Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: understanding poetry (page 1 of 2)

Happy Christ-tide: Milton’s Nativity Ode

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Painting showing Nativity of Christ. Baby in manger center bottom, Mary and Joseph with folded hands behind and to left and right of baby. Small angels kneeling in foreground.

The Nativity of Christ by Francesco Francia. c. 1490.

By Guest Writer David E. Miller

“On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” affectionately called The Nativity Ode, is John Milton’s first great poem. The Nativity Ode is an elaborate carol1  that describes how the world, sinful and ashamed, became the reluctant site of Christ’s birth.  The poem begins and ends peacefully but contains a surprising, violent commotion in the middle, when all the shrines to pagan gods are paradoxically destroyed by the mere presence of a defenseless baby—Jesus. Such a startling combination of sensuous and shocking images could drown out more lightweight songs like “Frosty the Snowman” that radio stations play on a loop this time of year.

These days, not many people know much of, let alone have read Milton, the poet who wrote the famous work Paradise Lost. Some background: Milton lived from 1608 to 1674. Following the generation of great writers led by Shakespeare, he would have only been 7 years old when Shakespeare died in 1616. Milton was only 21 when he wrote The Nativity Ode.

Let’s take a closer look at this important writer’s first great poem.  You can read The Nativity Ode here. 

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David Elias Miller graduated from Miami University (Oxford, OH) with an M.A. in English Literature. A “cultural conservative” who sees great literature as an inheritance, not a problem to be deconstructed by cultural, gender, or other theoretical studies, David is setting a career path outside the university in the non-profit sector while continuing to learn and enjoy literature as a personal passion.

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Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: All of America in a Blade of Grass

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Little girl wearing white lacy summer dress lying on green grass with long red hair spread out.

“A child said ‘What is the grass?’fetching it to me with full hands; / How could I answer the child?”*

In Whitman’s sweet and stunning poem Song of Myself,  first published in 1855, grass becomes the overarching symbol for the people of the new democratic America: common, plentiful, vigorous, and every one precious. Each time I read this work again, I am inspired, joyful, puzzled yet enlarged, and uplifted. I know of no other poem expressing such total love and acceptance for every kind of person, especially common American working people, embracing every kind of human experience, even every aspect of creation and the universe, from vegetation to animals to the cosmos.

However, not every reader has this experience when first attempting this strange and beautiful, yet down-to-earth, poem. Though written using everyday vocabulary completely free of traditional poetic structures, this poem may at first seem odd or hard to decipher.  For, as Robert Haas, critic and editor of Whitman’s work has written, “It was then and is now an astonishment, perhaps the most unprecedented poem in the English language. It is also an important document in the history of American culture.”

I would like every reader to have access to this remarkable multi-faceted, landmark work. Walk with me a while and let me see if I can share some ideas that will help orient you toward understanding and enjoyment of Song of Myself.

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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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Rhythm and Meter in Traditional Poetry in English: How to Read Poems Part 9

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Two young women wearing headphones stand with their back to the ocean.

Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.

Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.

All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls,  recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional  forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.

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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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Expect the Mind Twist, the Turn in Meaning: How to Read Poems Step 7

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Picture of small sun in a blue sky with clouds provides us with an image for a mind twist in two different poems, Sonnet 130 and "Apparently with No Surprise"

The Sun is not like her eyes and not sympathetic! Still the same sun after “the turn” in meaning in two different poems?

The Mind Twist: What is It?

In murder mysteries and thrillers, everyone likes a good plot twist. Great poetry provides something even better: The Mind Twist. Many great poems open by echoing ideas that most people already hold, so you think you know what they are going to say. But then, Boom! Suddenly comes the Mind Twist, where the poet offers a completely different, and unexpected, interpretation of the topic. Other poems assault common thinking right at their beginning, by presenting a topic in ways readers have seldom considered, right from line 1.  Still other poems play deadpan, repeating platitudes with a straight face while undercutting common or superficial ideas through irony, hyperbole, or understatement.

To understand, close read, and enjoy great poems, learn to expect the Mind Twist, so you won’t be blindsided when unforeseen ideas start flying at you. To find the Mind Twist, look for contrast and tension in the poem. Contrast and tension are the basic tools for creating complexity, interest, and depth of thought in most great literature, and indeed, in great art in general.

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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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Those Near Death and Those Near the Dying: Thomas’s Portrayal in “Do Not Go Gentle”

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Man sitting on a high peak with clouds blanketing sky at his feet. Visual depiction of Thomas's "sad height"--but for whom is it sad? For the dying, or those left behind?

“On That Sad Height”: But for Whom is it Most Sad? For the Dying, or Those Left Behind?

A Conversation with Two Hospice Nurses

So often I am reminded how great literature accurately mirrors the true complexities of real human struggles. Recently, I had an interesting conversation with two longtime hospice nurses, Nancy and Debbie, about their experiences with people nearing death and the family members who cared about them. Most often, family included the adult children of the patient, who not surprisingly had a very different attitude toward the death that was approaching than the patient who was in the act of dying. These women’s report from the front lines between life and death made me think immediately of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” As I read this poem, “Do Not Go Gentle” portrays the same differing attitudes toward death that these hospice professionals observed in patients and their families.

Debbie recounted her experiences this way: “I can’t tell you how often I’ve had this conversation: An adult child of the patient will say to me, “Dad’s just giving up! Why doesn’t he fight?” I try to explain that there’s a difference between ‘giving up,’ and ‘accepting.’ ‘Giving up’ means a person still has some choices, some way to change what happens in their life. But when there is nothing that will change anything, and a person has reached the end of life, accepting this situation is a good, not a bad thing.” Nancy nodded, saying her experience had been similar.

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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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The Large and Skeptical Mind of Emily Dickinson

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Picture of Space Galaxies and Stars--Emily Dickinson's mind is unbounded.

Ranging the Cosmos: The Large and Questing Mind of Emily Dickinson

A Mind Unbounded

For most of her adult life, Emily Dickinson stayed within the bounds of her family home and garden, but her poetry declares that her mind knew no boundaries. Her compact poems may begin with humble domestic details, but suddenly expand into questioning life, the universe, and our human position on a cosmic scale. We could look at many of her nearly 1800 verses to find examples, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites, both well-known but both widely misunderstood: “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Feeling brave enough to visit the edge of a cosmic existential void? Then click and read the poems, and we’ll take a closer look.

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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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“Is it Paris?” Literal and Figurative Language: How to Read Poetry Step 5

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Long view of Eiffel Tower on a sunny day, from the end of Trocadero Fountain takes in some of the city. A student thought Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" country might be here.

Where is Yeats’s “country” in “Sailing to Byzantium”? Is it Paris?

“Sailing to Byzantium”: Where, or What, is Yeats’s  Country?

Black and white profile photo of older man with a mustache, with his chin resting on his hands.

A man in the winter of life.

My freshman Literature and Composition class was discussing Yeats’s strange, beautiful, and very intellectual poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” (Click here to read it first.)  We were just starting on the first stanza, tackling these lines:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

There is a lot of life-filled imagery packed into these lines—lovers, waterfalls full of fish and trees full of birds—as well as a huge serving of abstract language (see Step 4) that covers absolutely everything alive: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But where are we? I asked my class, “What is the country that is not for old men? What does Yeats mean here?”

No one would speak for a few beats. Clearly they had no clue. Then suddenly a daring young woman in the back row looked up with a light in her eye: “I’m not sure—but is it Paris?”

There were some problems with her theory, but how could I explain? They do say that Paris is for lovers, so perhaps Paris might qualify as a place where Yeats would think that “old men” are not comfortable. But are there salmon? I have read that salmon are making a comeback in the Seine river, though I’m not sure whether they can be glimpsed swimming along the Left Bank.

But the mistake this student made in her interpretation was not simply choosing the wrong geographical location. She was failing to distinguish between literal and figurative language. To understand poetry, or indeed, any text, readers have to distinguish between words that mean exactly what the dictionary would say they mean, and language that means something very different from what it literally says. Continue reading

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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