Friday, February 18, 2005

John Ciardi's 'How Does a Poem Mean?'

At a library sale last weekend, Mama Squirrel was busily filling a box with books (squirrel instincts put to a higher use) when she happened to see a familiar orange-covered poetry anthology that brought back recollections of some high school English class many many years ago. Flipping through it, she was surprised to see a bonus in the back of the book: John Ciardi's essay 'How Does a Poem Mean?', which was recommended in one of her other favourite books, How to Read Slowly by James Sire. Needless to say, the book was immediately deposited in the box along with Canadian Wild Flowers, The Outrageous Outdoor Games Book, and several books of an automotive nature for Mr. Fixit.

Mama Squirrel hasn't had time yet to read the essay completely, but she was amused to note that Ciardi refers both to give-me-the-facts Mr. Gradgrind (Dickens is another of Mama Squirrel's favourite writers) and to Keats, who has been the subject of some posts lately on her homesquirreling friends' blogs. So with them in mind, she offers the following from the essay:

"....students are too often headed by their teachers in the direction of reciting, almost like Bitzer [in Dickens' Hard Times]: 'Keats. "When I have fears that I may case to be." Sonnet. Irregular. Consisting of three quatrains and a couplet, the third quatrain consisting of very close rhymes,thus: "hour, more, power, shore." Written on the theme of the vanity of earthly wishes, but given a strong romantic coloration of individualistic aspiration for the good pleasures of the world.'
Poor Keats!
For WHAT DOES THE POEM MEAN? is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is HOW DOES A POEM MEAN? Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote: O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,/ How shall I tell the dancer from the dance?"


TheHeadGirl said...

Is John Ciardi another excellent, under-appreciated Canadian critic like Northrop Frye?
The theory of "how..." is interesting. So many experiences go into the penning of a poem, and the particular resonance it carries have more to do with an experience than with how the poet wanted the metre to go.

Rambling here, though. Poetry is anything but my forte.

Mama Squirrel said...

No, HeadGirl, John Ciardi is an American poet. Here's a page with a listing of his books (scroll down past the biography): . Terry Glaspey (Great Books of the Christian Tradition) recommends Ciardi's translation of Dante, if you're so inclined.

TheHeadGirl said...

Ah, thank you! I suppose I should get to know my modern poets better.

I've got Sayers' translation of Dante, but I haven't read it yet. I wonder if I should attempt both at the same time, or if that would be confusing.