I remember studying poetry in high school. William Carlos Williams and his chickens:
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
Or his poor old woman:
munching a plum onthe street a paper bagof them in her hand
They taste good to herThey taste goodto her. They tastegood to her
You can see it bythe way she gives herselfto the one halfsucked out in her hand
Comforteda solace of ripe plumsseeming to fill the airThey taste good to her
They are simple, yet so memorable. Both of those were some random lesson on some random day, thirty years ago. Yet when I found this link and this idea I knew exactly which ones to go get.
A new psychology study claims to have determined what makes poetry pleasing, and it’s using sonnet 18 as a thumbnail so you know I was going to click on it. What do they say is the secret?
The sights, sounds, smells. Those are what make the poem leap off the page and into your brain, where it stays. The Williams poems I selected are pretty obvious examples, the first reducing it all down to the red wheelbarrow next to the white chickens. You may ask yourself, “Why are we studying this?” or “What am I supposed to get out of this?” but you can’t deny the image that pops into your brain. I never really knew what to do with “glazed with rain water,” though. That’s just not a visual image for me.
My first that is that sonnet 18’s not really the greatest choice. What images does it paint, exactly? Show me “a summer’s day” or “rough winds” or “his gold complexion dimmed.” I think Shakespeare’s playing the game at a different level than Williams. Those aren’t sensory images in the “sights and sounds” category, those are deeper. Those are more about the experience of something you’ve felt. We’ve all experienced hundreds of summer days, days when it’s too hot or days when it’s too cloudy. We don’t have to paint a picture in our mind’s eye, we just feel it.
Earlier today I was talking favorite sonnets with someone and brought up 29, which I think is another great example. You can’t paint me a picture of “my state from sullen earth singing hymn’s at heaven’s gate” or “troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries,” but damnit if I can’t feel it in my bones, can’t you? I remember reciting 29 on the fly at work one time and this girl stopped me and said, “What’s bootless mean?” and it so caught me by surprise that I didn’t even have an answer for her. She was thrilled to have stumped me, but I was left thinking, “If you’re stringing it together one word at a time, you’re missing the point. You have to feel it.”