First approaches to poetry

    F K Diering

    This article was first published in CRUX, February 1982 – a long time ago, but still of great value to teachers of English at school or tertiary level, as well as to trainers of English teachers.

    Having taught poetry at school level for twenty-three years and at first-year university level for seven years, I am aware of the problems that confront both the teacher and the pupil. It is not my intention to concentrate on these problems; I wish rather to offer some positive suggestions that may be of help to the teacher of poetry at high-school level. The approach described in this article is based on extensive teaching of first-year university students, but as many of these have had second-language tuition at school and lack the background essential for successful literary studies at university level, I do not think that there is a wide gulf between what the teacher is trying to achieve at school level and what I am attempting at first-year university level.

    Perhaps Coleridge’s dictum will come to our aid: ‘… could a rule be given from without poetry, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art.’ The very fact that we are not dealing with a mechanical activity should serve as a stimulus and a challenge, not only to the student but also to the lecturer. Poetry enables us to enter an exciting realm in which the intellect, the imagination and the emotions are engaged. Poetry may stir the slumbering intellects and imaginations of our students, quicken their faculties and evoke a total response which has been called ‘the multi-dimensional quality of experience’. (1)

    To introduce our students to poetry, I normally present them with a short poem by Emily Dickinson entitled ‘Fame is a Bee’:

    Fame is a bee:

    It has a song –

    It has a sting –

    Ah, too, it has a wing.

    This poem serves as an introduction to poetry imagery in the form of metaphor, that complex figure of speech the student will constantly encounter in his/her study of literature. ‘Through metaphor, an idea may be translated into an image so that we perceive the idea through our senses.’(2) Here an abstract idea, fame, is translated into an image – a direct sense impression which enables us to see, hear and feel imaginatively. An implied comparison is involved; through the image of the bee the poet communicates something about fame.

    Students should be made aware of the importance of associations in poetry. ‘All metaphor depends on associations, and a metaphor is the very life of poetry ….’(3) What associations does the word ‘bee’ evoke? Familiarity begets confidence, and students will respond readily: buzz, honey, hive, sting, pain, nectar, flowers …. After some free discussion, attention will be focused on the poem; inappropriate associations should be discarded and the significance of the relevant ones discussed.

    Close textual analysis is essential. Each line should be carefully analysed and the comparison established in line one followed out. The song of the bee may be equated with the glory and rapture fame brings, while the sting suggests the pain that accompanies fame. The nature of the pain will arouse discussion and elicit responses such as ‘jealousy’, ‘rivalry’, ‘disruption of human lives and relationships’.

    ‘Ah, too, it has a wing’ is often misinterpreted, students failing to capture the tone of the line and interpreting the movement as an exuberant flight into ecstasy. Once they have discussed the emotive value of ‘Ah, too’ and have examined the effect of the rhythm in relation to the meaning, they will find it easier to identify the elements of wistfulness and regret in the tone.

    To explore the full meaning of the poem, students should ask themselves the following questions: (a) What does the poem say? (b) How does it say it?  A short paraphrase will help them to established the theme: fame brings glory and rapture, but it causes pain and is transient. Is the idea (what is said) exciting or original? Not particularly. If they find the poem stimulating and exciting, does the reason lie in how the idea is conveyed? One recalls A E Housman’s definition of poetry: ‘Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.’

    A paraphrase would show that the factual content is only a small part of the total meaning of the poem. The vitality of ‘Fame is a Bee’ lies in its imagery, which lends concreteness, vividness and immediacy to what is being said. The poem admirably illustrates the compactness, concentration and compression that are distinctive features of poetry.

    Part of the ‘how’ of a poem lies in its physical form, which should be carefully examined as it may contribute significantly to the total meaning of the poem.

    Marking stressed syllables in a line of verse will inculcate an awareness of rhythm and help students in their interpretation. In the first line ‘fame’ and ‘bee’, both key words, bear stress; the position of ‘fame’ at the beginning and ‘bee’ and the end of the line enhances the importance of the words. The rhythmical similarity of lines two and three introduces and element of repetition and adds to the symmetry of the poem’ it also highlights the contrasting words, ‘song’ and ‘sting’.

    Technical devices such as alliteration (‘song’ and ‘sting’) and rhyme (‘sting’ and ‘wing’) should be related to the meaning of the poem as a whole; the rhyme, for example, serves to link and emphasise the negative aspects of fame. The poem consists of four short lines, the brevity of which may suggest the fleeting nature of fame. The extended fourth line, which breaks the monotony of the dimeter lines, is bound to elicit discussion. ‘Ah, too’, students are quick to point out, suggests a drawn-out sigh, the effect being enhanced by the long vowel sounds and pauses (introduced by the commas), which slow down the tempo of the first part of the line. As a concluding line, and because of its length, it attracts attention, hence the idea it conveys – the transitoriness of fame – is emphasied.

    In a short poem entitled ‘A Decade’, Amy Lowell uses imagery that appeals to the sense of taste to present an evolving human relationship in concrete terms:

    When you came you were like red wine and honey,

    And the taste of you burnt in my mouth like sweetness;

    Now you are more like morning bread.

    Smooth and pleasant,

    I hardly taste you at all, for I know your savour,

    But I am completely nourished.

    The poem introduces the student to the simile, and words like ‘wine’ and ‘bread’ may be used to elucidate and illustrate the terms ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’. What associations does the word ‘wine’ evoke? Sweetness, headiness, excitement, intoxication, festivity. How does the word ‘red’ enhance the meaning? It connotes blood, passion, vigour, vitality, intensity. What does the metaphor ‘burnt’ imply about the speaker’s feelings at this stage?

    ‘Morning bread’ with its cluster of associations provides a contrasting image which conveys the change that has taken place in the human relationship. Why is the word ‘morning’ important?

    The imagery is the vital force in this poem. Any discussion of its function will involve an exploration of its sensory, emotional and intellectual appeal.

    Students sometimes ignore the title or miss its significance and are consequently unable to appreciate the change the human relationship undergoes in the course of a decade. A discussion of mood would deepen their understanding of the theme.

    A poet can make his/her statement without introducing imagery as a poetic device. The following poem by James Joyce will dispel the impression that the student may have formed that every poem should contain imagery:

    Because your voice was at my side

    I gave him pain;

    Because within my hand I held

    Your hand again.

    There is no word nor any sign

    Can make amend –

    He is a stranger to me now

    Who was my friend.

    From these relatively simple poems one proceeds to the more profound, subtle and complex.

    By the end of the course students will have realised that they need memorise no facts and seek no rules; that an understanding of poetry demands a total response that involves the senses, the emotions and the intellect.

    The following report by a student is illuminating: ‘I seem to be one of those fortunate people born with natural insight. Because of this, I had, in a sense, become lazy, expecting to understand a poem after having read it once or twice. It is especially in this respect that the poetry course helped me tremendously, for through making me look closely at a poem it has taught me to value and enjoy poetry. I now realise that one must give much of oneself before one can receive anything from a good poem; that the understanding of poetry demands the full exercise of one’s mind.’


    (1)    Brooks, C and Warren RP, Understanding Poetry, p9.

    (2)    Simpson, L, An Introduction to Poetry, p1.

    (3)    Boulton, M, The Anatomy of Poetry, p122.



    Categories: Issue II