With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!
Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.
It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.
Just. Fall. In. But where?
I can’t answer that question for you, because the “falling in” point will be different for every poem and for every reader. What I can do is share with you some of my own “falling in” history—the lines of some of my now-favorite poems that first captivated me. I wonder if any of them will be falling-in points for you?
Fall In with An Ear-Catching Phrase
I’m very fond of Wallace Stevens’s poems, although they can be quite difficult to understand (I know I still don’t understand a lot of them). But for me, they have so many places to fall in, places that are usually elegant turns of phrases. Take this little phrase from “Sunday Morning,” which comes amid a description of all the things a lady is enjoying on a lazy Sunday morning at home: “And the green freedom of a cockatoo / Upon a rug.”
Obviously, it’s the lady’s pet cockatoo, not the freedom, that is green—but the transfer of the concrete adjective to the abstract term “freedom” is unexpected and just so cool. It draws a picture of “greenness” moving freely all over the place, the cockatoo strutting all over the rug, green here, there, and everywhere. Here at this tiny interesting phrase is where I fell in, making me want to know more about this poem’s meaning. But even if I never read further, I still had that moment with the cockatoo, riches enough to have gleaned from any poem.
I fell into another Wallace Stevens poem at the end of it, which offers a teasing paradox along with an arresting turn of phrase. From “The Snow Man”: “
“For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
Whoa. Whaaat?? There’s nothing like a line of “nothings” that makes me want to keep thinking until I figure out what it means. It took me years to come to a full understanding of this poem, if indeed I have yet, since I am still pondering it. It still comes to my mind often, my long relationship with “The Snow Man” having begun with falling in here.
Different Readers Fall In at Different Places
I’m far from the only one to have fallen for a turn of phrase in a poem. One of my poetry loving friends wrote me once that Hart Crane “deserves immortality merely for his utterly beautiful ‘adagios of islands’” in line 29 of “Voyages.” At the time, my friend had only a general idea what the phrase might mean, but no matter. Once fallen in, he would keep living with the poem in his mind until the meaning developed more and more.
By the way, though “adagios of islands” is nice, especially for its lovely sound, it is not the phrase that attracts me into this poem. I am more stunned by “Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,” a couple of lines further on, which describes the ocean as a woman, exactly capturing the look and movement, over time, of the sea. Like I said, every reader is different.
Startling Observations Draw Me In
Sometimes the “falling in” point is a startling or unexpected observation, as in the first line of Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (and his poems are full of these kind of moments): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, / And spills the upper boulders in the sun. . ..” Yes, I thought, upon first reading. Some force in nature or in the universe is anti-wall—he’s right. What’s up with that? Here I fell in, wanting to pursue Robert Frost in his meditation on this idea that I felt was true but had never thought much about before.
Another great American poet, Emily Dickinson, is also full of similar but even more startling observations about life. Here’s one that I think captivates most people who read Dickinson’s poem #241:
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
Anyone claiming to “like” a look of agony is so shocking, I don’t just fall in, I trip and plummet in. How can anyone say this? What can it mean? My brain is teased continually until I better understand her point. Dickinson’s poetry is full of these moments, which is probably why so many of them keep floating around my mind years after having first read them.
Caught by the Familiar Made New
Sometimes my “falling in” passages are a little longer, especially when they elaborate on a beautiful imaginative way to conceive of something familiar. In Keats’s “To Autumn,” he pictures Autumn as a sprite or a god-like mythical figure, and addresses this “Fall God” directly:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies
Thy hair uplifted by the winnowing winds
The first time I read this poem, I was completely captivated by mild beautiful Autumn, replete and relaxed with most of a bountiful harvest gathered in. The personification seemed whimsical and yet solid, exactly capturing the essence of a beautiful fall. I fell into this poem here and have never left it yet.
Sometimes many elements work together to create an inescapable falling-in point: an arresting idea, a human drama, a relatable situation, witty humor with a strong emotional undercurrent. Take these opening lines from John Donne’s love poem “The Sun Rising”:
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices . . ..
Here, Donne paints the picture of two lovers who don’t wish the sun to rise and put an end to their night of love. I first read this with delight in the speaker’s facetiousness; he seemed so cute to start griping at the sun for rising and bothering them. It also conveys the truth that lovers in an erotic state feel elevated into a different state of existence, where average daily things like a rising sun don’t seem to apply to them, even though the speaker’s wit shows that he knows otherwise. Here, I think it’s the speaker’s personality that first drew me in, even more than the evocative situation. I wanted to know what more this engaging, intelligent speaker had to say about love.
Falling In to Points of Emotion
Almost a hundred years before Donne wrote his poem, Thomas Wyatt wrote a poignant poem in 1557 about lost opportunities in love. Its opening lines offered an intense and emotional “falling in” point for me:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Here is an aching, poignant moment as the speaker compares his former lovers to beautiful wild animals who once turned tame to seek him out, but no more. As the poem proceeds, it becomes apparent that the speaker is not really talking about huge numbers of lovers, but really is missing just one special person who now shuns him. I found these lines intense and lovely, drawing me in to the poem here.
Emotional moments make for the most powerful falling-in points. “The Stolen Child” is a haunting poem by Yeats based on an old Irish tale about faeries who lure children from their homes in the human world to dwell forevermore in the magic faery realm. The sounds, the eeriness, and the worldly sadness of this four-line refrain pitches me into this poem every time I read it:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Your Turn! Where Will You Fall In?
Pick up any classic, well-known poem and explore. What will capture your attention, your mind’s eye, your ear, your heart? What intrigues you, puzzles you, moves you?
Just fall in there. Start with that line, that image, that idea, that sound. Then keep reading and pondering, and let the meaning of the poem slowly crystallize around that point.
Reading poetry is not just an intellectual exercise. It is a submersion, a romp, an enchantment of mind and heart. Mark Strand’s wonderful poem “Eating Poetry” exactly captures that experience. In the poem, the speaker becomes carried away, totally transformed and unleashed while reading poetry in the library:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
Go find some great poetry and take a bite. Begin the process of letting your mind and heart be totally transformed, remembering always, first and last, to Just Fall In.
Where have you fallen in to a poem? Leave a reply to tell us about it!
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.