Walking down the hall one day, I overheard one of my students say to a friend: "I hate poetry!" Since I've never been too embarrassed to interrupt other people's conversations, I butted in with, "You may hate the poetry you're reading now, but you don't hate all poems."

"Do, too!"
"No you don't!"
"Do, too!"
"No you don't!"
"Do, too!"

    The upshot of this intellectual discussion was that I worked up a short essay in support of my side of the "do -don't" poetry argument, giving a copy to my non-poetry loving student -- who, to be more honest than I like to be, wasn't that impressed.

    On the other hand, since Marlowe and Shakespeare are part of my Western Civilization II and English History courses, I'd like to give my pro-poetry pitch ONE -- MORE -- TRY!

You DO Like Poetry!

(You just don't know it.)

First, the "rules" of reading poetry. 1. Pronounce each word to yourself as you read. DON'T SKIM. 2. Otherwise, read a poem just like you would read anything else: pause at the commas, stop at the periods. Don't automatically pause at the end of a line. (Sometimes, you should, sometimes you shouldn't -- let the meaning of the line be your guide.)

I Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident

Most people like music. One of the reasons for this is because music has rhythm (a "beat"). Think of a waltz: 1,2,3 1,2,3 1,2,3. People like to hear the pattern of the beat repeated. Over -- and over -- and over -- and over -- and over -- and over.

Most people also like songs. In addition to rhythm, song lyrics have rhyme.

My Country 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing.
Land where our father's died
Land of the Pilgrims' pride.
From every mountain side
Let freedom ring.


And the rockets red glare
The bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night
That our flag was still there.

Many poems have both rhythm and rhyme, so you should like them, too.

Let's start with a short poem:


Had 'em.

Fun Poems from Ancient Rome.

Because I beat my cook who spoiled the dinner
You say, "Oh cruel wretch, oh greedy sinner,
Such punishments for greater crimes are fit".
"What greater crimes," I say, "Can cooks commit?"

The golden hair that Galla wears is hers,
who would have thought it?
She swears 'tis hers, and true she swears,
For I knew where she bought it.

Some poems are just for fun. Others, can make you think, helping you do that by painting vivid pictures in your mind.

"Richard Cory" (E.A. Robinson)
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    "Good Morning,"
And he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich, yes richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

"Miniver Cheevy" (E.A. Robinson)
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
    Grew lean when he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born
    And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the days of old
    When swords were bright and steeds were prancing,
The vision of a warrior bold
    Would set him dancing.


Miniver loved the Medici,
    Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
    Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
    And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the medieval grace
    Of iron clothing.


Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
    Scratched his head and kept on thinking:
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
    And kept on drinking.

Poems give you "stuff" to think about like: no matter where you go, you will always find yourself there. e.e. cummings puts it this way:

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and milly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea.

Other poems pull us up short; make us think of people we know; maybe, make us ask the question: "Am I like that?" Stephen Crane's three poems are of this type. (By the way, there's no law that says poems have to have rhythm and rhyme. Well chosen words that have "drama" or "punch" are enough to qualify as a poem.

"The Heart"
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

"A Man Said to the Universe"
A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."

"The Wayfarer"
The wayfarer
Perceiving the pathway to truth
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

Poems can put "good advice" better than you can. The following poem says what every parent would like to tell his child except most people don't have the "words". Anyway, children don't generally take advice from parents -- or from anyone else. I'm afraid that it takes being banged around by life to "get" some of the "points" made by the following poem. (It's a good idea to read this Kipling poem slowly -- for its meaning -- line by line -- rather than for the way the poem "sounds".

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
    Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
    And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
    And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so go on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch,
If neither foe nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

Among other things, Kipling was a war correspondent.

When wounded and down on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up with remains,
Then roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
    And go to your Gawd like a soldier!

A couple of quick thoughts, interestingly put:

He, who will not reason, is a bigot;
he, who cannot, is a fool;
and he, who dares not, is a slave.

He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool:
    Shun him.
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child;
    Teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep;
    Wake him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is wise:
    Follow him.

Some poems, like paintings, are meant to be beautiful. Poems like that are all "sight and sound" -- they're not supposed to have "meaning". After all, if someone had painted the picture of a forest surrounding a lake, would you ask what the painting means? No. You'd just enjoy looking at the beautiful picture.

Other poems help us to "feel". To be happy. To be loving. To know what it's like to be loved.
Most people also want to know about the full range of human emotions. Not that we want to feel, pain, sadness, depression, fear, hate, hunger, lust, disgust etc. It's just that we're curious enough to want to look around the corner, to see what might lie in store for us or for others.

Want to sample how being both depressed and spooky feels? Try:

"The Raven" (Edgar Allan Poe)
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "Tapping at my chamber door --
    Only this, and nothing more.

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; -- vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow -- sorrow for the lost Lenore --
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore --
    Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before,
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door --
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; --
    This is it, and nothing more."

And a lot more of that kind of ghostly stuff.

Before the next picture-poem, an interesting fact. Coleridge -- who was a drug addict (got hooked on the opium he was taking for pain) -- said he dreamed this poem. Unfortunately, a messenger came to his house and interrupted him, so that he forgot the rest of the poem. As I remember, what he dreamed, stops with the line: "A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!" The rest of the poem is Coleridge expressing his regret that he'd lost the other dream-verses.

"Kubla Khan"
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.

So Twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover;
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced;
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

    The shadow of the dome of pleasure
    Floated midway on the waves;
    Where was heard the mingled measure
    From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian made,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard would see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


A word about one of the "tricks" poets use. A poet will sometimes try to make the sound of the words or the rhythm of the line "match" the "thought" expressed by the line. In the poem above, take the line: "As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,." You must pause after you say "fast." Make another pause after saying "thick." The point is, that having to pause like this makes the "rhythm" of breathing. In -- out. In -- out.

Let's do one more. Coleridge is saying that, sometimes, the river runs slowly. He says: "Five miles meandering with a mazy motion." The word "meandering" -- meanders. That is, it's impossible to say it fast. Also, using a lot of "M" sounds -- Meandering -- Mazy -- Motion -- gives a mumbling, lazy sound to the line.

    Feel like smashing something? A poem can help.

For instance, are you mad at God for all the evil he's created? Armed with the power of a poem -- strike back!

In the following poem, we have William Blake asking, (in a powerfully nasty way): "What kind of God would make a tiger?"     Taking the image of the tiger one step further, Blake's "tiger" could be a symbol for all evil, Blake blaming God for evil's creation.

"The Tyger"
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

(Fire, hammer, chain, furnace, anvil? All, are words that provoke images of God laboring away in one of the hot, dark, smelly factories of the early industrial revolution.)

Speaking of being angry with God, try the next poem -- "The Rubaiyat" by Omar Khayyam. (A rubaiyat is defined as: an iambic pentameter quatrain with a rhyme scheme of aaba." So, "rubaiyat" means the form of the individual stanzas of the poem.)

Another thing of interest -- each stanza of "The Rubaiyat" stands alone -- there is no particular "order" of stanzas in which the poem should be read.

Basically, Khayyam wants answers to all the "big" questions: is there a God, if so, what's he like, what does he want from us, why is there evil in the universe, is there life after death etc.?? And he's upset because he hasn't been able to find the answers.

Basically, then, this is a, "To hell with it!" poem.

So that you can enjoy the "sound" of the poem without having to spend too much time worrying about what the stanzas "mean," I've tried to give some explanation to the right of each stanza.    

"The Rubaiyat"
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about:  but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went.
{I went to school with professors and religious leaders, but it didn't do me any good.}
With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow,
And this is all the Harvest that I reap'd -
I came like Water, and like Wind I go.
{I tried hard, but .....?}
Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing;
And out of it as Wind along the Waste
I know not Whether, willy-nilly blowing.
{I was born and will die, but that's all I know.}
Perplex no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign,
And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.
{Give it up. Have a drink.}
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain – This life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest if lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
{No heaven, no hell. When you're dead, you're dead.}
Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
{No one returns from death because there's no afterlife.}
We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go
Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show.
{We're nothing more than shadows shown by God.}
But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and Thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
{God is just playing a game, using us as playing pieces.}
What! out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!
{God makes us want things we shouldn't have; then punishes us for having them.}
What! from his helpless Creature he repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent him dross-allay'd,
Sue for a Debt he never did contract,
And cannot answer – Oh, the sorry trade!
{God made us evil, weak; then expects us to be strong. We didn't ask for this deal and can't even fight back.}
As under cover of departing Day
Slunk hunger-stricken Ramazan away,
Once more within the Potter's house alone
I stood, surrounded by the Shapes of Clay.
{God is the potter; we, the pots.}
Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small,
That stood along the floor and by the wall;
And some loquacious Vessels were; and some
Listen'd perhaps, but never talk'd at all.
{God made all kinds of people.}
Said one among them – "Surely not in vain
My substance of the common Earth was ta'en
And to this Figure molded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again."
(Surely, since God made us, He won't destroy us.}
Then said a Second – "Ne'er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy,
And He that with his hand the Vessel made
Will surely not in after Wrath destroy."
{God wouldn't send to Hell men who he took delight in making.}
After a momentary silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
"They sneer at me for leaning all awry:
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?"
{If we're weak and evil, it's God's fault for making us that way.}
"Why," said another, "Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
The luckless Pots he marr'd in making – Phsh!
He's a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well."
{Since it's God's fault that we are sinful, he won't send us to hell.}
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on:  nor all your piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a word of it.
{Time moves on. Nothing you can do about the past.}
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help – for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
{No sense praying. God can't help, either.}
Ah, Love!  could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mound it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
{Too bad we can't start over and do a better job with making the universe.}
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again –
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden – and for one in vain!
{Soon we'll be dead and vanish from the earth.}
And when like her, oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty glass!
{The best that can be done is to have the waitress spill a little wine on your grave as a recognition that you once were alive.}

Feeling a little twisted, a little sick? Let's counteract those bad feelings with a love poem by Shakespeare.

Sonnet XVIII
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 to short a date:
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd:
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimm'd.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Just for fun, here's a "take off" on the poem.

"To His Love"
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
You're as cute as a bug in a rug in May.
You'll last longer too, which is another reason
I think you're even neater than my favorite season.
And even if you don't last till the last cows come home,
Everybody can read about you in this beautiful poem.

OK, one more.

Shall I compare thee to a cheese souffle?
Thou art more fluffy and delectable:
The mouths of guests may drool upon the tray,
But a souffle is not protectable:
Sometimes the heat of it may burn one's cheek,
And its gold complexion turn to brown;
And every one must sometime drop from peak,
Pierced with fork or by its weight brought down;
But your eternal puff will not collapse,
And from your face none beauty can dissever;
Nor shall your death result from a relapse,
For in this poem you will have life forever:
So long as eyes can see and men can eat,
So long as this -- then you, no one can beat.

There's a lot of other stuff about poetry that's really interesting! Take some English classes to learn more.

Foundations of West. Civ Modern West Civ. Extras