Fundamental Principles for reading poetry (Note: there are always always exceptions to rules. rules. I’m giving you you rules that will work almost almost all the time, but not always, on poems written before, say, 1950 or so (that is, most of the poems that are taught in literature departments, including all the “canonical” ones). 1. There are no hidden meanings meanings in in poetry. poetry. The “meani “meaning” ng” of a poem derives derives from from the way the words are organized in relation to each other as we see them on the page; what we need to get clear on is this pattern of organization. 2. The language language of poetry poetry is structu structured red or organi organized zed in two two fundamental fundamental ways: ways: a. according according to “poeti “poetic” c” principles principles (meter (meter,, rhyme, rhyme, rhythm, rhythm, line, line, stanza, stanza, conventional forms such as sonnets, figurative language, and so forth), and b. according according to to principl principles es of grammar grammar and and logic. logic. These two kinds of structuring principle must be harmonized by the poet; but to a certain degree there is a tension or conflict between them. 3. Let’s Let’s take b first. first. The fact fact that that poetry poetry typical typically ly accords accords in in some way with with principles of grammar and logic is manifested most clearly in the fact that it is almost always written in sentences. Since it is typically written written in sentences, you need to perceive clearly the grammar grammar of the sentence you are reading. reading. Above all, you must have a clear grasp of the subject, the verb, the object of the verb (if there is one), and of how the other elements of the sentence are related to the subject and verb. 4. The sentences sentences in poems poems are almost almost always always either either grammat grammatical ical or nearly nearly so; so; but they are often complicated, and often in an unusual and therefore confusing order. In order to see clearly what the sentence is saying, you need to rearrange the words into a clearer order. order. The most common type of confusing confusing word order in poetry is “inversion” of the syntax, in which we have to wait until the end to get the subject and verb. The clearest sentences are usually usually the ones that have the subject and verb at the beginning. 5. I will refer refer to to the logical logical and grammati grammatical cal aspect aspect of the sentences sentences of of poems as their “discursive” structure. structure. Discourse is language used for communication, as we use it in an essay or an ordinary conversation; and poems function, along on e dimension, discursively. 6. The fundamental energy of poems is built up out of binary oppositions. oppositions. In its most basic form, a binary opposition is the juxtaposition of two w ords (hence “binary”) that in some way clash with each other or are contradictory or anomalous in some way. Binary oppositions create a dynamic dynamic tension (they conflict conflict with each other, and this conflict is a kind of energy); they are “dissonant,” and this dissonance is what gives force to the language of the poem. 7. The words on each side of a binary opposition will will be linked to other words with which they, so to speak, form form an alliance. These alliances are “consonant” rather than dissonant. 8. An entire entire group of allie allied d or consonant consonant words words on one side of of a binary binary opposition opposition together produce a major dissonance in opposition to the entire group of consonant words on the other side side of the binary. (So “night,” “dark,” “storm,” “storm,” and “pain,” for example, might in a given poem be consonant with each other, and
dissonant with a group composed of “day,” “bright,” “sunny,” and “pleasure” on the other.) 5. A poem is typically made up of a beginning, a building of tension, a turn, and a resolving of tension, culminating in closure. This series of elements is what we look for when we try to make out the “form” or “structure” of an individual poe m. 6. The most important formal moments are the turn and the closure; but in order to perceive how they work, we have to understand how the whole poem is constructed. 7. Every word, every object, every “figure” in a poem has a variety of possible meanings; the question the formalist reader asks is not “how many possible meanings can I think of?” but rather, “which of the possible meanings is the one that is “activated” by the specific context this poem gives it? Which one, or which ones, make the most sense given what this whole poem seems to be doing?