Interpretation

My English I Honors students have just finished up a four-week poetry unit, which is in a way one of my favorite units we do. It’s not just that I love poetry, which I do, or that I hope to instill in them an appreciation of or even love of poetry, which I do, but it’s also a one of the units where we all see real growth in students’ ability to read and think critically.

At the start of the unit, there are the concerns: Some suggest they cannot understand poetry. Some suggest poetry is just about emotions. Some suggest that learning about poetry has no practical value later in life.

To the first concern, I always point out that learning to read increasingly challenging texts with greater levels of intentional ambiguity is just like everything else: it takes time and practice. I assure them that I’ll give them some skills — some tricks, I call them — that will help them ease the process.

To the second suggestion, I point out that while emotion is a critical element in a lot of poetry, it’s not the end of poetry in itself. It’s a means to an end. The emotion one finds in poetry is not what it’s about — except for some confessional poetry, of course. Even then, there’s always something bigger. I don’t tell them then, but what I’m referring to of course is the lyric moment of a poem, that point at which the reader has an epiphany because the speaker has an epiphany. (I am speaking of modern poetry, of course. When we move back into the nineteenth century and beyond, lyric moments tend to disappear a bit. Just a bit.)

The third worry is easy: No, you won’t read and interpret poetry your whole life, but you will need the skills — picking up on connotation, determining tone, reading for changes in mood — your whole life. No matter what you do, I say, no matter what the job, you’ll need these skills.

So we dive in. We read Elizabeth Bishop and Billy Collins, Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes and Howard Nemerov, Robert Hayden and in preparation for Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare. There are others, but I’ve found it most fruitful to read less and read more deeply than read more and only skim over the surface. We read poems and then go back to them again when we’ve learned another skill. We read poems once, twice, three times — again and again and again.

Then comes the test. A simple, four-question test. “Four questions, Mr. Scott?! Only four?!” they all reply when we prep for it. I give them two poems, both by W.D. Snodgrass: “Momentos, 1” and “A Locked House.”

Momentos, 1

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood—shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance. The sight of you stunned
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.

Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.

—Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.

We read it together, make sure there are no unknown or confusing words, then move on to the second poem.

A Locked House

As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.

I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?

Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such
Idea. We said as much.

We’d watched friends driven to betray;
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.

The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.

The questions:

  1. Identify tone and tonal shift of each poem. Make sure you quote specific passages of each poem in order to provide evidence.
  2. What is the lyric moment of each poem? What epiphany does the speaker have in each poem?
  3. Compare and contrast the two poems. How are the topics, tones, and lyric moments similar? How are they different?
  4. The author of these poems was an early writer of what’s called “confessional poetry,” in which the “I” in the poem is very often the poet himself/herself. It involves writing not about what’s going on in the world but what’s going on in the heart and mind of the poet. What can you infer about the author if we assume that the “I” in each poem is the poet himself?

These are somewhat tricky poems. “Momentos, 1” has a couple of tones in the first part of the poem that are then echoed in mutated form in the second half.

“A Locked House” uses a long, extended metaphor that, being a metaphor, is never expressly explicated. Experienced readers immediately see that the house is a metaphor for the speaker’s and his wife’s marriage, but thirteen-year-olds don’t always see that at first.

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