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About this book

This book provides an introduction to the elements of poetry, formulates a series of contexts for the interpretation of poems, and offers a substantial anthology. Its purpose is to enable students to read poems with understanding and pleasure and to provide them with a basic vocabulary for analysing and talking about poems.

Table of Contents

Elements

Frontmatter

1. Some Impulses to Poetry

Abstract
People have always found ways to involve poetry in their lives, in their ordinary as well as their more exalted affairs. In this first chapter, as we briefly consider a few of these occasions, we may begin to have a sense of how wide-ranging and how various the impulse to poetic expression is. At the same time, we begin to see, in very different poems, certain features that poems seem to have in common: freshness of perception, economy of language, striking images, pleasing rhythms, and more.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

2. Speaker, Setting, Subject, and Theme

Abstract
It is always important in reading a poem to consider who is talking. Even though the word “I” is used in the poem, the poet may not be the speaker. The voice, whatever its origin—whether real or imagined, personal or impersonal—has an important function in a poem, for it is the owner of that voice to whom things happen, who feels an emotion or has a reflection to share; it is that speaker through whose eyes or from whose point of view a sequence of events or a series of details is presented.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

3. Words and Word Order

Abstract
Robert Penn Warren has whimsically defined a poem as a group of lines that are printed evenly along the left-hand margin of a page. After that, he says, you’re on your own. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is the kind of things poets write.” Both are telling us that poetry is so varied in its potential that no definition, not even by a poet, is likely to be adequate.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

4. Figurative Language and Imagery

Abstract
When you hear such things as “He’s all thumbs,” “I’m at the end of my rope,” “She doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain,” you know that the speaker isn’t talking about thumbs, rope, or rain. Something else is intended: he’s graceless; I’m desperate; she’s dull. The speaker is using figurative language, that is, a means of indirect statement that says one thing in terms of another. The effectiveness of such usage can, of course, vary widely. It can seem tedious and uninteresting if the particular expression has too often been used; or it can seem foolish if it is simply showy or not especially appropriate. But as often as not the effect can be a liveliness of expression that manages to press very closely to the essence of an object or idea while also conveying a strong sense of the speaker’s attitudes and feelings. For the poet, whose tendency is to see and think figuratively, the use of figurative language is virtually inescapable.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

5. Symbols and Allegory

Abstract
Each week thousands of people visit an ancient wall in Jerusalem and are moved by the experience; the wall may or may not be the remnant of Solomon’s temple but it has acquired that meaning, and to stand there and perhaps scribble a wish on a piece of paper and hide it between the cracks is a symbolic act of community with the God of Israel. Not far away, thousands of people climb a dozen stairs and gaze at a shapeless mound of ancient rock which has been designated as the place of the Crucifixion. To stand thus is a symbolic act of Christian community. A farmer from Wisconsin visiting the marketplace in Jaipur, India, is astonished to see how the cow is treated there; but he soon learns that it is a sacred symbol in the Hindu religion and may not be hindered in its wandering or harmed in any way.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

6. Rhyme, Rhythm, and Stanza

Abstract
The very best way to read a poem is to read it aloud, for although poems usually come to us as a visual experience, as words locked into the printed page, they are intended to be heard as well as seen. An attentiveness to the sounds and patterns of sound is essential to the full appreciation of most poems. For example, the rhythm and other sound patterns may contribute to a sense of dignity and stateliness, as in the opening lines of John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
This is the month, and this the happy morn, Wherein the Son of Heaven’s Eternal King, Of wedded maid and virgin mother born, Our great redemption from above did bring; For so the holy sages once did sing, That he our deadly forfeit should release, And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
The sounds of another poem may approach those of ordinary conversation, as in the opening lines of W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen”:
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be One against whom there was no official complaint, And all the reports on his conduct agree That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

7. Structure

Abstract
Structure is best understood as the organization of the parts or units of a poem into an order that is coherent and meaningful in terms of the content of the poem as a whole.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

8. Genre

Abstract
The term genre refers to a mode of writing that follows certain literary rules or conventions that have come down to the poet through custom and use. When we say that a poem belongs to a particular genre, we are relating the poem to others of its kind, regardless of who the author is or when the poem was written; we are cutting across boundaries of time, personality, and even nationality. Attempting to place a poem in a particular genre may bring us closer to the meaning or effect intended by the poet, for poets are readers themselves and often draw very deliberately upon inherited conventions. Hence our awareness of these conventions becomes a part of our understanding of the poem. To put this differently, just as a word has connotations, a particular genre has a wealth of associations the poet may use. Further, the consideration of genre—that is, of certain features poems have in common—makes us more sensitive to the ways in which each poet’s achievement is special or unique.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

9. Tone and Attitude

Abstract
We have occasionally used the words “tone” and “attitude” in commenting on the effect of particular poems, and though we have not formally defined these terms, their meanings in general were probably easy enough to grasp from the context of the discussion. But tone and attitude are sufficiently important to the understanding of poetry to merit more detailed consideration.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

Perspectives

Frontmatter

10. Poetry and Biography

Abstract
When we read a poem by, let us say, John Milton or Emily Dickinson or William Wordsworth, we know there is a person behind the words, a poet whose experiences in life contributed to the choice of subject matter, the imagery, the attitude, or other aspects of the poem. Although we can never know precisely how the poet’s experiences come together to inform a poem, some biographical knowledge may often be helpful, and occasionally crucial, to our understanding of the poem.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

11. Poetry and History

Abstract
As the biographical perspective views a poem in its relationship to its author, so the historical sees it in terms of the social, political, and cultural context from which it emerges. Indeed, few poems are likely to be without indications of the period in which they were written, though the evidence—language, theme, allusions—may be more or less prominent in a given work.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

12. Poetry and Society

Abstract
As we have seen, most poems have signs of the era in which they were written although the poem itself need not be concerned primarily with illuminating the historical period. At the same time, there is a body of poetry that draws upon the historical scene as a means of bringing into focus the failings or injustices of the poet’s society.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

13. Poetry and Philosophy

Abstract
In the poems discussed in chapter 12, the poets’ primary attention was to the failings of society. Richard Wright and Mari Evans dealt with the unhappy history of blacks in America; Kenneth Rexroth with the oppression of the poor; D. H. Lawrence with the moral and emotional failures of the bourgeois male. In each instance, as we saw, a set of positive values suggested the need for social reform. These values, in turn, rest upon fundamental notions about the world that belong to the realm of philosophy. Kenneth Rexroth, for example, conveys his anger at the poverty and stunted lives he has witnessed and vows to fight exploitation. The philosophical notion that underlies his protest is that of the worth, dignity, and equality of individual human beings.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

14. Poetry and Religion

Abstract
When poetry and religion meet, the poet contemplates the spirit, the soul, death, fate, purpose, meaning—that is, one or another of the issues we have seen raised in philosophical terms in the previous chapter—but brings to the interpretation of these issues some system that derives from church doctrine or some conception of God or divine principle of human destiny.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

15. Poetry and Psychology

Abstract
Interest in the psychological effect of poetry is certainly not a new phenomenon. It is traceable back to the first-century Greek writer Longinus, who emphasized the power of poetry to arouse and gratify the emotions of the audience, and farther back still, to Aristotle (fourth century B.C.), who explained the overwhelming impact of tragic drama as the purging of emotions of pity and fear. Both assumed what all subsequent critics concerned with poetry and psychology do: that when we respond to poetry, it is not simply at the intellectual level; a full response draws upon depths of self that we may not, as readers, fully understand or significantly control. Poetry is obviously not alone among the arts in eliciting such response, but it seems especially empowered in that direction.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

16. Poetry, Mythology, and Myth

Abstract
Countless stories from classical and other mythologies describe gods, goddesses, and other immortals who interact among themselves but also participate in the lives of mortals, directing or interfering with events, engaging in battles, plots, love affairs, and countless quarrels. In their original contexts, stories of this order often carried the impact of religious truth and seemed to explain or comment upon such phenomena as the Creation, the origins of ritual and law, or the functioning of natural processes. Thus, the legend of Demeter (goddess of grain and fertility) and her daughter Persephone, the latter abducted by Hades to the underworld, became for the Greeks a means of reflecting on changes in the seasonal cycle.* Other stories, such as that of Prometheus who brought fire and light to humans in defiance of the god Zeus, touched upon other aspects of reality. The interesting thing is that the legends are so vivid, compelling, and imaginatively suggestive that they have survived and remain significant for us as legends long after they have lost their religious impact. Traces of the gods can even be found embedded in certain of our common words: cereal derives from the goddess Ceres (the Roman name for Demeter); mercury from the Roman god of that name known for his fleetness; martial from Mars, the Roman god of war; and venereal from Venus, the Roman goddess of love.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

Anthology

Frontmatter

The Road

Without Abstract
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

Writing About Poetry

Abstract
This book has been devoted to the acts of reading, understanding, and, we hope, enjoying poetry. In this section, we offer a few suggestions about a related process, writing about poems; that is, putting on paper—refining and giving shape to—your responses and perceptions.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

Some Groupings of Poems for Comparison

Abstract
The listings of poems that follow make no pretense to completeness. They are offered, rather, as a guide to some of the connections—thematic or formal—that can be made among the poems included in this volume.
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg

A Gallery of Poets

Without Abstract
Ruth Miller, Robert A. Greenberg
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