Tuesday, 9 August 2016

How to read poetry

Think of a poem as a mystery. The clues are in the mystery, but you have to find the clues to uncover the secret. Here's how to find the clues:

  1. Read in complete sentences, ignore the line breaks.
  2. If the language or structure sounds awkward, it's because the words are often in unusual or wrong order, or the language is old. Rewrite the sentence with the words in proper order.
  3. Read the poem out loud to get the rhyme and meter right, forget about what the poem says, how does it sound? Angry, sad, happy, wistful? Is the beat martial? My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord, or is it slow and slightly inconsistent from one line to the next, "The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,/The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes"

    It's a bit lazy-sounding, almost dreamlike.
  4. Listen for the sound of the words - hard consonants or soft consonants, high or low pitched vowels. Consider:

    I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

    It sounds like a needle scratching the sidewalk, like fast scuttling feet. Compare this to:

    "There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;"

    All the 't' sounds are like the ticking of a clock.
  5. Once you have three and four, you have the tone of the poem, the emotion of it. Now read it again (in complete sentences!).
Those are sort of my general rules as I remember them. You'll notice that Prufrock, in particular, doesn't lend itself well to #1 because Eliot has loaded this poem with fragments and run-on sentences. Which in itself tells you something - it meanders, distracted, seemingly random, like a certain character in the poem.

But the poem itself is explained in the first three lines:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let's go, you and I together through to the end of our lives with our minds already doped asleep. The rest of that stanza describes muttering retreats and streets like tedious arguments. Things non-committal, pointless and slightly irritating.

The poem is about a man who has idled away his life on non-committal, polite society, pointless bullshit. His whole life is a muttered retreat. He's not a bad guy, maybe a nice soft guy, but he's of no consequence. When he dies at the end, he drowns - slips under to the murky depths - and not even his body is left as a reminder of his middling life.

Poems are a hard, and it should take a couple of hours to dissect a fairly long poem like Eliot's. The poet agonises over words to convey his meaning, you should do the same to understand him.

Personally, every time I read this poem I get more and more depressed, because every time I read it I'm a little older and little changed

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