Excerpt: Introduction of “The Poetry Toolkit”

By Rhian Williams

It’s tempting to look for certainties in reading, even more so in studying. What is this? How will I recognize it again? Will it help me pass the exam? Such questions are often prompted by poetry when it appears as a subject for study. In an education system that values ‘usefulness’, the poem – writing that takes up a strange place on the page, uses odd language, and seems to hide rather than display meaning – is a disruption, perhaps a distraction: what is its point? Yet poetry is also something that escapes the classroom – it appears in cards, on billboards, on the Underground. It’s echoed in songs and recited at weddings and funerals; it appears in dusty leather-bound books in libraries, in colored paperbacks in gift shops, in manuscripts kept under lock and key. We hear it sung and spoken to us as children and recite it again when we become parents. It’s heard in assembly halls and read on toilet walls. It infuses our language – ‘poetry in motion’ describes a car, or an athlete. We might turn to poetry when we know what we feel but we don’t know how to say it; when we read it we find more emotions, ones we didn’t even know we felt. How can poetry be all of these things at once? How can poetry be something we study, but also something that makes us cry?

Poems seem to approach meaning, expression, even storytelling in strange ways. They seem to be arranged according to laws of their own – why is that line the length it is? Why am I expected to believe that a face can ‘launch’ a thousand ships? In what sort of reality can the sun be addressed as a ‘busie old foole’? With such devices poems give the impression that they have expectations of readers (surely, reader, you understand what this image means!) and even if poems don’t give that impression, those who write about poems often will. Some discussions of poetry are replete with terms such as ‘metre’ or ‘trope’ or ‘scheme’ or ‘genre’, all of which can be very illuminating, but are confusing if their definition is assumed rather than stated. Other discussions of poetry dispense with this language altogether, and view poems in terms of historical context, politics, theory or setting. Such discussions are also engaging and vital to our understanding of poetry as alive – something that changes in different settings and at different times. But you might wonder, where is the poetry in such a discussion? Where does it account for the fact that this writing is arranged as poetry? Where does it acknowledge the effect (for the poet and the reader) of rhythm, or rhyme or pattern? This book helps bring these two ideas together: it takes the technical terms implied in the first type of poetry commentary and provides working definitions for them. It then implies the fluidity of the second type of commentary by putting this definition into context with a short discussion of how such ideas have been used in Anglophone poetry (poems written in English). So a degree of definition is provided, but it emphasizes that these can shift and alter with each use and in different historical and political contexts. Hopefully, this approach will then allow you to see a poem’s political, social or historical engagement in the very details of its formal structure and rhythmic pattern.

Sometimes we look to poems to reflect our experiences – ‘that’s exactly what I was feeling’ – and may even reject those that don’t – ‘I couldn’t “relate” to that poem, so I don’t value it’. But this limits your universe to your immediate experience. Reading poetry, just like reading novels or watching films or television, offers a route into other experiences, other historical periods, and – perhaps most excitingly – other ways of understanding and using language, communication and expression. However, those other experiences are not always immediately available when reading a poem. Understanding something of the traditions that a poem sprang from (or emerges within now) can help you access poems in ways that shift away from finding a world you already know and towards finding a world you did not know existed. You can begin to layer the different interpretations of a poem available – to move from ‘what does this mean to me?’ to ‘how is this responding to convention?’, to ask ‘what does this reveal about the history of this form of writing?’, or ‘what does this image mean on the poem’s own terms?’ and finally to come back to the present moment and ask ‘how has this poem influenced the conventions and ideas that shape our experiences today?’, ‘how does it influence me now?’ In a society that provides (or pretends to provide) instant gratification, spending an hour reading four lines of poetry that are difficult to understand might seem like an absurd deferral of pleasure or purpose, but time spent like this can equip us to participate in society in refreshing ways because it offers altered perspectives on familiar ideas and methods.

Moving on to thinking about how poetry sounds and feels, we can begin to see that all the innovative things that poetry does with language, rhythm, sound and pattern were not only important to the poet who wrote it – they are the source of our pleasure and understanding today. You might even understand a poem as much by feeling rhythms and hearing sounds as by following logic; yet how can you express that understanding to others? Think of some lines such as:


            A slumber did my spirit seal;
                  I had no human fears:
               She seemed a thing that could not feel
                  The touch of earthly years.

               No motion has she now, no force;
                  She neither hears nor sees;
               Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
                  With rocks, and stones, and trees.

  • William Wordsworth, ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’ (1800).


This short poem – known as one of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy Poems’ – is famously obscure and has prompted great streams of critical commentary seeking to unlock its secrets. Why is it so compelling? Partly, of course, we are intrigued by the ‘she’, and we may want to find out about the women Wordsworth knew in order to make sense of this reference. Yet, there is something more mesmerizing here than simply a story of girl a poet may once have known. The aim of this book is to encourage you to stop and dwell on such poems, to feel for their rhythms, listen for their sounds, think about their poetic effect. You might begin to notice the repetition of sound – several ‘s’ sounds quietly open the poem, ‘ee’ emerges towards line endings. The rhythm of the poem is gentle, comforting, strangely familiar. Even before we reach lines that tell us that this figure is ‘rolled round’ in the natural world our voice and body have become relaxed as they too roll over the rise and fall of the simple vocabulary arranged into on-off beats. We might say that the poem’s use of common hymnal measure means that pace of this poem is familiar to our ear even if its content is confusing; its use of alliteration and perfect rhymes is complimented by assonance and internal rhymes creating a range of aural stimulation that absorbs us just as the ‘she’ of the poem is absorbed into the natural world. And yet, while the poem creeps up on us with simple words and repeated sounds, it resolutely holds itself back and keeps its secrets: the poem compels because it teases us with gestures that draw us in and terms that block us out. When addressing a perplexing poem such as this, feeling for rhythms and listening for sounds can be a way into something strange. If a poem is completely confusing, start with listening for its sounds, marking its rhythms, thinking about its form. These starting points can open up a route to a more satisfying understanding.

One anxiety that concentrating on forms, traditions, metres and so on can cause, however, is that it encourages you to think of poems as self-contained, historically unchanging and complete in themselves. But it is vital to see that things promoted as inevitable, unchanging, constant and ‘real’ are actually historically contingent, and open to interpretation. Even so, it is helpful to have a sense of what those constants could be. If you’ve spent all your reading life assuming that poems are things written with rhythm and rhyme, it’s thrilling (or maybe alarming) to think that that doesn’t have to be the case. It allows you to see that ideas come into currency within a set of circumstances, rather than appearing suddenly and complete.

Finally what follows should suggest the exciting and flickering instability of poetry, its world of implied meanings and half meanings and received meanings. The relationship between a poem and a reader has been long debated and it’s almost impossible to define, but we may venture to say that poetry appeals to the dual pull that shapes all our experiences: the particular within the general. It acknowledges the allure of definition, but it seeks to express the lived experience that always qualifies it. As Shelley suggested, poetry is newly defined every time it a poem is written, and every time a poem is read: ‘A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all of its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share; another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and unconceived delight’ (1840, p. 269).

(This was an excerpt from the book “The Poetry Toolkit: The Essential Guide to Studying Poetry” which is available online)