How to Talk About Poetry

Let’s be honest. Reading poetry, in the greater scheme of things, is just this side of engaging in an obscenity. Poetry is meant to be spoken or sung or chanted; it’s meant to be heard and shared, it’s not meant to be a sullen and solitary vice. Poems live when they are shared; they should be spoken and heard and passed on and celebrated. Fortunately, anyone can read and enjoy and comment appreciatively and intelligently about poetry. You don’t have to be some sort of creative writer, or a poet, or an artist, or sensitive, or anything, beyond a thoughtful reader.

I thought I hated poetry for much of my life; it wasn’t until I read this poem that I realized I liked some poems. I thought I hated poetry because of the way poetry was presented to me in school, where teachers spent hours trying to explain meter and scansion (it’s not that big a deal, and you can read and like poetry just fine without knowing anything about meter or rhyme schemes). If you like music with lyrics, if you like songs, then you like poetry.

Moreover, no matter what your English lit teacher told you—poetry has a multiplicity of possible readings. There are lots and lots of ways for people to read the same poem; they’re all valid, as long as readers can tie their response to the poem. Even “I don’t really like this poem because it brings up a really unpleasant memory” is a valid response for that person at that time to that poem. Moreover, lived experience can change the way we read a poem, or the ways it makes us feel. We aren’t static and unchanging; neither is poetry.

What then do you talk about with respect to a poem? To start, you can talk about what you notice about it. Is there a particular line or section that draws your attention? Is there something that reminds you of something in your life, or perhaps something else you’ve seen or read? Are there any patterns, or sounds, or words, or imagery, that you find interesting or that attract your notice? Is there something that you just simply like about the poem (or dislike)?

Poetry by its nature is compact. A poem is language is compressed, without excess words. That means it’s particularly fun to look for patterns that shine through the compact shape of a poem. Patterns of image, and metaphor, of sound, and rhythm—and perhaps even more interesting, to look for places where the poet sets up a pattern, and then changes, or departs, or alters that pattern.

If you want something a little more formal, here’s a getting started guide to writing about poetry in academic terms. Me, I’d rather just talk about why I love a particular poem, and how it works, including, how it works on me.

Western Wind

Western wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous; British Library Royal Appendix 58 c. Early Sixteenth Century

“Western Wind” (or “Westron Wyde” as the ms. has it) is an anonymous lyric from the early 16th century (c. 1530). It’s extant in a single manuscript that appears to have been a commonplace book used by several English court musicians associated with the royal court and were collecting musical pieces for lute. As Julia Craig-McFeely notes  British Library Royal Appendix 58 (RA58) is actually

two music manuscripts that became bound together as the single source, Royal Appendix 58, one inserted inside the other some considerable time after their respective compilations—possibly at the time they became part of the Royal collection in the British Museum. The outer portions of RA58, the part of the MS containing the lute music, was written throughout by the same scribe, though it is difficult to see this as the tablature section has little text with which to compare the other music, and the manuscript is suffering badly from the effects of fading. This section of the MS isa collection of tenor voice parts, and the original parchment cover was marked ‘Tenor’ by its owner. The inserted book was a collection of medius and contratenor parts, indicated by its scribe writing ‘medius’ at the top of the first page.

The general consensus regarding the RA 58 is that it’s from about 1530; the language of the poem could easily be earlier, and I suspect (but can not prove) that it’s perhaps c. 1400. There is music presented in RA58 with the text, but interpreting what the notation means is a bit difficult. Musicians and composers have come up with different melodies.

“Western Wind” is one of the first poems that grabbed my attention in that This Is Important way when I was teenager reading my father’s old copy of the Quiller-Couch edition of The Oxford Book of English Poetry. The poem seemed so very simple, a tiny four-line love-lyric (a particularly English love-lyric, given its reference to rain). It captures the feeling of love-in-absence, the emotional state of the lover longing for the presence of the beloved, the comforts of home and a familiar and shared bed.

I like the way the poem uses repetition in the second line, drawing our attention to the phrase “The small rain down can rain” — notice the way the line catches our ear and eye with the repetition of “rain,” as both verb and noun, and the way the meter emphasizes the words as if they were themselves falling rain. “The small rain” is a particularly English phrase as well, referring both to the constant steady fall of micro drops that are almost more like mist than rain, and to “a little rain,” where “small” refers to quantity rather than the size of the drops.

The phrase “the small rain” is one with an ancient history. Here’s the entry from the OED for the phrase. You’ll notice that there’s an archaic letter, the eth (ð = th sound) no longer used in English.

Small rain III. 10. a. Composed of fine or minute particles, drops, etc. In later use chiefly of rain.

c897 K. AELFRED Gregory’s Past. C. lvii. 437 Swiðe lytle beoð ða dropan ðaes smalan renes, ac hi wyrceað ðeah swiðe micel flod. c1000 Sax. Leechd.

1649 WINTHROP New Eng. (1853) I. 209 The Rebecka,..two days before, was frozen twenty miles up the river; but a small rain falling set her free.

1676 WOOD Jrnl. in Acc. Sev. Late Voy. I. (1694) 177 Thick Fogs with small Rain. 1727 A. HAMILTON New Acc. E. Indies I. xxii. 262 A small Rain happened to fall that damped my Powder. 1823 SCOTT Quentin D. i, Heaven, who works by the tempest as well as by the soft small rain (OED small, a. and n.2 III.10.a).

The same phrase is used in the King James 1611 Bible, in Deuteronomy 32:2:

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass

The date of the King James translation is too late to have directly influenced “Western Wind,” but it does show the use of the phrase—and it’s not impossible that it was influenced by the lyric.

In English custom and poetry the western wind is the wind of spring; see for instance Robert Herrick’s short lyric, “To the Western Wind,” which also treats the west wind as a gentle wind that brings rain. John Masefield does something similar in his “The West Wind.” The spring opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales summons the west wind by name, in his invocation of Zephyru, the Greek god associated with the west wind and spring. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” has a similar association between the western wind and rain—but in Shelley’s poem the wind is associated with autumn, and Italy.

In this very English poem, notice that the narrater—who could be a woman or a man, we don’t know—says, somewhat urgently, or perhaps plaintively, “when” will the small rain come? It reminds me very much of the moment when the barometric pressure changes, just before the rain comes, and it’s suggestive of the speaker’s own state of mind.

A melody with the same “Western Wind” title was used by a number of sixteenth century English composers (most notably Thomas Tallis, Richard Taverner and Christopher Tye) as the cantus firmus in the Mass, under the less than surprising title of the Western Wind Mass, but it isn’t clear that the tune used by the masses is the same one recorded in British Library Royal Appendix 58 c; in fact it seems rather unlikely. It’s also not clear that the tune used by the composers wasn’t simply another tune for our lyric.  Either way, the various masses are all quite lovely, whether or not directly related to the lyric.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. Western Wind Masses (Taverner—Tye—Shepard)
iTunes | Amazon

The Tallis Scholars & Peter Phillips. The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music – Volume One
iTunes | Amazon

Writing and Presenting Your Thesis or Dissertation

This guide has been created to assist my graduate students in thinking through the many aspects of crafting, implementing and defending a thesis or dissertation. It is my attempt to share some of the many ideas that have surfaced over the past few years that definitely make the task of finishing a graduate degree so much easier. (This Guide is a companion to the Guide for Writing a Funding Proposal.)

Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web

John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen (1997)

Studies of how users read on the Web found that they do not actually read: instead, they scan the text. A study of five different writing styles found that a sample Web site scored 58% higher in measured usability when it was written concisely, 47% higher when the text was scannable, and 27% higher when it was written in an objective style instead of the promotional style used in the control condition and many current Web pages. Combining these three changes into a single site that was concise, scannable, and objective at the same time resulted in 124% higher measured usability.

More here.