You Ought to Love Poetry
I’ll admit it: I’m not great at reading poetry. I didn’t grow up reading or listening to anything more than the indomitable Dr. Seuss or one of my dad’s limericks (There once was a cucumber, Phil/ Who wanted to go to the hill… & etc.).
Sure, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands” made something of an impression on me in high school, but anything that was significantly more abstruse than prose was lost on me… and even if it wasn’t more abstruse, “Why not, then,” my mind wondered, “just make it prose? So much simpler.”
It wasn’t until college that I found myself floored, awed, mesmerized, overcome, and, well, you get the idea, with a poem. It was “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it was wonderful. Since then, I’ve become such an advocate of the art that I’ve heard friends call me the “poetry guy.” I’m sure I’m the most uneducated, under-read individual to get the name yet, but when I’m feeling particularly pretentious, I’m happy with the moniker.
All that to say, I’m a poetry convert, and think that you should be too.
Now, I’ve not found another poem more capable of bringing others to be able to see the value of poetry than the one that made me see it first, “God’s Grandeur,” so I’ve included it below. You should read it now, and you should read it out loud. Did you catch that? Out loud. Did I mention you should read it out loud?
My prose has been chatty, and this poem is not chatty, so it’ll help to take a breath here, and quiet yourself before beginning.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
….It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
….It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
….And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
….And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
….There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
….Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
….World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Now, now. You oughtn’t have skipped down past the poem like that. Bad reader. Go back up and read it.
Great. Now that we’ve read it, I’ll try to give you some tips about how to think about it and some questions to use when discussing it.
Form is important.
We’re quite used to asking the question “what is it saying?” and we tend to pull it out with startling promptness when we’re working with art, be it painting or poetry. Yet, with poetry (and painting), there’s another, harder, and probably more important question we need to learn to ask as well: “How is it saying that?” Not only will examining the “how” give us more access to the “what” of a poem, it’ll also get us closer to really seeing its beauty and rarity.
Mental images are weird and cool.
Poems use sensation words when you aren’t experiencing the sensation. If they say “green,” you aren’t seeing green, you’re thinking green. And thinking green is very different from seeing green. By means of this device, poetry gets us to our essential reactions to that color and to the significant mental associations we’ve developed with it. Weird, no? Now, this means that poets can make use of these mental sensation-images in a plethora of interesting ways. They can use an image because of the way people will imagine themselves reacting to the thing, or because it has significant related ideas they want to employ. Images can carry emotions, ideas, and lots more. They’re way more than just “pictures,” and you should pay attention to them.
Poetry is like music.
And I’m not talking about lyrics. It’s like pure instrumental music. It’s one of the only other arts that uses sound waves to achieve its ends, and it often uses those sound ways in very much the same way a symphony orchestra would. The sounds that come out of your mouth as you speak a poem should produce a rhythm and emotional current that pulls you along with it. Most people recognize that music has an innate power to direct our emotions. So too with the sound in poetry. Get pulled along.
Now for the poem above. Try applying the tips to it, and then continue down below to try your hand at my sample questions with your group.
– How did Hopkins use sound to make us feel different ways about different things?
– At what tempo do you find yourself reading each of the different sections? How does he make you read at that tempo?
– What images does he use? Why do they work?
– When he breaks a line in the middle of a sentence, why does he break that line in the middle of a sentence?
Hopkins is a master of language and form, capable of speaking astonishing, lulling, and sometimes painful beauties. I recommend taking a trip to the bookstore to purchase a collection; it’s a book that won’t become less interesting over the years.