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John Ciardi: How does a poem mean? 
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Post John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I'll admit that I've never really been a huge poetry enthusiast. Part of the problem is that my eyes tend to glaze over when confronted with a poem as my brain tries frantically to make sense of it. Turns out I've been doing it all wrong! I recently read a poem by Ciardi recently (Suburban) and strangely enough, actually liked it. And so during a Google search I came up with the following excerpt from Ciardi's book, How Does A Poem Mean? I ended up buying the book and I'm really enjoying it. Ciardi has helped me get poetry.

The first chapter is here which includes a detailed analysis of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. This is old hat to all you poetry people, I know, but I think you will like this. Check it out.

http://blog.babson.me/wp-content/upload ... Ciardi.pdf


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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
Geo: Excellent article, thanks for posting it.

A comment on two items from the article:

"The language of experience is not the language of classification." and "The grand power of poetry is its interpretive power."

Combining these two together, that is, the language of experience and interpretive power, I think brings us toward understanding how poetry can have a powerful impact on the reader, sometimes in just a few lines. But to experience this impact we can't let our western-trained analytical brains, which look for constituent parts and logical meanings in a technocratic way, get in the way of the experience. The experience is a product of the whole and is not only greater than the sum of the parts but is actually a different thing than the sum of the parts. Poetry brings the power of imagery to bear on highly complex, perhaps even imponderable matters, and helps us make sense of what otherwise could be beyond explanation and understanding.



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Thu Oct 27, 2011 7:21 pm
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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
That's so well put, giselle. Referring back to geo's old fear of poetry, part of it, I feel, comes from the way poetry is approached in school. It is the most imaginative of literary forms, but in classes, in my experience, it tends to be approached in the most unimaginative ways. There's some poetry-oh, boy, we can test them on rhyme schemes, meters, and technical terms. We can show them how to crack codes of symbolism. That all leaves me a bit cold.

From what I've read of Robert Frost, he was a great teacher of poetry who didn't go in for all those dreadful analytics.



Last edited by DWill on Thu Oct 27, 2011 10:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I have always loved certain kinds of poems but never really became practiced in reading poetry. It helps to think of it as a performance and to just let it sit without worrying about the layers of meanings. Robert Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening is a great place to start. It's immediately accessible and can be enjoyed for its own sake—its rhyme, rhythm, and wonderful pastoral imagery. The last line, repeated, just makes you stop and start rethinking what you just read. It's just about a perfect poem to my way of thinking because it works so well on different levels.

I don't believe I was exposed to that much poetry growing up except for Robert Louis Stevenson's A Garden of Verses and, of course, a multitude of children's books that are essentially written in poetic form. In school they probably started talking about rhyme schemes and meter and all that technical stuff and my brain probably turned off. As DWill said, this approach has probably turned many a student off. And, of course, the same applies to fiction.

After English Class
By Jean Little

I used to like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."
I liked the coming darkness,
The jingle of harness bells, breaking--and adding to
--the stillness,
The gentle drift of snow. . . .
But today, the teacher told us what everything stood for.
The woods, the horse, the miles to go, the sleep--
They all have "hidden meanings."
It's grown so complicated now that,
Next time I drive by,
I don't think I'll bother to stop.

(Little, J. (1986). Hey world, here I am! Toronto: Kids Can Press.)


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Last edited by geo on Fri Oct 28, 2011 10:05 am, edited 3 times in total.



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
Sopranos clip . . .

"Asshole Robert Frost"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk_ddfiFkGQ


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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
A little story about english teachers and accessibility of poetry -

When I was in high school I had an english teacher, a certain Mr. Kellow, who had his idiosyncracies and whether you liked english or not, was difficult to ignore. Mr. Kellow was a big guy and bit on the bombastic side but he could be oddly quiet too. He was also the high school hockey coach and I think quite a few of the hockey players were in his class so he could ensure they got through the course and could stay on the team.

Mr Kellow had announced that our next english class would open the poetry segment of the course and I think there was a bit of eye rolling around the class. When we arrived that day there was music playing and Mr Kellow was sitting at his desk, just staring straight ahead if I recall. He didn't say anything and the music went on for few minutes and then the song ended and he shut the machine off. Then he stood up and said 'that was poetry' quite loudly and sat down while we looked at each other and pondered what just happened. After some nervous tittering he went on to teach the class using the song and he likely delved into 'analytics' and 'meaning' but I don't remember that part, being like Geo, I'm sure my brain turned off.

What I do remember is reading over the song lyrics on my Led Zep album covers and others bands too with a new appreciation .. were these songwriters and musicians 'poets' ? I hadn't thought of them that way before. And I do think that music has given me a way to access poetry, to experience the meaning of poetry, in the way that John Ciardi is referring too, rather than too much focus on particulars and analytics.

For the record, this is the song that Mr. Kellow played:

Sound of Silence
Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls"
And whispered in the sounds of silence

Simon and Garfunkel



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I have heard Billy Collins speak about poetry several times now and I really like how he aproaches poetry and how speaks about it.

Introduction To Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


Billy Collins



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
Thanks Saffron, that's a great 'poem on poems' from Billy Collins. It must be frustrating for poets to see their work treated like that, quite reductive .. I recall an interview with John Lennon where he reflected on similar sentiments about all the interpretations of Beatles music - he was less than diplomatic and used very colourful language, it was quite amusing.



Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:26 pm
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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I really like the Billy Collins poem. And I always dig Paul Simon's work.

I signed up for a poetry class way back in college, but I ended up dropping it. I recall the professor used his own book of poetry as the text and that bothered me somehow. Also, I think one of the first poems we discussed was about masturbation which was just a tad awkward for me. But, more importantly, I remember very distinctly one day discussing Paul Simon's song, My Little Town. This guy was poking fun at the lyrics, although I can't remember exactly why. It's a great song.


My Little Town

In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps His eye on us all
And He used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord I recall
My little town

Coming home after school
Flying my bike past the gates
Of the factories
My mom doing the laundry
Hanging our shirts
In the dirty breeze

And after it rains
There's a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It's not that the colors aren't there
It's just imagination they lack
Everything's the same
Back in my little town

In my little town
I never meant nothin'
I was Just my father's son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun
Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town


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Last edited by geo on Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:39 pm
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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
The guy was plain ignorant. How could he not at least appreciate, even if not like, the lyrics to Simon's song? There's a concentrated imagery in it that you usually don't see even in pieces not set to music.



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
While we're on this Paul Simon kick . . .

The original poem by Robinson is told from the POV of the townspeople. In Paul Simon's version, it's first person. It's interesting how the meaning changes with the last chorus in the song. I'd bet this was unintentional on Paul Simon's part, although I'm sure he was aware of it.


Richard Cory

by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1897)

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 that 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.


Richard Cory

by Paul Simon

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town
with political connections to spread his wealth around
born into society a banker's only child
He had everything a man could want power, grace and style
But I work in his factory and I curse the life I'm living
and I curse my poverty and I wish that I could be
Oh I wish that I could be Oh I wish that I could be Richard Cory

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera Richard Cory at a show
and the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht
oh he surely must be happy with everything he's got
But I work in his factory and I curse the life I'm living
and I curse my poverty and I wish that I could be
Oh I wish that I could be Oh I wish that I could be Richard Cory

He freely gave to charity he had the common touch
and they were greatfull for his patronage and they thanked him very much
so my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read
Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head
But I work in his factory and I curse the life I'm living
and I curse my poverty and I wish that I could be
Oh I wish that I could be Oh I wish that I could be Richard Cory

http://www.wordcentric.net/cory.mp3


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Last edited by geo on Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Oct 28, 2011 8:46 pm
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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
DWill wrote:
The guy was plain ignorant. How could he not at least appreciate, even if not like, the lyrics to Simon's song? There's a concentrated imagery in it that you usually don't see even in pieces not set to music.


I wish I could remember what his criticism was all about. I want to say it had to do with the line about all of the colors being black, but I don't trust my memory. But, yeah, song lyrics have to be taken in context with the song. By the way, Paul Simon borrowed Art Garfunkel for this one song. It's possibly the last studio song they worked on together.


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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I appreciate the kid's confusion in that Sopranos clip: "I thought black was death." Well, why go there, is my feeling. Why go to such a so-called interpretation of the poem. It may be cliched, but what about Archibald MacLeish's admonishment: "A poem should not mean but be"?

But let's go on with some Halloween-ish poems. One I can think of I used with some kids once, and they liked it.

The Bat by Theodore Roethke •

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

Edit: Yes, Simon did great with Robinson's poem. A case of the adaptor surpassing the creator? I remember having the vinyl album in my hands as about a 13-year-old and reading under the title, "Apologies to E. A. Robinson." I wondered, "What is Simon apologizing for?"



Last edited by DWill on Fri Oct 28, 2011 10:07 pm, edited 1 time in total.



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
Ah, so sorry for messing up your thread, geo. I'll put The Bat where he belongs. I did just read Ciardi's introduction and I think he defines the "point" of poetry very well. He also indirectly explains why poetry is not taught well to us, people who need this kind of tuition since we do not breathe poetry as the Milanese breathe opera.

Not to be pedantic, but Milton's Paradise Lost isn't a rhymed poem. Wigglesworth's "Day of Doom," I just found out, is.



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Post Re: John Ciardi: How does a poem mean?
I was encouraged by Ciardis' perspective of familiarity or lack of familiarity with poetry. Sounds obvious, but it's a good point. He says New Yorkers are typically well-versed in baseball to the point they can rattle off stats and other esoteric data . It's second nature to them. So if I read poetry on a regular basis, I'll become more acclimated to the form.

Ciardi's book is first and foremost a collection of poetry. Ch. 2 discusses Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll which he says is deeply indebted to the techniques of the English ballad. And, so, he goes through a bunch of old folk ballads, many of them quite gruesome.


Childe Maurice

I
CHILDE MAURICE hunted the Silver Wood,
He whistled and he sang:
‘I think I see the woman yonder
That I have lovèd lang.’

II
He callèd to his little man John, 5
‘You don’t see what I see;
For yonder I see the very first woman
That ever lovèd me.’

III
He says, ‘Come hither, my little man John,
That I pay meat and fee, 10
For thou shalt go to John Steward’s wife
And greet her well from me;

IV
‘And as it falls as many times
As knots be knit in a kell,
Or merchantmen go to leeve Londòn 15
To buy ware or to sell;

V
‘And as it falls as many times
As any heart can think,
Or school-masters are in any school
Writing with pen and ink. 20

VI
‘Here is a glove, a glove,’ he says,
‘Lined wi’ the silver-gris;
Bid her to come to Silver Wood
To speak with Childe Maurice.

VII
‘And here is a ring, a ring,’ he says, 25
‘A ring of the precious stone:
He prays her come to Silver Wood
And ask the leave of none.’—

VIII

‘Well do I love your errand, master,
But better I love my life. 30
Would ye have me go to John Steward’s castle,
To tryst away his wife?’—

IX

‘Do not I give you meat?’ he says,
‘Do not I give you fee?
How daur you stop my errand 35
When that I bid you flee?’

X
This little man John one while he yode,
Another while he ran;
Until he came to John Steward’s castle
I wis he never blan. 40

XI
He ask’d no porter’s leave, but ran
Up hall and bower free,
And when he came to John Steward’s wife,
Says, ‘God you save and see!

XII
‘I come, I am come from Childe Maurice— 45
A message unto thee!
And Childe Maurice he greets you well,
And ever so well from me,

XIII
‘And as it falls as oftentimes
As knots be knit in a kell, 50
Or merchantmen go to leeve Londòn
To buy ware or to sell;

XIV
‘And as oftentimes he greets you well
As any heart can think,
Or schoolmasters are in any school 55
Writing with pen and ink.

XV
‘Here is a glove, a glove,’ he says,
‘Lined wi’ the silver-gris;
Ye’re bidden to come to Silver Wood
To speak with Childe Maurice. 60

XVI
‘And here is a ring, a ring of gold,
Set wi’ the precious stone:
He prays you to come to Silver Wood
And ask the leave of none.’—

XVII
‘Now peace, now peace, thou little man John, 65
For Christ’s sake I pray thee!
For gif my lord heard one o’ thy words
Thou must be hangèd hie!’

XVIII
O aye she stampèd with her foot
And winkèd with her e’e; 70
But for all that she could say or do
Forbidden he would not be.

XIX
‘It’s surely to my bower-woman,
It cannot be to me!’—
‘Nay, I brought it to John Steward’s lady, 75
And I trow that thou art she.’

XX
Out then spake the wily nurse,
Wi’ the bairn just on her knee:
‘If this be come from Childe Maurice
It’s dear welcome to me.’— 80

XXI
‘Thou liest, thou liest, thou wily nurse,
So loud as I hear thee lie!
I brought it to John Steward’s lady,
And I trow thou be not she.’

XXII
Then up and rose him John Steward, 85
And an angry man was he:
‘Did I think there was a lord in the world
My lady loved but me!’

XXIII
He struck the table wi’ his foot,
And kepp’d it with his knee, 90
Till silver cup and ezar dish
In flinders they did flee.

XXIV
He call’d unto his horse-keeper,
‘Make ready you my steed!’
So did he to his chamberlain, 95
‘Go fetch my lady’s weed!’

XXV
O he dress’d himself in the holland smock,
[The mantle and the snood],
And he cast a lease upon his back,
And he rode to Silver Wood. 100

XXVI
And when he came to Silver Wood,
No body saw he there
But Childe Maurice upon a block
Combing his yellow hair.

XXVII
Childe Maurice sat in Silver Wood, 105
He whistled and he sang:
I think I see the woman come
That I have lovèd lang.’

XXVIII
But then stood up him Childe Maurice
His mother to help from horse: 110
‘O alas, alas!’ says Childe Maurice,
‘My mother was ne’er so gross!’

XXIX
‘No wonder, no wonder,’ John Steward he said,
‘My lady loved thee well,
For the fairest part of my body 115
Is blacker than thy heel.’

XXX
John Steward had a little brown sword
That hung low down by his knee;
He has cut the head off Childe Maurice
And the body put on a tree. 120

XXXI
And he prick’d the head on his sword’s point,
Went singing there beside,
And he rode till he came to the castle
Whereas his lady ly’ed

XXXII
And when he came to his lady— 125
Look’d o’er the castle-wall—
He threw the head into her lap,
Saying ‘Lady, tak’ the ball!’

XXXIII
Says, ‘Dost thou know Childe Maurice’ head,
If that thou dost it see? 130
And lap it soft, and kiss it oft,
For thou loved’st him better than me.’

XXXIV
But when she look’d on Childe Maurice’ head
She ne’er spake words but three:
‘I never bare no child but one, 135
And you have slain him, trulye.’

XXXV
And she has taken the bloody head
And kiss’d it, cheek and chin:
‘I was once as full o’ Childe Maurice
As the hip is o’ the stane. 140

XXXVI
‘I got him in my mother’s bower
Wi’ mickle sin and shame;
I brought him up in the good greenwood
Under the shower and rain.’

XXXVII
And she has taken her Childe Maurice 145
And kiss’d him, mouth and chin:
‘O better I love my Childe Maurice
Than all my royal kin!’

XXXVIII
‘Woe be to thee!’ John Steward he said,
And a woe, woe man was he; 150
For if you had told me he was your son
He had never been slain by me.’

XXXIX
Says, ‘Wicked be my merry men all,
I gave meat, drink and cloth!
But could they not have holden me 155
When I was in all that wrath?’


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