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Explication without Tears
by Dan Vogel

Obviously, before a teacher is able to teach a poem, he must understand it. And, because poetry is communication by verbal compression , he must expand upon the text, he must try to perceive the embedded meanings of words and lines in other words, he must explicate it for himself, before he works up a lesson plan for his class.

This essay, directed at teachers who find themselves floundering when confronted by a poem to teach, is a first course in explicating a poem. It deals only with reading the poem aloud as an aid to explication and with the implications of imagery.

The four poems appended to the essay are for illustrating specific points. They have been chosen to represent older poetry, modern poetry, metered-and-rhymed verse, free verse, thematic interest, and linguistic appropriateness to respective grades.

I. So there you are, in the privacy of your workroom. On the desk, staring up at you, is the poem tantalizing, beckoning, perhaps even mocking.


1. Read the poem as you would read anything else in English, neither worshipfully nor portentously, in your normal tempo with but one exception: Pay attention to the spacing of the poem on the page. As Denise Levertov (1973), a widely anthologized twentieth-century American poet, wrote, "Every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem's life."

Therefore, I suggest that, when you read aloud, in addition to giving every mark of punctuation its due, you give space its due as well. Thus, in "Cover," do not run lines 5-6-7-8-9 together, though they constitute a single sentence; rather, allow a pause at the end of each line, your voice in slightly rising anticipation, so that the first word on the ensuing line receives its natural emphasis . Likewise, in lines 8 9 of "Sonnet 18," the poet wants to emphasize two "Nor['s] . . ." in succeeding lines. Many scholars believe that Dickinson's dashes and spaces are tonal cues. And one cannot really understand cummings's poem without giving weight-by-silence to the space before and after his irregular lines, words, and phrases.

2. You will realize, while reading the poem aloud, that 99% of the time the good poet will use normal English word order, syntax, and syllable stress to achieve his effects of rhythm and rhyme. A good poet does not claim "poetic license" to misuse the syntax you're breaking your head to teach to your pupils. Even Shakespeare, that old Elizabethan, makes only one simple deviation from normal word order to grasp a rhyme in line 8 of "Sonnet 18" (we would have put the word "untrimm'd" at the beginning of the phrase). And, surprisingly, with all their idiosyncrasies, Dickinson and cummings use good syntax.

3. From a reading aloud comes one of the most satisfying features of the poem: a sense of rhythm. All poems have rhythm. For a thousand years, English poetry used regular rhythm called meter based upon the regularity of a certain number of normal stresses upon syllables in a line of poetry. Sometimes, earlier poets used an apostrophe to elide an extra syllable in the line, as Shakespeare did in lines 8, 10, 12. [In line 10, the poet had written "ow'st"; I interpolated the "n" for clarity.] No modern poet uses this convention anymore.

Since Walt Whitman's "free verse" revolution in 1855, the sense of rhythm in poems inspired by his technique comes not from syllabic stress, but from units of meaning, based upon the normal phraseology of English.

As far as rhyme is concerned, though no one talks in rhyme, good poets fit the rhymes as well neatly into normative English expression, as the poems here attest.

4. Reading aloud will give you a perception of plot. Every poem has a plot that is, characters, setting, rising action visual to the reader's mind's eye, and climax. A character (often we take it to be the poet himself, but he can also be an invented character) is doing something that the reader can deduce from the text. Thus, we might envision Shakespeare in his garret, writing a love poem nearly in the form of a proof in geometry, leading to a climactic Q.E.D.; we imagine Frances Frost in the woods, contemplating the action of dead leaves which our mind's eye also sees, reaching a surprising conclusion; Dickinson we see by her window, imagining the conflict between bird and storm, in which the bird survives; cummings is in a park, observing the denizens whom he causes to pass upon the stage of our imagination, and reaching a height of nervousness about one of them.

5. As a result of these readings aloud, a superficial insight into the theme of the poem already begins to tease the reader. This is not difficult. But the depth of understanding can only be reached by explication, the mental mining for embedded meanings.

II. In a poem, the radiating source of explication of embedded meanings is the imagery in it. All other genres of literature use imagery as a decoration, or as a clarifying illustration, or, in a minor way, as symbolic. But imagery is the essence of the poem and the inescapable central material for discovering its embedded meanings.

The origin of an image in poetry is an object a thing or an action that can be seen or heard in the imagination the image-making quality of the mind. The image may remain merely a part of the physical setting or of the narration. Or it may graduate into a symbol .

By definition, a symbol is a physical object that "stands for" an abstraction an idea or emotion. Why does a poet write in symbols in the first place? Unlike essayists, most poets are uncomfortable in expressing ideas and emotions in abstract terms they use pictures to express their thoughts. Unlike fiction writers, their genre does not allow space for explanatory contexts. So the poet chooses symbols that are analogies of the abstractions, feelings, ideas that they stand for , and leaves it to the reader to flesh out the levels of meaning.

For example, Emily Dickinson evidently chose the image bird to symbolize the abstraction "hope" because:

-just as a bird is small and weak, hope may be small and weak;

-just as a bird nevertheless survives adversity, so hope can nevertheless survive adversity;

-just as a bird is undemanding, so hope makes no demands, and so on.

cummings chose a balloon -man as the children's attraction (instead of, say, an organ grinder) perhaps because of the physical properties of a balloon (pretty, elastic, full of air) seductive, essentially insubstantial, possibly dangerous. How this analogy fits into the narrative of the poem is left to the reader to determine.

Here is the place to express the FIRST LAW OF EXPLICATION:

"Symbolism is often only in the eye of the reader." When a poet mentions a physical object, it does not take on symbolic meaning until the reader perceives it as symbolic. You will intuit the perception to do so in the following situations:

1. The poet says so straight out. For example, Emily Dickinson tells us, in the form of a metaphor, that "Hope is the thing with feathers," so we imagize hope as bird. And Shakespeare tells us he intends to analogize his beloved as a summer's day.

2. The image a poet uses may have acquired a generally accepted meaning through the common experience of readers over thousands of years of civilization. Thus, he can assume that an immediate response to white will be "purity, innocence." A bird will imply freedom and song, but also vulnerability. A wall will indicate strength and finality, but also exclusion and separation.

The most widely used symbol system in literature is the "Fable (or Cycle) of the Seasons" as shown below.

Three of our poets use this symbol system, each in his own way, of course:

Shakespeare tries to defy the inevitability of the changing cycle by immortalizing his beloved in an unchanging poem. Frances Frost follows the cycle of the changing leaves from the beginning of autumn to winter and then climaxes the poem with an upbeat irony that defeats the dread symbolic implications of both winter and wall. cummings gives us a joyous picture of springtime in a park, emphasizing the youthfulness of the season and the children.

Regardless of the variations of meaning, the first point of departure is the poet's expectation of a common response of interpretation by his readers.

3. A third way a poet indicates embedded meanings in his imagery is by evolving a pattern in the poem. An image unattached to a pattern is not likely to be convincing as a symbol.

But a pattern, like the symbol itself, is often only in the eye of the reader , and here a greater amount of insight is necessary.

Patterns can, of course, be obvious: Frances Frost does not need to tell us that winter is to be the climax of her poem - we follow along the color pattern of the leaves. Having arrived at winter, which we all know is a dreary, uncolorful season (when snow is not around), she adds the color grey to the pattern to describe the wall that some farmer built as a separation - an image of a kind of death that fits in nicely with the winter image. (Compare Robert Frost's "Mending Wall.")

e. e. cummings is so fearful that his reader will miss a significant pattern in his poem that he uses the layout on the page to help him: the balloonMan is "lame" at the beginning of line 4; then "queer" at the end of line 11; finally, "goat-footed" in line 20, a climactic image surrounded by the meaningful weight of space.

The goat-footed balloonMan gives me the opportunity to make the following observation about the interpretation of symbols: symbols usually are derived from our experience in nature or everyday life; but often symbols are derived from our cultural experience. Poems with a snake image, for example, cannot avoid reminding the reader of Garden-of-Eden implications. Sometimes the image may require a bit of research by the reader, as in our instance of the goat-footed balloonMan. "Goat-footed" may call the Devil to mind; he is often depicted as cloven-hoofed. Or Pan. A simple perusal in a dictionary will reveal that this character resembles Pan, the wood- god who had the appearance of a lecherous satyr and inspired panic ( American Heritage Dictionary , 1969, under Pan and satyr ). How this fits in with a picture of spring and children playing, I leave to you. I do not intend to dictate an interpretation as if it were gospel.

One of the enervating questions neophyte explicators ask themselves is, "How do I know that my interpretation is right, that this is what the poet meant?" Answer: "You don't." But that should neither faze nor discourage you.

The fact is that all readers are equal before the text of the poem. No one was born with a sure knowledge of the embedded levels of meaning of a poem, not even professors of literature. An instance in point: two eminent literature professors, Cleanth Brooks and F. W. Bateson, happened to independently explicate a brief poem by William Wordsworth called "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal" - and came out with two diametrically opposite interpretations! Is one "right" and the other "wrong"? No; one is "valid," and the other is "more valid," asserts E. D. Hirsch (1976), the theoretician of literary criticism. Validity is all.

Which leads us to the SECOND LAW OF EXPLICATION:

"There is no 'right' or 'wrong' in the interpretation of literature. Only validity."

To be valid and convincing, of course, interpretation must be confined within the parameters of the text and answer all questions "Why" the poet did thus and so. "The best craftsmanship," wrote Dylan Thomas (1965), another widely anthologized poet of this century, "always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in." That "something" is explication.

Explicating, like teaching itself, takes practice. Over a period of time, your insights will deepen, your self-confidence will strengthen, and your enjoyment will increase. But from the beginning, fear not! Let your ingenuity and imagination fly. They will lead you to intellectual challenge, emotional satisfaction, and wondrous appreciation of the craft of poetry.

Sonnet 18
by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,


And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,


By chance, or nature's changing course untrimm'd:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow[n]'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,


When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
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.


  • Hirsch, Jr., E. D. 1976. Validity in interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
  • Levertov, Denise. 1973. Editor's introduction. In Norton anthology of modern poetry, ed. Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
  • Thomas, Dylan. 1965. Notes on the art of poetry. In Modern poetics, ed. James Scully. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Vogel, Dan. 1981. The fancy and the imagination and the teaching of literature. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 15, January, pp. 5 16. n

Dan Vogel is professor of English at the Michlalah-Jerusalem College in Israel. He has written extensively on American literature and theory of literature.


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