‘The Solitary Reaper’ by William Wordsworth


This is Poetry

It could be argued that ‘The Solitary Reaper’, like many poems by Wordsworth, comments on the nature of poetry and the role of the poet. The solitary reaper, singing to herself in the field, sums up Wordsworth’s idea of what a poet should be:The reaper sings her song alone. Similarly, the poet must write his poems alone, at a remove from society.The reaper is happy singing to herself. She doesn’t care if she has an audience or not. Similarly, the poet must be happy to compose poetry for himself. He must not be concerned with fame or audience expectations. Good poems should remain in the reader’s heart and mind, the way the lass’s song will carried in the heart and mind of the poet long after he has left the vale behind. Furthermore, poets, like the reaper, should be close to nature and in tune with the natural world.

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ by Emily Dickinson


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Many of Dickinson’s poems depict nature as a source of joy and inspiration. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’, however, focuses on nature’s bleaker and more depressing aspects. The poem suggests that the natural world can have a negative impact on our states of mind, altering our psyches as it brings us the worst kind of ‘internal difference’. Once again we find Dickinson focusing on nature in its everyday aspects,finding terror not in an earthquake or tsunami but in a simple slant of light. The poem reinforces our sense of the poet as someone especially sensitive to the natural world, someone whose entire mood and mind-set can be altered by the quality of light outside her window

‘Bread’ by Brendan Kennelly

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The description of the making of the bread calls to mind the work of an artist or craftsperson. Just as an artist begins with a vision of what they wish to create, so thewoman has a ‘dream’ or ideal notion of the bread that she wishes to produce. The bread emerges from the oven ‘Shaped like her dream’. The work involves great skill and practice, both of which are evident in the woman’s knowing or ‘deliberate’ shaping of the bread.

Like many great artists and craftspeople, the woman seems to have an innate or highly refined sense of what works.The poem also illustrates how creative the craftsperson is, how they are capable of transforming something base or ordinary into something extraordinary. The wheat considers itself to be as ‘fine’ as anything that grows in the ‘garden’ but it feels that it is ‘nothing’ until it is ‘re-created’ by the woman’s fingers: ‘I am nothing till/ She runs her fingers through me’.

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ by John Keats


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The poem, then, shows how Keats retreats from the pain and suffering of the real world into an imaginary haven. ‘Fancy’, or the power of the imagination, allows him to ‘leave the worldunseen’ and ‘quite forget’ the trials and tragedies of human existence. Keats’ ‘fancy’ constructs a refuge to which he can flee in his vision or ‘waking dream’, leaving this troubled world behind.The imagination or ‘fancy’ is famous for its ability to ‘deceive’ or ‘cheat’ us into believing in things that are not real. Yet there are limitations to its power.

The imagination, it seems, will always be ‘retarded’ or limited by the duller more rational parts of the brain. The poet’s powers of imagination can maintain his fantasy of the woodland for only a short time. He cannot remain for long in his imaginary paradise before he must return to his ‘sole self’ andto reality

”Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson


This is Poetry 2020

The image of the  ‘strangest Sea’ represents those occasions in our lives when we feel utterly isolated and alone, cut off from the rest of the world. We are reminded here, perhaps, of the description in ‘I Felt a Funeral’ of being ‘Wrecked’ and ‘solitary’ in some strange and alien environment. However, unlike ‘After great Pain’ and ‘I Felt a Funeral’, this poem has an uplifting message, describing as it does some inner resource that we can all draw on to help us get through such difficult times. Even at our lowest, the poem suggests, a sense of hope prevails, encouraging us to persevere.

‘At the Fishhouses’ by Elizabeth Bishop


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The poet uses an extraordinary simile to describe the waters off Great Village, depicting them as a vast and all-consuming sea of fire. But this is fire that’s been ‘transmuted’ or transformed, so that it ‘burns with a dark gray flame’. The poetdescribes it as a blaze so intense that it could burn through rock, consuming the ‘blue-gray stones’ of the seabedThis bizarre depiction of the sea wonderfully suggests the treacherous nature of the unconscious mind. The sea is depicted as being filled with tormenting slate-grey flames, justas the unconscious mind is filled with potentially dangerous memories and emotions. To enter or even touch the sea is to risk tremendous physical pain. To confront the unconsciousmind, similarly, is to risk tremendous psychological pain

‘Piano’ by D.H.Lawrence


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The poem describes how music can be a powerful trigger of memory. The poet is sitting quietly somewhere listening to music, when he is suddenly reminded of his childhood. Though he does not wish to think about this period of his life, the song he is listening to evokes strong memories of the way his mother would play the piano each Sunday evening when he was young. He is drawn back to these times ‘In spite’ of his best efforts to resist

The poem also describes how vividly we can recall certain times of our lives. Although the poet is perhaps sitting outside a cafe on an Italian street, as the song progresses the memory of his childhood home and special times spent with his mother become more and more vivid. Before the song reaches its climax the poet is lost in reverie, back in the cosy parlour of his childhood home

‘Questions of Travel’ by Elizabeth Bishop


This is Poetry 2022

The nature of travel 

The poem, it must be said, takes a rather dim view of the whole area of travel and tourism. Its opening shows how even the keenest travellers and tourists can become jaded from sightseeing. The poet responds to a spectacular landscape with weariness, almost with disgust, referring to the streams of cloud as ‘streaks’ and ‘tearstains’ and to the mountains as ‘slime-hung’. She describes this vista in terms of pressure, haste and crowdedness, which suggests that the landscape brings her stress rather than happiness or relaxation.

The poem especially emphasises how difficult it is to really know or understand a foreign country. We see this in the filling station when the poet attempts to understand Brazil’s past but can only do so only in the feeblest and most uncertain manner. The point is that, as tourists, we engage with foreign countries on only the most superficial level. What we witness will always be as artificial as a performance in a theatre. The ‘old stonework’ of monuments and other attractions will always remain ‘inexplicable’ and ‘impenetrable’.

Such negativity is also present in her description of the journey to Petrópolis. The poet mentions six experiences she had while travelling there, declaring that ‘surely it would have been a pity’ to miss out on each one of them. As we have seen, however, the poet’s description of each experience is highly qualified – each is depicted as having a negative as well as a positive aspect. Would the poet really have regretted missing out on these experiences? Or is she merely trying to convince herself that her journey to Petrópolis was worthwhile? Bishop wonders, therefore, why we can’t ‘just stay at home?’ She even refers to the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal’s famous suggestion that ‘all the evil in the world comes from man’s inability to sit quietly in his room’.

A sense of restlessness

The poem also highlights Bishop’s acute sense of restlessness. During her adult years, Bishop regularly changed her place of residence. And when she did settle in one place, she experienced what we might describe as ‘itchy feet’, embarking on regular trips and excursions. She’s one of those people who, until the day they die, will be ‘determined to rush’ about the place, visiting and revisiting various locales. She can’t reist this impulse, even though she views it as one of ‘childishness’. The poet’s restlessness makes her agitated and uneasy. This is suggested by the sense of haste and pressure in the poem’s opening, with its streams and clouds that ‘keep travelling, travelling’, its waterfalls that ‘hurry too rapidly’.

The poet seems to view her urge to travel as a failure of imagination. She sits at home and contemplates ‘imagined places’, places she’s never been. She suggests that if her powers of imagination were greater, she’d be able to visualise such locations in extraordinary detail. Her mental image of these ‘imagined places’ would be so rich that she’d never actually feel the urge to visit them. She could simply ‘stay at home?’

A sense of homelessness

Bishop’s father, we remind ourselves, died when she was only eight months old and her mother was institutionalised when she was only four. In the years that followed, Bishop was shunted from guardian to guardian in both Canada and the United States. Because her childhood was spent in so many different locations, Bishop felt that she didn’t really come from anywhere. She didn’t have a ‘home’ in the sense of a point of origin, a native place that her family came from and to which she could return. This sense of what we might call ‘homelessness’ is indicated by the poem’s final enigmatic question: ‘Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be?’

The poet is uncertain, therefore, as to where her ‘home’ might be, and whether she even has one. For most of her adult life, Bishop had a modest independent income and no regular job. If she wished, therefore, she could live in or visit any ‘Continent, city, country, society’. And yet she feels no sense of freedom: ‘The choice is never wide and never free’.

Perhaps Bishop experiences no sense of ‘choice’ because her restlessness compels her to keep moving. Or perhaps she thinks that everywhere she visits is ultimately the same. For no matter where she goes, she’s dogged by the same feelings of not belonging, the same sense of never truly being at home.

‘Our Whole Life’ by Adrienne Rich


This is Poetry 2020

‘Our Whole Life’ is a powerful meditation on the nature of language itself. The poem strikingly presents language as gendered and male-dominated. We’re inclined to think of language as a neutral tool for communication. According to Rich, however, language is anything but neutral. Instead, it’s extremely gender-biased. Every language (whether it be English or Chinese, Mongolian or Spanish) was created by a male-dominated society, evolving over time to suit the needs of men rather than women.

When women speak or write, therefore, they are forced to use ‘the oppressor’s language’. They must use words created by the very men who keep them down. Women must use vocabulary and grammar designed to communicate a male, rather than a female, perspective on reality. This means that it’s extremely difficult for women to communicate the truth about their lives. Certain aspects of female experience are simply impossible to express in these male-created languages. Other aspects can be expressed only in a blurred and distorted fashion.

Rich refers bitterly to the ‘permissible fibs’, brilliantly capturing how male-createdlanguages allow women to communicate only certain aspects of their beings, and then only falsely and imprecisely. The remaining aspects of women’s experiences can’t really be conveyed at all by means of male-dominated languages.

Women and language

Rich uses several inventive comparisons to describe to describe the horror of women being forced to use an alien and inappropriate language. Women, she memorably declares, are bound in ‘a knot of lies’. Constrained by the binds of an alien language, there is little they can express. And what little they can say will be in an important sense untrue. Women’s experiences are compared to a surface that’s been painted over. The bare, unpainted surface might be thought of as women’s real, lived experience. The paint might be thought of as the alien or inappropriate language in which that experience must be expressed. The words women use, then, tend to obscure, rather than reveal, the reality of their experiences, just as a layer of paint obscures the surface to which it is applied.

Rich also imagines a child attempting to communicate with a doctor, endeavouring to explain the symptoms and sensations associated with his illness: ‘Trying to tell the doctor where it hurts’. We can imagine a child struggling to describe, for instance, a ‘recurring, shooting pain in the area around my solar plexus’ or a ‘persistent, throbbing headache’. Just as the child lacks the vocabulary to explain the nature of such discomfort, so women lack the linguistic tools to adequately express their experiences.

Rich also uses the metaphor of ‘dead letters’, which are pieces of mail that have gone astray within the postal service:

• A woman sets out to communicate her experience through language, just as a letter-writer sets out to correspond with his intended recipient.

• However, the woman’s true meaning is lost in the alien language she must use to express herself, just as the letter is lost in the postal system.

• The truth of women’s experience, therefore, can never be properly communicated, just as dead letters are destined to never reach their destination.

I heard a Fly buzz -when I died-

‘I heard a Fly buzz -when I died-‘ by Emily Dickinson

This is Poetry 2020

In this poem the speaker addresses us from beyond the grave,  telling us about the circumstances of her death. She describes lying on her deathbed, surrounded by various members of her family. We can imagine the speaker’s mental and physical exhaustion, her body wracked, perhaps, by a combination of illness and old age. We can imagine that her family too are mentally and physically exhausted, having suffered the ordeal of watching a loved one drift towards death. We can imagine an atmosphere of great tension as they wait for the moment when the speaker will finally pass away.

A moment of calm

The speaker describes one oddly quiet moment that occurred as she lay upon her deathbed. The room had been noisy while the speaker was suffering on her deathbed. It would be noisy again as she experienced her final death throes. For afew moments, though, it was filled with quietness. The speaker compares this lull to the eerie stillness that can sometimes be experienced at the very centre of a storm system. ‘The Stillness in the Room/ Was like the Stillness in the Air –/ Between theHeaves of Storm –’.

The loved ones

The speaker’s loved ones had cried until they could cry no more: ‘The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –’. We imagine an air of stress and expectancy, as the speaker’s loved ones wait for the moment of death. We can imagine the unbearable tension they experienced as they waited for the ‘last Onset’ or attack of the speaker’s illness, when she would finally pass away. According to the speaker, her loved ones were so tense that they found themselves almost unable to exhale. The air they breathed in remained held or gathered firmly in their lungs: ‘And Breaths were gathering firm’.

The speaker describes how her loved ones expect that at the moment of death a ‘King’ will be present. No doubt, the ‘King’ they have in mind is Jesus, the Lord of Heaven, who will descend in order to ferry his loyal and faithful subject into Paradise. Perhaps the speaker shares her loved ones’ religious beliefs, or perhaps she is more sceptical about religion and life after death.

Will and testament

Because the speaker knows that the end is near, she has prepared her last will and testament, ‘assigning’, or passingon, her various valuables to her loved ones. The items that she allocates to her loved ones are described as ‘Keepsakes’, suggesting personal effects, little tokens that will remind loved ones of her after she is gone.

The fact that the speaker wills only such keepsakes, rather than stocks and property, reinforces our sense that she is a woman: in Dickinson’s time, women were seldom permitted to own and administer such assets.