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Sunday, 8 April 2018

How to Analyse Poetry

Poetry, like fine wine, classical music, and art, is generally seen as an absolute quantity. Most people, scarred by their experience of it in school, are convinced that it is either the exclusive property of merlot sipping aesthetes, or that it's some sort of elaborate con and that there aren't any real rules to what makes poetry good or bad. Either way, this is a source of deep annoyance to me. Poetry contains some of the highest, deepest, and most heart-breakingly human ideas in all literature and, just like fine wine or classical music, it's only necessary to absorb a little bit of information to unlock a whole new world of beauty and experience.

To demonstrate this, I will step through the analysis and interpretation of a single poem:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

The first thing we want to do is determine structure and meter. This is often a simple matter of just looking at the poem on the page. We can see here that there are four groups of four lines, and that these lines are all of similar length. This means that it's a pretty good bet that this particular piece is going to have a formal structure, with fixed stresses, syllable counts, and so on. Stressing a line of poetry can be a mind bending experience, especially with more modern poets who like to play with classical stress patterns, but it's usually not too difficult. With this particular poem, I think we can agree that the stresses work as follows:

His HOUSE is IN the VILlage THOUGH;

So what we have here is a recurring pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That particular kind of pairing is called an 'iamb'. If we count all of the iambs in each line, we can see that there are four, which means that this poem is written in iambic tetrameter - four iambic pairs of syllables, or 'feet', per line. 

The next thing we want to do is determine whether or not there is a regular rhyming scheme. This is just a simple matter of assigning letters to the words at the ends of lines.

Whose woods these are I think I know.A
His house is in the village though;A
He will not see me stopping hereB
To watch his woods fill up with snow.A
My little horse must think it queerA
To stop without a farmhouse nearA
Between the woods and frozen lakeB
The darkest evening of the year.A
He gives his harness bells a shakeA
To ask if there is some mistake.A
The only other sound’s the sweepB
Of easy wind and downy flake.A
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,A
But I have promises to keep,A
And miles to go before I sleep,A
And miles to go before I sleep.A

We can see, then, that all but the last stanza have the same rhyming scheme. This tells us a couple of things. Firstly, that a deliberate choice has been made to compose this piece in regular iambic tetrameter, and secondly, that there is more than likely some significant idea or event embedded in the last stanza.

Iambic tetrameter is the meter most commonly used in songs. The most famous example of this is probably Hernando's Hideaway:

The groupings of four, with stresses distributed iambically, are instinctively and intuitively tuned to the western understanding of song-like rhythms. This means that poems structured in this meter are going to contain direct appeals to emotion – that the poet intends for the reader to 'feel' at least as much as they read the poem.

That, you'll be pleased to know, is the end of the technical part. Often seen as the most intimidating aspect of poetry, hopefully we can now see that it's actually the simplest, easiest aspect of analysis. What needs to happen next is the much more complex process of determining meaning.

Depending on the literary era in which the piece was written, and the contrariness or otherwise of the poet, this is going to be either more or less tricky. The poet in question here is one Robert Frost, and he falls very broadly into a bracket which includes Yeats, Eliot, Owen, and so on. We can loosely call this Modern or Post Modern, though it should be noted that the use of classical structures and nature imagery means that an argument could also be made (and was made by the poet himself) for Frost being Romantic. It's not that important – we just need to place the poem in time so as to have the best possible chance of understanding the symbolism present in the language.

One feature of poetry sitting in that bracket between 1798 and the present day is that the poet often takes for granted that we understand the symbols that they use. A mower/reaper/scythe will be death. A flower/jewel/star will be poetry. And, in this case, woods will be a place of liminality, wonder, and/or fear, and winter will be approaching death and cycles of change. This is arguable, but it's probably not worth having that argument, as I'm right, and anyone who says otherwise is more than likely wrong.

It's vitally important that poems be read aloud, as one of the most significant aspects of poetry is sound. One advantage of modern poets is that you can often hear them reading their own work, and, unlike so many poets, Frost is actually a skilled and sensitive reader of his own poetry. 

As a soundscape, the poem has a sort of crescendo of pace around the second and third stanzas. If we need to establish that this isn't just some quirk on the part of the reader, we can examine the lines themselves. Upon doing so, it can be seen that many of the lines in these two stanzas do not have punctuation at the end of them. This is a technique called 'enjambment', and is designed to create a feeling of forward momentum.  

My little horse must think it queer        
To stop without a farmhouse near        
Between the woods and frozen lake      
The darkest evening of the year.           

He gives his harness bells a shake       
To ask if there is some mistake.            
The only other sound’s the sweep        
Of easy wind and downy flake.            

This increase in pace, combined with the change in rhyming scheme and content, tells us that there is a turning point, or volte, between the third and fourth stanzas.

So what we know so far is that we're looking at a song-like, experiential piece with a progression of ideas culminating in the fourth stanza. What those ideas actually are is a different discussion entirely, but I would point out a couple of salient features embedded within the poem, which can be seen as the poet pointing out important images or ideas to the reader.

Firstly, when stressing this poem, there are certain points when the sing-song iambic tetrameter breaks down. Most notably in the lines 'The darkest evening of the year', and 'But I have promises to keep'. With the 'darkest evening' line, the stress pattern becomes problematic owing to the enjambment of the foregoing line. Further to this, the order of concepts is a little strange – the information feels like a redaction or interjection, in that it's not provided in the sequence which we would ordinarily expect. The fact of this piece of information sitting flat and unexpected at the bottom of the stanza highlights its significance, and it's important to note that the darkest evening of the year is more than likely a reference to mid-winter, and therefore the symbolism associated with that.

'But I have promises to keep' is next to impossible to chant in sing-song. This is definitely a deliberate move on the part of the poet, to break the meter, force the reader to step out of the comforting rhythm of song, and thereby physically ascribe significance to a significant line. The ambiguity of the stresses in this line bring the rolling enjambments of the previous two stanzas to a dead stop, and set the stage neatly for the final repeating couplet. And as these three lines are made to stand out so much, by both meter and repetition respectively, it's a good bet that the whole point of the poem is embedded in these lines.

It's generally up to the reader to determine what a poem really means, and I'm sure you've noticed that apart from insisting on standard symbolic meanings, I've left this side of things very much alone. But it does occur to me that if you're still reading this far in, not being provided with some kind of interpretation is going to be seriously annoying. So here goes.

The fact of the woods as being a distraction or pleasing halt on a journey indicates that the poet is talking, on some level, about dichotomies of duty and pleasure. Significance can also be ascribed to the fact that the 'owner' of the woods is absent - is not, in fact, resident in these woods. Many people interpret this as having to do with the absence of god or, with rather more complexity, of being reflective of Frost's attitude to the relationship between 'truth' in a poetic sense, and the poet. Various meanings are given to the horse and the ride, but at a very basic and easy level, we can all agree that what we're discussing here is a journey, and it's therefore not too much of a leap to determine that the journey in question is the journey of life. And then, at the last stanza, 'promises' and 'sleep' in combination should create associations with the ordeal or experience of life, and the rest and culmination of death.

If you're still reading at this point, the hope is that your reward has been a basic toolkit for demystifying any poem, and also for punching holes in the pronouncements of pretentious 'artsy' types, who rarely ever have the first clue as to what they're talking about. But I also feel there should be some other reward for endurance of this caliber, so please enjoy this video compilation of raccoons doing funny stuff.

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