysical poets. The noteworthy names of Cavaliers were Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace and Thomas Carew. The Cavaliers were royalists sided with the King against the revolution. They found their happiest poetic expression in gay little sparkling lyrics. The chief representatives of metaphysical poets were John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvel, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley. The term “metaphysical” was applied by Dr. Samuel Johnson to Donne and his followers. Their common features are: arresting and original images and conceits, wit, ingenuity, good use of colloquial speech, considerable flexibility of rhythm and meter, complex themes, a liking for paradox and dialectical argument, a direct manner, a caustic humor, a keenly felt awareness of mortality, and a distinguished capacity for elliptical thought and tersely compact expression. Their manner was directly opposed to the grace and romanticism of the Elizabethans. They have made a profound influence on the course of English poetry in the 20th century.

The distinguished example of Puritan poets is John Milton. He wrote one of the greatest odes, ^ Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, a famous elegy Lycidas, a number of unforgettable sonnets, the tragedy Samson Agonistes and his masterpiece Paradise Lost. Milton’s religious ideas influenced his political and literary careers. During the revolution he became a fighter by using his pen. The chief poet of the Restoration period was John Dryden, who won fame as a dramatist, satirist, and writer of odes and lyrics. He contributed to English literature his greatest drama All for Love, a political satire Absalom and Achitophel, two religious poems Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther, and a magnificent Pindaric ode Song for St. Cecelia’s Day. Nowadays modern writers show their great interest in the study of the Restoration and Metaphysical poets. Dryden in particular has received the applause and cheer of many intellectuals.

The 18th century in England is known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. The Enlightenment Movement was an expression of struggle of the bourgeoisie against feudalism. It was a progressive intellectual movement and also a furtherance of the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It exerted an immense influence upon English social life and literature. The purpose of the movement was to enlighten the whole world with the light of modern philosophical and artistic ideas. The enlighteners fought against class inequality, stagnation, prejudices and other survivals of feudalism. They celebrated rationality, equality and science. The major representatives were Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and so on. Artistically this period was characterized by the so-called neoclassicism, a revival of classical standards of order, balance, and harmony in literature. John Dryden and Alexander Pope were major exponents of the neoclassical school. Toward the middle of the century, a new literary trend of sentimentalism appeared. This trend was closely knitted with the radical social and ideological changes in England of that age. It indulged in emotion and sentiment, which were used as a sort of relief for the grief felt toward the world’s wrongs and mild protest against social injustice. The first notable poem in this tendency is James Thomson’s The Seasons. Another is Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard which has been ranked with the greatest of meditative lyrics. The century drew its curtain down with Robert Burns, a lyrical poet and William Blake, a mystical poet. Burns wrote the majority of his poems in his Lowland Scottish dialect. In spite of the limitation of his lyric range, his expression of the simple singing line was greatly varied. Blake, with his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, is regarded as the forerunner of Romanticism.

Poetry in the 19th century was undergoing a significant phase in its development in Britain. William Wordsworth, together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1798, published an epoch-making volume, Lyrical Ballads, which marks the break from the neoclassicism of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the romantic revival in England. Wordsworth wished to intensify everyday experience. The three men, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey were known as Lake Poets, so called because they spent much of their time in the Lake District of northern England. George Gordon Lord Byron’s fame rests mainly on two long poems: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Don Juan. He also wrote many short beautiful lyrics such as She Walks in Beauty and When We Two Parted. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s writing is the most passionate and intense of all the Romantic poets. His greatest lyrics include Song to the Men of England, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark. John Keats, influenced by the poets of the English Renaissance period, endeavored to create a beautiful world of imagination as opposed to the sordid reality of his day. His immortal odes are To Autumn, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. Robert Browning has obtained the title “the Shakespeare of the nineteenth century”. He was interested in stylistic experimentation, to make deliberate use of rough colloquial diction and word order, of surprising and even grotesque rhymes, and of harsh rhythms and metrical patterns. His Men and Women, a collection, displays his perfect use of a poetic form: the dramatic monologue. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning’s wife, is the first woman poet who has occupied an everlasting place in English literature due to her sequence of love poems entitled Sonnets from the Portuguese.

In the Victorian Age even when the novel became the dominant literary form, there appeared many important poets such as Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Victorian poetry has a close connection with Romantic poetry. Tennyson is a follower of John Keats, Swinburne the follower of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Matthew Arnold the follower of William Wordsworth. The Victorian poets endeavored to search for appropriate modes and experimented in a variety of ways. In versification, they experimented with new or unusual metrical patterns. In line with their metrical experiments were those in the art of narrative poetry. Among them appeared dramatic monologue, which Tennyson and Browning used most effectively. In subject matter, they dealt with some frequently recurring subjects, including a preoccupation with man’s relationship to God, an acute awareness of time, the timeless equilibrium of lovers, the poignant experience of isolation and hostility of partners in a shattered marriage. Tennyson was the most representative poet of the Victorian spirit. His works included the sentimental romance Maud, the epic Idylls of the King, the famous elegy In Memoriam. Swinburne’s poetry threatened the Victorian sense of decency, so he became celebrated for his revolutionary utterances. His Poems and Ballads was considered a masterpiece of erotic literature. He was an expert in metrical ingenuity and in the phonetics of the language. He outwitted others and created a new form, the roundel. Arnold was as much a critic and essayist as a poet, although his poetic output is comparatively little. Sohrab and Rustum, his best-known poem, is written in a delicate blank verse with Homeric style. But as a matter of fact his Dover Beach attains far greater heights. Many of his best poems convey a melancholy, pessimistic sense of the dilemmas of modern life and tend to focus on the moral aspect of life.

The early 20th century saw a technical revolution which is known as Imagism. In the years leading up to WWI, the imagist movement set the stage for a poetic revolution and reevaluation of metaphysical poetry. Thomas Stern Eliot extended the scope of Imagism by bringing the English metaphysicals and the French Symbolists to the rescue, introduced into modern English and American poetry the kind of irony achieved by shifting suddenly from the formal to the colloquial or by oblique allusions to objects or ideas that contrasted sharply with those carried by the surface meaning of the poem. So the 1920’s is regarded as the age of Eliot. Gerard Manley Hopkins combined absolute precision of the individual image with a complex ordering of images and a new kind of metrical patterning. William Butler Yeats worked out his own notions of symbolism, developed a rich symbolic and metaphysical poetry with its own curiously haunting cadences and imagery. His poetry reflected the varying developments of his age and maintained an unmistakably individual accent. Both Thomas Hardy and Alfred Edward Housman inherited English poetic traditions and shared the similarity in having a pessimistic vision to human life. Wystan Hugh Auden often combined deliberate irreverence with verbal craftsmanship. His poetry is noted for its vitality, variety, and originality. Robert Graves and Edwin Muir are the two important 20th-century poets who stood somewhat apart from the main map of English poetry in the first half of the century. Both of them show that there were strengths in the English poetic tradition untapped by Thomas Sterns Eliot and his followers. They were much concerned with time and the human response to time, and both had a deep sense of history. New forces kept coming in during the sixties and seventies. English poetry today is more diverse than before. Since the end of the 1950’s a new element of both rhetoric and myth has been coming into English poetry. The recent famous poets are Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney.

In American literature the Puritans who had settled in New England were the first poets of the American colonies. When they came to America they maintained their cultural allegiances to Britain. Most Puritan poets saw the purpose of poetry as careful Christian examination of their life. So the Puritan’s religious subject and imitation of English literary traditions were the two essential characteristics of early American literature. Anne Bradstreet, the first American poet, published a volume of poetry. Her famous The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America contained a muted declaration of independence from the past and a challenge to authority.

Colonial poets of the 18th century still followed the example of British poets such as Alexander Pope. Ebenezer Cook and Richard Lewis wrote accomplished satirical poems based on British pastoral models. The development of poetry in the American colonies mirrors the development of the colonies themselves. Revolutionary-era poets felt an urgency to produce a serious national poetry that would celebrate the country’s new democratic ideals. They did not bother with the question whether a new nation required new forms of poetry, but were content to use traditional forms to write about new subjects in order to create the first truly American poetry. Many of Philip Freneau’s poems focused on America’s future greatness and other subjects including the beauties of the natural world. His lyric poems such as The Wild Honey Suckle and On a Honey Bee can be seen as the first expressions in American poetry of a deep spiritual engagement with nature. Phillis Wheatley wrote in 18th-century literary forms. But her highly structured and elegant poetry nonetheless expressed her frustration at enslavement and desire to reach a heaven where her color and social position would no longer keep her from singing in her full glory.

In the 19th century American poetry assumed real literary value for the first time. The most remarkable poet born in America was William Cullen Bryant who gained public recognition for his Thanatopsis. Influenced by British Romantic poets, especially by William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bryant wrote about his personal experience in nature and society, therefore, nature became the major theme of his poems. Edgar Allan Poe created noble poetry with felicity and won a reputation both in America and abroad. Toward the middle of the century there appeared a group of poets named the New England group, which consisted of John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. John Greenleaf Whittier became best known for Snow-Bound (1866), a long nostalgic look at his Massachusetts Quaker boyhood. Whittier was sensitive to find the beauty of the commonplace, to comprehend the profound meaning of freedom and democracy. Oliver Wendell Holmes followed the tradition of neoclassicism in his poetic creation, although he lived in the Romantic Period. His poetry was characterized by his light verse with witty, arresting charm. James Russell Lowell was best remembered for his volumes of poems such as A Year’s Life, Under the Willows and The Cathedral in which he demonstrated his striking characteristics of simplicity, wit and urban good nature. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is the most distinguished poet in his story-telling faculty. His long poem The Song of Hiawatha was written in the nearest approach to a native epic that America as yet possessed. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry was more searching and intellectual than sensuous. His verse functioned as the transition from blank verse to free verse. These poets were united by a common search for a distinctive American voice to distinguish them from their British counterparts. The transcendentalism of Emerson and Henry David Thoreau was the distinctly American strain of English Romanticism. During the 19th century, black and white poets wrote about the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves.

Bridging the gap between the New England group and the contemporary poets towers the figure of Walt Whitman, the first working-class American poet. In 1855 Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass which marked the birth of truly American poetry. In this collection Whitman developed a poetic style of originality, which was a major experiment in cadenced rather than metrical versification. Emily Dickinson is now regarded a chief poet, as great as Walt Whitman. She, the only important female poet in America in the 19th century, was fascinated with love, friendship, nature, life, immortality and death. Her poetry is distinguished not only by its intensity of emotion but by its idiosyncratic form----the frequent use of dash and capitalization, fragmentary and enigmatic metrical patterns. Herman Melville, though much better known as a novelist, nonetheless wrote powerful poetry about the Civil War, collected in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). He later wrote a long and mysterious poem, Clarel (1876), about his search for faith, his struggle with doubt, and his anxiety about the decline of civilization.

By 1900 the United States experienced multiple changes: westward expansion, waves of immigration, and increasing urbanization that combined to create a physically larger, more populous, and far more diverse country. American poetry in the opening decades of the century displayed far less unity. In the last decades of the 19th century, American literature had entered a period of regionalism. Dialect poetry—written in exaggerated accents and colorful idioms—became a sensation for a time and found its chief exponents in James Whitcomb Riley, Eugene Field, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

The following period in the development of American poetry is generally considered as “new era” dating from 1914. Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Children of the Night and Collected Poems were full of brilliant condensations and sympathy for all phases of humanity, particularly with those lost dreamers whom the world appraises as mediocrities and failures. Robinson explored the lives of New Englanders in his fictional Tilbury Town through dramatic monologues. He employed the rhythm of everyday speech and reflected a Puritan sense of humankind’s moral corruption. At an equal rank with Robinson, Robert Frost further developed Robinson’s New England voice in poetry that could be read both as regional and as some of the most accomplished modern poetry of the early 20th century. He revolutionized blank verse. Restrained, humorous, and understated, Frost’s poetry gives voice to modern psychological constructions of identity without ever losing its focus on the local and the specific. Carl Sandburg’s writing was completely different from that of Robinson and Frost, who advocated reticence, whereas Sandburg was in favor of declamations. Sandburg saw the Middle West as the source of most of his materials and concerned himself with steel mills and slaughterhouses, city streets and farm houses, so he was called “the laureate of industrial America.”

Ezra Pound and Thomas Sterns Eliot are the leading poets of early twentieth- century American literature. Meanwhile, many other poets also made important contributions. These included Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Edward Estlin Cummings, Langston Hughes and Hart Crane. After WWII, a number of new poets and poetic movements emerged. The Confessional movement was just one of them. Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and William De Witt Snodgrass were its major members, and the first two were its leading lights. Both Berryman and Lowell were closely acquainted with modernism. Their subject matter had not been openly discussed in American poetry in the previous time. Private experiences with and feelings about death, trauma, depression and relationships were addressed in their poetry. WWII saw the emergence of a new generation of poets, many of whom were influenced by Wallace Stevens, Richard Eberhart, Karl Shapiro and Randall Jarrell. Around the same time, the Black Mountain poets appeared under the leadership of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley. They were a group of mid-20th century American avant-garde or postmodern poets centered around Black Mountain College. The group included Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Paul Blackburn, and Jonathan Williams. They based their approach to poetry on Olson’s essay Projective Verse. Some of the Black Mountain poets are often considered to have contributed to the San Francisco Renaissance. The 1970s saw a revival of interest in surrealism, with the most prominent poets such as Russell Edson and Maxine Chernoff working in this field. In 1980s appeared a group of poets known as the New Formalists, including Molly Pacock, Dana Gioia and Marilyn Hacker. They wrote in traditional forms and declared that this return to rhyme and more fixed meter was the new avant-garde.


^ Chapter Two What is Poetry


There have been many attempts to define what poetry is. Plato says, “ … … the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and then the mind is no longer in him.” Aristotle defines that “poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universe, history, the particular.” For Aristotle, poetry is a species of imitation or mimesis. Poetry uses different mediums, objects and modes in order to carry out an imitation. Sir Philip Sidney borrows and amends the theories of Plato, Aristotle, Horace and a few of his contemporary Italian critics. He wrote, “ Poesy therefore is an art of imitation, for as Aristotle termeth in his word mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth”; but later he adds a Horation note, declaring poesy’s chief end to be “ to teach and delight.” Like Aristotle, Sidney values poetry over history, law, and philosophy, but he takes Aristotle’s idea one step further by declaring that poetry, above all the other arts and sciences, embodies truth. Samuel Johnson insists that “The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.” William Wordsworth defines “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge has his definition that “the proper and immediate object of Science is the acquirement or communication of truth; the proper and immediate object of Poetry is the communication of pleasure…I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.” Percy Bysshe Shelley says poetry is “the record of the best and happiest moments of the best minds”. Emily Dickinson thinks poetry is that which “makes my body so cold no fire can warm me,” and makes me “feel as if the top of my head were taken off”. To Carl Sandburg, “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits . . . a series of explanations of life, fading off into horizons too swift for explanation”. Thomas Sterns Eliot considers that poetry is “not the assertion of truth, but the making of that truth more fully real to us” Robert Frost holds that “A poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home-sickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where the emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.” Louis Untermeyer gave, perhaps, the most eloquent definition: “Poetry is the power of defining the indefinable in terms of the unforgettable.” A.E. Housman observed that “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat,” while Dylan Thomas believed that “There is no such thing as poetry, only poems.” Here is Archibald Macleish’s poem about poetry:


^ Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit,


Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb,


Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown----


A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs,


Leaving, as the moon releases

Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,

Memory by memory the mind----


A poem should be motionless in time

As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to

Not true.


For all the history of grief

An empty doorway and a maple leaf.


For love

The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea----


A poem should not mean

But be.


It is clear that poetry is almost too complex to define. Every poet seems to have his or her own definition of poetry. Usually a poet is just describing his or her definition in his or her poems. It is difficult to have a single definition of poetry that fits all its varying structures, styles and subject material. A typical dictionary might define poetry as literary composition written in verse with meaning. This simple definition only characterizes poetry on the surface, but there is so much more to poetry than just words. One can hardly define what poetry is. However, one can make an attempt to describe its properties, function, and characteristics as clearly as possible. It is a method to express one’s emotion and make his reader feel it by means of the best language. If one is dealing with similar ideas and perspectives, conventional forms of language may not be sufficient to express emphatically and efficiently. That is why poetry has evolved and taken so many different linguistic forms over the centuries. The definition of poetry can be discussed, debated, and analyzed, but it cannot be understood in concrete terms. In a world full of unknowns, secrets, and mysteries, poetry becomes a means of survival and coping. Through poetry, one can acquire knowledge how to do with the change, how to come to terms with joy and grief, and how to celebrate the wonder still to be found in the extraordinary energy of daily life. Due to this perspective by itself, poetry cannot be limited by definitions. It cannot be communicated or fathomed other than by the use of poetry itself.


^ Chapter Three How to Read a Poem

Poetry is written to be read aloud and heard. In the past, it was common for people to get together and read poetry to each other. A poem was not simply a piece of language that conveyed data; it was meant to be heard the way a song was meant to be sung. In order to read poetry well, one needs to know a little about prosody. Poems can be broken down into 3 parts; (1) The stanza: a group of lines set off from the other lines in a poem. It is the poetic equivalent of a paragraph in prose. In traditional poems, the stanza usually contains a unit of thought, much like a paragraph in prose. (2) The line: a single line of poetry. (3) The foot: a syllable or a group of 2 or 3 syllables. To scan a line of poetry one counts the number of feet in a line. For a beginner, the easiest thing to do is to count the number of stresses. Typically a foot will contain a stressed and an unstressed syllable. This does not always work, but it will work often enough to give one the feeling of the poem. In verse (traditional, formal poetry), there will be a regular pattern to the rhythm. Often, all the lines in a poem will contain the same number of feet. For example, in a sonnet, usually all the lines will have 5 feet. In many cases, though, a poet might alternate between lines with 4 feet and lines with 3 feet. And in other cases, the patterns will be more complicated. Eight steps for reading a poem are offered here:

Step 1. Read from the very beginning to the very end of the poem. In this way, try to get a sense of the poem.

Step 2. Identify the sentence structure, for poetry at times consists of complicated sentences.

Step 3. Read the poem carefully to figure out the meter. Note how many stressed syllables and unstressed syllables there are in a particular line.

Step 4. Read the poem out loud. Pay attention to the rhyme scheme and try to follow the rhythm.

Step 5. Look up new and unknown words in a dictionary.

Step 6. Mark off any sections in the poem. These sections may be speeches given by a character, discussions of a particular topic, changes in mood, or a new stage of an argument.

Step 7. Analyze the tone and speaker of the poem.

Step 8. Re-read the poem.

Reading poetry shares some similarities with reading fiction, drama and essay. One should perceive details of action and language, make connections, associations and inferences, and draw conclusions finally. One should also make use of his intelligence to arouse his emotional response based upon his general experience with life and literature. Anyhow, reading poetry presents a problem of its own. The difference comprises a reader’s being more alert to the connotations of words, more responsive to the expressive qualities of sound and rhythm in line and stanza, more perceptive about details of syntax and punctuation. These high-demanded qualities in reading poetry are necessary and essential on account of the density and compression of poetry in itself. A prerequisite to learn reading poetry well and appreciating its beauty is to learn to ask questions about how one feels about poems, how he interprets them, and how he evaluates them. Such questions can be the following:

1. What emotion does the poem evoke? In what sensations, associations, and memories does it result?

2. What ideas does the poem convey? In what way does it express, explicitly or implicitly? What sense does it make? What does it suggest?

3. What’s the poet’s perspective of the world? Is it in agreement with yours? What’s your opinion about the poet’s perspective? Does it influence your own way of understanding the poem?


^ Chapter Four How to Evaluate a Poem


To evaluate a poem is quite complex. It requires performing two different things. The first is to make an assessment of the poem’s literary value, and then to make a judgment on how good and successful it is in the achievements of its poetic goals. The second is to think about what significance the poem itself has upon the reader himself personally, others of a different age, race, gender, culture, and ideology, even the poet himself, including his life experience and his viewpoints of the actual world. Therefore, it is indeed necessary to consider how various cultural assumptions, moral attitudes, and political convictions affect the understanding of the poem. It is really indispensable to investigate under what situation the poet composes his particular poem and how he expresses his emotions and beliefs. It is also useful to examine how the public responds to the publication either in the past or at present. A reader’s response has something to do with the interpretation of the poem. Evaluation is based upon interpretation, since his judgment depends upon his comprehension of the poem. One thing should be noted: a reader’s evaluation of the same poem may vary at different times. What he thinks important and relevant now may become unimportant and irrelevant later. The interpretation and evaluation of a poem remain in constant changes. It is hardly possible to acknowledge only one absolute, definitive, and correct interpretation of a poem. So the evaluation can have many customs.

Try to paraphrase a poem as a whole, or perhaps just the more difficult lines. To paraphrase means to express in a shorter or clearer way what someone has written or said. In paraphrasing a poem, one puts into his own words what he understands the poem to say. He needs to restate the essential ideas and suggestions of the poem. A general way to paraphrase a poem is to work through it line by line with a statement that may take as many words as the original, but a paraphrase, then, is ampler and richer than a summary, a brief condensation of gist, and the main idea. On the other hand, a paraphrase has its limitations. It can never tell all that a poem involves; nor can it be regarded as the most accurate interpretation of the original poem by every reader. In reading, each one makes his own interpretations and brings certain personal associations. To some extent, these associations are quite natural and unavoidable, sometimes even to be welcomed. Remember not to go too far from the original poem and try to avoid having irrelevant responses that the poem itself calls for.


^ Chapter Five Themes of a Poem

In order to have a thorough comprehension of a poem one needs to have some knowledge about theme. Theme is an abstraction or generalization drawn from the details of a literary work and refers to an idea or intellectually apprehensible meaning inherent and implicit in a work. In determining a poem’s theme one should be careful neither to oversimplify the poem nor to distort its meaning. A poem can have multiple themes. In other words, a poem can be interpreted from more than one perspective and there is more than one way to state or explain a poem’s meaning. A statement of theme derives from the particulars described in the poem. The very concreteness and particularity of poetry should make one cautious in searching out themes. In fact, it would be more useful to avoid thinking of themes as hidden somehow beneath the surface of the poem and instead to see theme as the implied significance of the poem’s details. In order to comprehend and grasp the themes of a poem, such questions should be asked: what does it say? what does it imply? what does it mean? Themes abstracted from poems are provisional understandings that never completely explain the poem. They can be generalized as love and friendship, nature, death, war, social life, and so on.

When one reads or listens to a poem, its meaning and value for him are conveyed by more than intellectual comprehension. When a poem is more intellectual, it is easier to talk about. But in most cases poetry exists to describe things and to embody feelings. A good poem exceeds the reader’s explanations and always remains obscure and mysterious. It can move its reader in a way that cannot be explained by its surface content. A reader experiences poetry as he does music or painting and feels it become a living part of him. Under such circumstances, poetry serves as not only a sort of amusement and entertainment but accumulation of knowledge and purification of thought. Poetry can be regarded as the emotional communication between the poet and reader, for a poem can make both of them laugh, cry, smile, think and brood. Poetry is a fundamental way of expressing human emotion and thought. In addition, the poetical language is the best one with the aid of imagistic and figurative tools. In poetry, one can find truth and beauty, because it is of great significance to distinguish the excellent and the inferior, the true and the false.


^ Part Two Types of Poetry


In the study of poetry, first of all, it is of great necessity to consider the theme and the overall development of the theme in the poem. Obviously, the sort of development that takes place depends, to a considerable extent, on the type of poem. From the poet’s point of view related to the material, poetry can be classified into the following types: narrative, lyric, dramatic, descriptive, reflective, didactic and satirical poetry. Some of these types have several subdivisions and each adheres to different conventions.




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