Or, a Sonnet is the Language Arts Equivalent to the Quadratic Formula
“They always tell us that poetry is something that you feel until it comes to test time, and then there’s only one answer.”
I can, to some extent, commiserate with the complaint of this student. She has a point: poetry is treated frequently as something sentimental, something that you gain meaning from by feeling it, and that’s a point of view popularized by The Dead Poets Society. Then, when people encounter work and are expected to answer in a particular way on a test or quiz (particularly, standardized tests), it’s kind of like a rude shock.
But I also am someone who thinks about poetry in terms of math equations, who thinks of the world as something that can be analyzed, so the feeling that poetry is something you understand either innately or not at all is one I can’t really give much weight. Think of it this way: in poems, you look for signs in rhyme, in meter, in diction, in any choice the poet makes. A word is just as much a symbol as the letter “x”; balance the equation to get the meaning. Poetry can’t be innately felt because as much effort that goes into creating a poem is required to really understand it. There’s a reason why poetry explication is a way to demonstrate critical thinking.
Since I’m working on trying to figure out a way to teach high school students how to read Whitman, I’ll use “Song of Myself” as an example. On the one hand, you could read it as fairly straightforward: Whitman’s speaker is describing himself and is sometimes preoccupied with the physical and the body (consider: “My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air” from Section 1, or “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles” from Section 52). Or, you could look at it as having the dual meaning as describing himself as well as America, particularly in Section 51 when the speaker states the famous lines, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself. / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (6-8). Maybe the speaker is contradictory, but then, so is America itself: it’s several things at the same time, and America is literally large.
Further thinking along the lines that “Song of Myself” is just as much about the country as about Whitman has to do with the imagery—think again to the grass and the soil—but also in the arrangement of the verse itself. Emerson called for distinctly American poetry and Whitman sought to answer that call. There isn’t really a standardized line length throughout the poem (apart from being, at times, long), nor is there a regularized and frequent rhyme scheme. The poem varies from expectations of poetry and becomes something new. Yet for all that you might feel the poetry, you still can’t get everything out of “Song of Myself” just by standing on a desk and letting out your own “barbaric yawp”—there’s work that generally needs to be done.
That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy poetry as something emotional, or spiritual (don’t hymns work that way?), and you can enjoy something on one level—but that’s not the same as analyzing it. Reading poetry is a lot like doing a word problem: you have to figure out where the pieces are, and you need to solve for “x”. Some people claim that grammar is the most mathematical that English gets, but I think they might be missing the point of literary analysis in the first place if they think that’s the case. Even looking at specific forms can give some insight to the “formula” of a poem: for example, sonnets generally follow a pattern, and if you know that pattern, they’re a lot easier to work with.
The difference between math and literature is that in literature, there’s just a little bit more room for people to come up with different answers.