The annoying poetry professor begins, “All right, pupils: listen up! What rhythm do we have here in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan’?”
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:
“I’ll beat on the desk to show you. The pattern of unstressed (short) and stressed (long) syllables goes short long, short long, short long, short long—‘In Xan-a-du did Ku-bla Khan.’ So what we have—if you are paying attention—is iambic tetrameter, four poetic feet of iambs. How are you [asks the annoying professor] going to appreciate poetry if you don’t know an iamb from a dactyl or an anapest from a trochee?”
Hold everything, Professor: Stop right there! Probably you were trained by pedants much like yourself, but the way to read a poem is not to rip it to shreds. A poem is not a code to be cracked. The way to read poetry is simply to enjoy yourself, as I am about to explain.
Come to know a poem gradually. Begin with an overall sense of its subject and tone. Read the poem all the way through, aloud or silently. Visualize the images—the words that paint pictures or arouse your other senses. Absorb the tone and mood.
Here is a well-known short poem by Emily Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of Me.
It might take reading the poem a few times to figure out fully what Emily Dickinson is saying here, but the sense comes through immediately that she is speaking of hope as a bird that sings in spite of the storms and buffeting of life. Also immediately evident is her conversational tone, which is enhanced by the punctuation slowing the presentation of her thoughts. (Early editors “corrected”—i.e., damaged—Emily Dickinson’s poems by making her punctuation more traditional. Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s work restores the poems as she wrote them.)
Sometimes getting a general impression of a poem—simply sinking into its sounds and the mood it creates—is enough. If the poem inspires a second look, move on to such details as characters and situations and develop a clearer sense of the theme, the central idea the poem is expressing. The speaker in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” for instance, is standing at a window overlooking the English Channel: “Come to the window, sweet is the night air!” he says to his companion. For the rest of the poem, the speaker talks about the view before him and the thoughts the scene inspires. For him, love is the only peace available in a world full of uncertainty and sorrow:
Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain:
If you want to dig still further into your poem, the next step is to take a look at its rhythm, rhyme, and word choice. By noticing these, you will better understand why the poem affects you as it does.
Look to see if there is a consistent rhythmic pattern, such as the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables in the professor’s lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” Another fairly common pattern is the galloping rhythm used in Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman.” You will see that the rhythm is well chosen to support the mood and meaning of the poem:
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees, The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor, And the highwayman came riding— Riding—riding— The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
Rhyme is a feature present in most poetry written before the mid 20th century, as well as in some contemporary works. In William Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds,” Sonnet 116, the first four lines discuss what love is not, and the next four lines explain what love is. (A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that follows established rules for its rhythm and rhyme.) The rhyme scheme in Sonnet 116 supports the poem’s content:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments: love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove.
Minds, love, finds, remove. And now the next four lines use different rhymes:
Oh, no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Mark, shaken, bark, taken. Lines nine through twelve continue the established pattern (rhyme scheme) with new rhymes and further establish the qualities that mark genuine love:
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
Even if you don’t realize how a poet is using rhyme, the patterns can have a strong subliminal effect. Such is especially true for the sonnet’s rhyming closing couplet—two lines—which create a satisfying summary comment on the entire poem:
If this be error and upon me prov’d, I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Finally, vivid and well-chosen words are essential to a poem. They should evoke sharp images and appeal to your senses. Particularly take note of a poet’s inventive comparisons. For example, “Her Legs,” by English Renaissance poet Robert Herrick, creates a pleasingly silly picture because of an unexpected comparison. This is the entire poem:
Fain would I kiss my Julia’s dainty leg, Which is as white and hairless as an egg.
In her poem “A Work of Artifice,” contemporary poet Marge Piercy makes the point that many women live constricted lives. The poem compares a woman and a bonsai tree. Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” compares steadfast love to the North Star.
As you can see, poetry is not about obscure language and singsong meter. It’s not about figuring out that “Kubla Khan” goes da dah, da dah, da dah, da dah. It’s about experiencing the magic, mood, and meaning created by lines such as these:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
If technical terms and analysis interest you: great! I like them, too. Recognizing and understanding poetic techniques can help reveal the soul of a poem. But if the literary terms and tools overwhelm you, why not simply enjoy poetry on your own terms?
Reading contemporary poets, as well as the poetic heros and heroines of the past, is thrilling. Browse the poetry section of a bookstore to see whose work appeals to you. You can also get leads by searching online for “best contemporary poetry”; here’s a link to one useful site. If you don’t enjoy a particular poem or poet, go on to another one. The world is filled with so much incredible poetry that it would be a shame to get stuck wading through poems you don’t like for whatever reason. Try Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Wislawa Szymborska, Langston Hughes, Billy Collins, Richard Wilbur, and hundreds more. Jump in and discover new poetic heroines and heros.
The backyard is both a place and a state of being.
The front yard is partly for the neighbors. In the front yard, the grass must
be cut and the crabgrass kept to a minimum. Even if the homeowners think
dandelions are pretty, the neighbors will expect the flowers to be mowed before
they turn to seed. Children may play in the front yard from time to time, and
company is greeted there, but the real living takes place in the backyard.
In our first little white house, where we
lived until I was six, I loved our backyard. Mother planted wide beds of flowers
along both sides, and my parents grew vegetables—I liked the green peppers
best. My wading pool sat partway down the yard. One day I took my life-sized
doll, Susie, swimming with me; doing so made her seem like a real girl, and I
wanted Susie to share my fun.
When I was four, I came home from a
playmate’s late one afternoon to find my father brushing forest-green paint on
a wooden jungle gym he had just finished building. A long ladder with smooth
round rungs was suspended between shorter vertical ladders. I couldn’t believe
this magnificent structure was meant for me. On it, I could hang upside down
and then flip over to land on my feet. I could travel hand over hand down the
long horizontal ladder. I could swing over to the bars on the swing set. I was
fearless on the jungle gym, and my parents trusted me to stay alive.
At the far end of our backyard, where the
area known as “the mud” began, other neighborhood children and I wandered and
explored, stopping to look up when the occasional airplane passed overhead. One
afternoon, accompanied by Inky the spaniel, we children set off on a turtle
hunt. “Inky is going to find us a turtle!” I called to my mother. Against the
odds, Inky came through for us. After she helped us take off our muddy shoes,
Mother found a box for the turtle and lettuce for his lunch.
The backyard of our second little white house
did not include a jungle gym, which I was sad to leave behind, but half of our
new backyard was wooded. Wild plants, dry leaves, and boulders surrounded
hundred-foot-tall trees. When I was in the woods, it screened out all memory of
bullying classmates and teachers who piled on the homework.
The branches of an ironwood tree bent down to
meet the top of a tall granite rock, and in the space between, my friends and I
played house. A flat rock by the largest oak created a porch, as we called it,
for sitting a moment and deciding Native Americans had worn the nearby path.
Around us grew blueberry bushes, spring beauties, dog-toothed violets, and
jacks-in-the-pulpit. Tadpoles lived in the small pools of water left from the
spring rains. On the June morning when summer vacation began, the woods greeted
me with still-fresh, light-green
leaves. Sunlight illuminated the last of the mist from the cool overnight air.
In front of the
woods, on the backyard lawn, my friends and I played croquet and softball, sat
on another of the yard’s boulders to converse with our dolls, held handstand
and cartwheel contests, and swung on the swings. Unlike some parents, mine
didn’t mind that our feet wore away the grass. I
liked to swing high and then jump to the ground. The neighborhood girls shared
some traits with my classmates—as in, “We’re in a club, and you have to pay
five cents to join.”—but in our backyard, I never felt second-rate or thought
about needing to be different than I was.
Every summer, we visited our relatives in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The backyard I most loved there was behind Aunt Ruth and
Uncle Larry’s big white house on College Street. We ate dinner outdoors on long
tables: a big family eating late in the evening after Aunt Ruth’s lengthy
preparations—green beans cooked for hours with country ham, corn on the cob,
huge pieces of lemon-meringue pie. Two-year-old Kelly toddled toward the side
of the property, to be brought back and then start off again. Mark, a year
older, called me “Cussin Winnie” and wanted me to play with him. No one rushed
away. Nannie and Aunt Winnie had only to walk next door to be home.
One evening, my cousin Shirley and Shirley’s
husband, Duffy, danced for us all: Mother and Daddy and me, Nannie and Aunt
Winnie, Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry, Cousin Carol, and Mark and Kelly—their
sister, Ruthie, was not yet born. The Landrums were there, too; Aunt Winnie
managed the Landrum Insurance office. The layers of Shirley’s party skirt
swirled as she and Duffy waltzed to the music from the record player.
Afterwards, Aunt Winnie and Mr. Landrum performed a comic routine. She stood in
back and extended her arms in front of him; he kept his arms hidden. As Mr.
Landrum told a story, Aunt Winnie spread her arms wide to emphasize the
dramatic points and wiped his eyes at the sad parts. Her dainty arms made an
incongruous contrast to her boss’ tall frame. Daddy told his story about the
hoarse ice-cream waitress. “Do you have laryngitis?” asks the customer. “No,”
the waitress replies, “just chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.”
The world in which summer evenings brought time to climb on the jungle gym, backyard games of Mother May I? and Harrodsburg family suppers has long since spun away. Present life includes more front yards than backyards. But in my mind, I see my dear ones gathered on the tranquil, broad, green lawn of Aunt Ruth and Uncle Larry’s backyard, from which no one will be forced to leave, torn away from the pleasure and affection. Shirley dances; Nannie gives her saucy commentary; Mother tells a funny story; and Daddy soaks up the textures of the layered trees against a brilliant sky.
Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story. They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.
Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir. And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings. More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.
In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history. In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight. More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.
Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.
This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:
The drawing here shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.
Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:
Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek
In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:
In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:
Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:
During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.
Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:
Penobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine
The section also has this photograph:
Mason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay
My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.
What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?
The church tonight was and was not my church;
I am making my home there,
Even as corners and entire rooms
Not yet my dwelling place.
A kind acquaintance greeted me
In my now-familiar pew
Before the organ told of time for quiet
And the small procession gathered.
I knew the crucifix rose
In the dark beyond the window;
Jesus as he lived inspires me,
As failingly as I follow,
More than Jesus as he died.
The priest spoke to us of speaking up
For right as we understand,
Of nurturing the saint within.
I loved singing the hymns:
Hymns and a sermon, a homily,
These are church enough for me,
Along with friends,
Who are my sanctuary.