Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: Literature 101

How Ideas and Themes Shape Fiction: Reading Fiction Step 2

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Young woman in white top leaning toward shelves of books in a library, gazing at a shelf and smiling.

One of the pleasures of reading the Greats: spotting the Themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, Murder on the Orient Express, whatever your current and longtime favorite fiction may be: where do such great stories come from? Whether a story comes largely from the writer’s imagination or directly from true life experience, great works of fiction are never just raw reports of events, whether real-life or imagined. Every fiction is shaped by a multitude of artistic choices designed to give readers an experience, a sense of craft, or even beauty. Often, a great novel or short story shares a new way of thinking about life. In fact, most fiction we cherish as classic is shaped by interesting and weighty ideas. To enjoy these works to the fullest, be on the lookout for ideas that guide the narrative—in other words, its Themes.

Let’s look at one example to see how the Themes, the ideas, can shape an author’s true and raw experience into a great work of fiction.

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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.

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Magnificent Sounds in Poetry: How to Read Poems Step 8

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Two little girls stand in a field reading poetry from and open book.

Poetry should be read aloud to appreciate its magnificent sounds.

Sound in Poetry: Meaningful Music

Great poetry is composed to be heard, not just seen. The luscious, the lyrical, the edgy, the melancholy, even the jarring–all these sounds can make beautiful music in the hands of a master poet. When we read aloud and listen to great poems, we not only enjoy their sounds, whether lovely or powerful. We also receive more of their emotional tone and message through direct visceral experience. We can enjoy, even luxuriate, in the beautiful sounds of a well-crafted poem even when we don’t yet understand what it means, letting the sounds themselves lead us toward a fuller meaning.

Let’s listen to some great poetry and talk about some of the devices poets use to make their meaningful music.

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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.

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Metaphor and More. How to Read Poems Step 6

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This close-up of a quizzical cow in a meadow brings to mind the old joke: "What's a metaphor? A place to keep cows in." NOT!

What’s a Metaphor? Hint: It’s not a place to keep cows in.

What is a Metaphor?

Did you hear this old joke about metaphors when you were a kid? “What’s a metaphor? A place to keep the cows in!” It probably seemed funnier back when kids actually knew what metaphors, AND meadows, were. Right now, I’m not going to talk about the fading of “meadow” from the modern American vocabulary, but I will ask this: Do you know what a metaphor is for? Knowing just a little about how metaphors and some other important figures of speech function can help you understand and enjoy a poem more deeply.

A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are apparently not much alike. For instance, if I say that Sue’s coffee tastes like Starbucks coffee, I am not making a metaphor; I am just making a literal comparison between two things that are already largely alike. But if I offer you “some of this molasses Sue calls coffee,” I am speaking figuratively, making a metaphor.  In sober reality, coffee and molasses are very dissimilar, but Sue’s coffee makes me think of molasses for some reason, maybe because it is thick and sludgy, or over-sweet. In this metaphor, the coffee is the “tenor,” or topic of the metaphor, the object or idea I want to make a point about. Molasses is the “vehicle,” the thing I am using to convey my rather insulting ideas about Sue’s coffee.

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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.

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Emotional Tone and Kinds of Language in “Snowy Evening”: Understanding Poetry Step 4

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Scene shows woman at right in red jacket admiring a blue lake down in a canyon.

Similar to the speaker in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this lonely person pauses to admire a spectacular natural scene.

So far I’ve urged you to wade in to a poem slowly, taking time to imagine and experience the images and the situation described. When do we begin to understand and think about the meaning, the bigger ideas, in the poem?  Right now.

Emotional Tone

Let’s take a second look at Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” here.  While focusing on the poem’s imagery in Step 3, you have probably been sensing the speaker’s mood all along.  But now, let’s pause and get a fuller sense of the emotional tone of the poem, and how it uses both concrete and abstract language.  Think first about what the speaker seems to feel and also what the text seems designed to make readers feel.

This poem’s lovely but stark imagery conveys a sense of awe at the scene’s beauty, but also loneliness and un-humanness. It is the “darkest evening of the year.” The mentioned village seems to be far from this unpopulated spot. The speaker is very attracted to this lonely scene and wishes to linger (he is “stopping” after all); yet apparently this stop is untypical for him. He feels a sense of tension and trespass, since he mentions the owner who won’t be able to see him, and senses the horse’s confusion and impatience at this unusual stop.

Snowy forest with rough road passing into its depths, showing two tracks of vehicles. Reminiscent of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Frost’s speaker travels a lonely path next to a snowy forest.

Taking in the emotional tone, we can now notice points where the poem’s word choices shift from concrete to abstract language. The appearance of abstract language is an important signal for readers to start thinking about what the poem means, not just bask in the experience of sound and imagery.

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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.

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Experience Imagery: The Easiest Step in Understanding Poetry (Step 3)

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View of a snowy forest in the evening, tall ghostly trees, snow on the ground, no people in sight.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

Don’t Jump Too Fast to “What the Poem Means”

Reading literature, especially poetry, is more than deciphering words; it is a mental experience. Therefore, don’t be too quick to sum up what any poem “means” or “what the poet is trying to say.” Jumping too fast to some theme or main idea of a poem is a sure way to miss much of the value of reading poetry, and possibly the meaning, too. Certainly we will come to analyzing ideas and meanings, but not just yet.

First, go on in to the poem; read it through a couple of times, and walk around in it for a little while. Where are you? What do you hear, see, taste, touch or feel, and smell? Language that depicts an experience of any of the five senses is called “imagery.” Dwell a bit on the imagery of the poem to create the poem’s setting in your mind, and to experience the situation or drama of the poem along with the poem’s speaker (the word we use for a narrator of a poem).

Let’s practice with one of my favorite poems, great for beginning readers of poetry, yet with plenty of big ideas for more experienced readers: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. You can read it here.

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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.

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Four Qualities that Make Great Literature Special

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Picture of live oak tree on the bank of the Cane River. Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.

Classic literature is like this beautiful Live Oak tree in Natchitoches, Louisiana: it lasts for hundreds of years, growing in beauty and complexity every time someone regards it.*

If you are an avid reader, I clasp you to my heart, whatever and why ever you are reading—for pleasure, escape, knowledge, social concerns. There are a myriad of good, and  even mediocre, books and poetry that can keep us entertained, or give us vicarious experiences of  unknown places and times, or inform our opinions on social issues.

But what I am here to advocate, and why I have started this site, is that Classic Literature—truly Great Literature—is something different, something especially worth treasuring, preserving, learning about, experiencing, re-reading, and pondering. The experience, the grace given to the mind and soul, is a larger, higher experience than that offered by the average popular novel or poem or drama, well-crafted though each may be.

Devoted readers of the Classics know this from experience, yet defining the exact qualities that make a piece of literature “Great” is never easy. Not that many lovers of literature haven’t tried. In a future post, I’ll tell you about some writers who have said things about classic literature that I find  persuasive. But let me take my own preliminary stab at it here. My main purpose in this post is to start a discussion in a forum here on the site about what makes classic literature great, and what it gives to readers that most books can’t.  So here goes!

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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.

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Notice a Poem’s Title: Understanding Poetry Step 1

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Photo of painting by Bruegel the Elder-Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, showing plowman behind his horse in foreground, ocean view with ship and a miniature pair of legs, which is Icarus disappearing into the sea.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Bruegel the Elder. ca 1558*

If you find yourself confused, thwarted, and frustrated when you try to understand poetry, fear not. Over a series of ten upcoming posts in the Literature 101 category, I will explain one method of helping you unlock and enjoy  the meaning of poetic texts.

Let’s start with Step 1. This seems so simple, and yet for some reason I have noticed that many readers overlook it: stop and think about what the poem’s title means. In this post, we’ll talk about one poem in which understanding the title really sets us up to understand what is going on in the whole poem: W. H. Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts.”

When Reading Poetry, Take Your Time

Let’s back up for a second, though, to consider that, in general, reading poetic texts is not the same as reading regular prose. Expect to read poems more slowly, and to read multiple times, for one thing. However, reading a little slower is not at all a bad thing, as you can learn by reading and enjoying more poems. Slower reading gives time to savor the beauty, the language, and the ideas of a good poem.

Also, be aware that readers can’t always depend on context to help them guess what words mean, if they don’t know those words already. Truly great poems are built tightly and efficiently, so that sometimes the whole meaning of a poem turns on one word or phrase, especially the title. Sometimes the title of a poem is the only clue given about the situation being depicted in the poem. That’s why it’s helpful, before you begin reading a poem, to spend a couple of minutes looking up unknown words in the title and generating some ideas about what the title might mean.

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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.

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