Tag Archives: imagery

“These are poems that require re-reading, maybe even three times.”

She is referring to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

How hard this poem is! she thinks to herself. I’d better read it a second time!

This explains why students come to class so woefully unprepared when the assigned reading is poetry. Once through, only a few lines, and it’s time to shut the book and party! Of course when I try to get them to talk about their experience of a poem, they tell me, for just about every one, “It’s about love and how sad love is.” Not a bad guess: many many poems are “about” this. Surprisingly, all these poets feel they must say that same thing over and over again, right? If I ask about a specific image in a poem, I get a generic answer: Q: What is the nightingale doing in this poem? A: It is a symbol of love. (Surprise: NOT ALWAYS! and NOT IN THIS POEM!) Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that they have never read a poem that isn’t about love: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, even The Lord of the Rings all boil down to this essential theme: “Never give up.” Literature’s great pageant.

Once, after assigning Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Snow Storm,” I asked everyone to open their books, reread the poem, and draw the picture created by the first lines—which are, if you haven’t already clicked the link to read the whole poem:

No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.

So I did not give them a task requiring a lot of artistic talent: the “artist” need only cover the paper with dots and dashes representing snow. The poem goes on to describe people bent over, scurrying under the sideways-driving snow like mice (except that there is no hawk to frighten them). Students might have drawn the people too. The speaker also says that the sharp, icy wind would be too much for the tender flesh under any hawk’s wing…. I’ll bet you have already guessed that of 19 drawings, 18 depicted, with greater or less skill, a hawk sitting on some snow. They swore that they had read the poem carefully. You tell me. Here’s what I’m pretty sure of: they didn’t re-read it.

I used to think that by the time students got to college they understood that poetry, a highly compressed and usually highly allusive genre, required close and participatory reading from the reader. I discovered e.e. cummings all by myself in high school, and I used to pore over his lines, so playful on the page some of them, working to get inside his mind, inside the poem. I didn’t just read the words “as freedom is a breakfast food” or “anyone lived in a pretty how town” or “in Just-,” say “huh!” and feel I grasped the phrase, let alone the whole poem. Who taught me that? Well, I know my English teachers expected it, but I think I just knew it: poetry demands work on the part of the reader.

For Shakespeare, I like to assign “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” along with “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Class begins with the obligatory review of the sonnet form, demonstration of iambic pentameter (Your last name is O’Neill! You’re an IAMB! If I say your name five times that will be IAMBIC PENTAMETER!), illustration of Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes…and then we “talk about” the sonnets themselves. Here’s what Shakespeare is “kind of saying” in Sonnet 18: The girl he loves is just like a summer’s day, just as beautiful and warm, and she will never fade away, no matter how old she gets. Here’s what he’s “kind of saying” in Sonnet 130: She is ugly! (How rude! He must suddenly hate her now!)

And then I read the actual sonnets aloud, line by line, and walk them toward what the speaker is actually saying. They are always quite surprised. This may be why a student long ago defined “poetry” as “when the writer never says what he means.” Anyway, after this careful reading-cum-discussion, some students always come up after class to say they now LOVE “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” My joy is brief, though: the next time the class discusses poems that were assigned reading, back we go to the “kind of saying,” the pervasive bird=love pattern, and all the other signs of the old once-over.

Is this because they’ve had too many “find the symbol” and “guess the meaning” exercises in the lower grades? (And it’s not just poetry—this is what they want to do with short stories and plays also.) I know my students have trouble developing a thesis, and I attribute that to hanging around exclusively with people who share their opinions, so they don’t even know a judgment requires a rational defense. For literature, they rush to a quick general “moral of the story” and feel they have said all that needs to be said.

When I think of all the literary lines, images, characters, moments that have enriched my life and given me insights into emotions and ideas I have not previously been able to put into words or even perceive—when I think of how richly textured my imaginative life has been as a consequence of all my reading—I am filled with grief and rage for my students. There is no way that they’re going to learn the reader’s habit of mind and its attendant joys in one semester. I can show them my joy, offer them my insights and knowledge; but until they manage to work their way through to their own, they won’t have the experience themselves. Why has this not already happened for them? Why have they been permitted to equate the reading of literature with moving their eyes over words?

So I laugh at the notion that understanding Shakespeare might take a second and maybe even a third reading, and also hope that this basic discovery might somehow prompt appropriate action and, down the line, bring joy.

Could happen, right?


“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize…”

I love an image that depicts an image, especially an image that depicts a strong image. This poem, I am told, has many of those.

Most often when we use the term “image” we’re referring to something that is visual. Literature depends for much of its impact on the skillful deployment of images; the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience is created by the pictures evoked in the mind that create or give depth to the events and emotions presented by the writer. The image affects the “mind’s eye,” or sometimes the mind’s ear or nose or fingers. So it’s fortunate that the poem my student is describing has a lot of images—or, rather, that it has a lot of images that depict strong images—and that they’re easy to visualize: that is, they are clear and accessible to the reader.

(She does say the images are “strong and easy,” where she actually meant “strong images that are easy to visualize,” but we will assume her intentions rather than her sentence structure and say Yes, good, lots of strong images that are easy to visualize, glad you commented on that!)

Here’s the whole sentence, though:

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize, such as ‘you walk by faith in the darkness.'”

She is being conscientious here, following her general statement with a clarifying example.

Except that the example does not offer clarification, beyond the clarification that she’s really not sure what an image is, or what visualizing involves. “Faith” isn’t an image, although I guess if it had been capitalized the reader might imagine “you” walking alongside a friend named Faith… Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind… but here the word “faith” is an abstract term for a whole range of ideas and absolutely no pictures.

And I guess I can visualize darkness—actually, visualizing darkness is a component of a get-to-sleep exercise I sometimes engage in—but most writers would try to present an actual image to help the reader imagine the quality or character of that darkness, not merely say “darkness,”: I don’t know, “black as the pit from pole to pole” springs to mind, thanks to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” memorized back in the eighth grade. See, now, that’s an image, and largely for that reason the line lingers in the mind.

Student writers often try to pump up an idea or a reading beyond what it deserves or can bear. Such was the case here, where my student had chosen for her analysis essay a poem by a sincere beginner, a poem that was a poem by virtue of its short lines, not the experience offered to the reader, and the poet a beginner who had not yet learned that poetry is much more about showing than telling. This poem spoke throughout in terms like “generosity,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” “love”… the only actual image in the whole poem was “trembling hand,” and that was meant literally. But the assignment asked that the analysis include a discussion of the poem’s use of imagery, and so my student did her best to engage in such a discussion, rather than comment that this poem actually lacked imagery, instead leaving the reader to give substance to a list of abstractions through his or her own experience or insight.

So I, as the reader of her essay, am left with this image, a picture of someone walking by faith in the darkness:

Image of darkness