Poem Analysis – Taming the Wild Verse

Faced with a daunting task, you whip out your sword and poke tentatively at the page. The poem rears back like a cobra and strikes, rapping your knuckles and yanking the blade from your numb fingers. Defenseless, you stand and accept the myriad of paper cuts dished out by the sneering paper.

Reading a poem isn’t that bad. Really. You are an adult now and can read a poem for pleasure instead of an English grade. Over-analysis has done more to turn people off poetry than any other educational mechanism. On the other hand, a lot can be gained from taking a look below the surface of a poem. Many poems have multiple layers of meaning that lurk quietly, waiting for your discovery. Polite, they don’t shove their deeper meanings in your face, but wait to be asked to reveal themselves to you.

The Quick Method

1. Look at the title of the poem. Spend a few seconds pondering what it says, and what it might mean. “The Sandbox” may hint at a story about childhood, but “The Day I Spent Digging My Way To China” implies a lot more is going on than idle scooping. Some poets like simple titles, sometimes deceptively simple. “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Others use them as flashing red light district signs to lure you in. “An Infinite Number Of Monkeys” by Ronald Koertge. Still others play on words and meaning. “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border” by William Stafford

2. Read the poem. Don’t stop to analyze or look for hidden meanings. Just read it all the way through. Did anything stick in your mind after you finished? Did you find yourself smiling? Frowning? Shaking your head?

3. What were your first impressions of the poem? What was it about? What did you think it was about?

4. If anything stood out, or wasn’t understandable, circle it, underline it, highlight it. Read the poem again. Sometimes meaning builds slowly. There are several poems I read numerous times before the lightbulb finally went off. There are a few I never have gotten. I just enjoy them on the level I can, and move on.

5. Is the poem broken into parts (stanzas)? Is there a reason for the breaks? Are the breaks there to give the reader breathing room, or to enhance the appearance of the poem on the page? What kind of structure, if any, does the poem have?

6. Listen to the words as you read them. Look for patterns of words, letters, sounds, and meanings. Short, sharp words convey a different meaning than slow, languid words and sounds. Punctuation. Used or ignored? Same with capital letters. Is the poem in a recognizable form such as a sonnet?

7. What “tone” or “voice” is used in the poem? Public or private, first person narrator or distant third? (Compare Billy Collins to Ron Koertge to William Stafford in this)

8. Are there any allusions, symbols, or myths the poet employs?

9. Lastly, read the poem again, aloud if possible. Do your impressions remain the same, or have they changed over the course of your analysis?

If the poem makes you want to read more by that poet, then there is something going on between you and the poet’s words. Put down your sword, hold out your hand, and like a bird, the poem will land in your palm. Often, after it has flown, you’re left with warmth and the memory of something beating beneath the surface. Once in a while you’re left with something messier. Just wipe your hand on your pants and try again.

Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark.

An Infinite Number Of Monkeys
by Ronald Koertge

After all the Shakespeare, the book
of poems they type is the saddest
in history.

But before they can finish it,
they have to wait for that Someone
who is always

looking to look away. Only then
can they strike the million
keys that spell

humiliation and grief, which are
the great subjects of Monkey
Literature

and not, as some people still
believe, the banana
and the tire.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border
by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed — or were killed — on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

 

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Celebrating Midwest Literature

 

CELEBRATING MIDWEST LITERATURE, REMINDING MYSELF WHAT IT IS TO BE A WRITER

I don’t know if you know this, but Gyroscope Review’s three editors live nowhere near an ocean. Constance Brewer and I, the two founding editors, are firmly planted in what some consider fly-over country: Wyoming and Minnesota, respectively. Our Assistant Editor, Josh Colwell, lives near Pennsylvania’s border with Ohio.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this lately, and about the way literature from New York or Los Angeles might be embraced more quickly than that from elsewhere. I’m firmly planted in the heart of the Midwest, but let me tell you – literary tradition in Minnesota is strong. Its roots are deep. Most people know Bob Dylan and Prince came from Minnesota, but there are so many poets and writers who lived and still live here to celebrate: Robert Bly, Patricia Hampl, Phoebe Hanson, Bill Holmes, Louis Jenkins, Deborah Keenan, Freya Manfred, James Moore, Jim Northrup, Joyce Sutphen, Connie Wanek, James Wright, and more. We have Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, and Holy Cow! Press among other small presses. The literary tradition here is varied and rich.

And I recently reminded myself just how rich by visiting the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit at the University of Minnesota’s Elmer L. Anderson Library. My own road trip to the prairie this summer put me in awe of its inspiration, its space, its quiet that is perfect for the writer or the artist who wants solitude in which to work. I wanted to know more about the writers who sought ideas from that landscape and remembered that the exhibit at the U of M was still open. Off I went.

The Prairie Poets & Press exhibit covers more than just the prairie. It divides Minnesota into five regions: Superior North, Northern Prairie, Out West, River Valley, and Twin Cities. Examples of poets’ work from each area is offered, along with snippets of personal correspondence, marked-up copy, publication covers, newspaper articles, and photos. Robert Bly loomed large in the Out West section, shown with his old farmhouse and offering marked up bits of his work, covers from his little literary magazine that started in the late 1950s and lasted into the 1970s. Bly gave a reading a in 2015 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis as part of their Literary Witnesses program and I went to hear him. As I looked at what the exhibit displayed about Bly, I could hear his voice in my head, and appreciated his work as one of the poets who sought to move on from what has been called “old-fashioned verse.” In other words, verse that is less formal, uses plain language, does not rhyme, uses the poet’s individual voice. The definition may sound a bit familiar to those of you who have read our journal; that’s the kind of poetry we publish at Gyroscope Review.

Other parts of the exhibit that I especially enjoyed were the handwritten copies that came from the poets themselves that showed how they worked. My favorite was a page from one of Louis Jenkins’ notebooks that showed the same prose poem written twice, words crossed out in both versions, the endings entirely different. This little look into how poets work made my own messy notebooks feel a little more valuable, a little less like unimportant scribbling. And it reminded me how revision might take the writer far from the original idea.

Louis Jenkins’ poetry notebook

And, of course, I paid attention to the number of small literary magazines that have come from this area. Robert Bly’s The Fifties (which changed names in subsequent decades: The Sixties, The Seventies). Dacotah Territory. North Coast Review. Since Gyroscope Review spans far more than just Minnesota thanks for our far-flung staff, I wondered if we would ever fit in an exhibit like this; maybe just a little?

After I had walked through the entire exhibit, feeling lucky to have either heard or worked with several of the poets mentioned, such as Deborah Keenan who taught at Hamline University when I was working on my MFA, I thought about how any landscape has potential to produce a diverse mix of writers. Any place where people feel rooted, inspired, and pay attention is a good place to make art, write poems, tell stories. What is it about Minnesota that created this abundance? What is it about the coasts that do the same?

Whatever it is, I celebrate these Midwest writers who came before me, who inspire so many, who put us on the literary map. If you’re anywhere near Minneapolis this summer, the Prairie Poets & Press exhibit just might give you a little something you didn’t know you needed. And if you can’t make it to Minneapolis, at least get to the prairie, where the vast sky and open land will encourage you to listen to yourself.

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson, Co-Editor

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Crones: They’re Not Just for Halloween

Crone Power

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In honor of the current special theme for Gyroscope Review, “The Crone Issue”, let’s talk a bit about the theme. When we put out the call, we decided to limit it to an underserved section of the population, women and those that identify as women over the age of 50. It’s around that age that women really start to disappear in society. They are not valued any longer. Having outlived their usefulness as mothers or sexual objects, they are discarded and disregarded. From the heartfelt cover letters we are getting, it’s apparent older women are eager to have an opportunity to submit, and disappointed that this kind of opportunity doesn’t present itself more often.  Older women need to be include, invited, and embraced.

Older women contain a wealth of wisdom. This is what we want to celebrate. Crone has been turned into a derogatory term. Let’s take it back. The dictionary defines a crone as ‘a cruel or ugly old woman’.  The dictionary was not written by the enlightened. We prefer the more modern take, as identified in Wikipedia. “In New Age and feminist spiritual circles, a “Croning” is a ritual rite of passage into an era of wisdom, freedom, and personal power. Some feminist authors have defined the crone archetype in a positive light, as a powerful and wise old woman.

By taking back the word Crone, women are recognizing the power, wisdom, and abilities of aging. We want work that celebrates the ideas of crone: wise woman, matriarch, post-menopause, grandmother, elders with strength and experience. Tell your story. Tell what has been digging at you the past 50 years. What are you not going to stand for anymore? What is your source of power and strength, be it quiet or fierce?

Women have a wealth of life experiences to share with others. Remain silent no longer.

Here is a poem that resonates with the theme of Crone.

 

Dislocation

by Marge Piercy

 

It happens in an instant.

My grandma used to say

someone is walking on your grave.

 

It’s that moment when your life

is suddenly strange to you

as someone else’s coat

 

you have slipped on at a party

by accident, and it is far

too big or too tight for you.

 

Your life feels awkward, ill

fitting. You remember why you

came into this kitchen, but you

 

feel you don’t belong here.

It scares you in a remote

numb way. You fear that you—

 

whatever you means, this mind,

this entity stuck into a name

like mercury dropped into water—

 

have lost the ability to enter your

self, a key that no longer works.

Perhaps you will be locked

 

out here forever peering in

at your body, if that self is really

what you are. If you are at all.

 

“Dislocation” by Marge Piercy from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

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The Summer Issue, Plans for Fall

We hope your summer is going swimmingly. Ours just got better now that the work on our Summer Issue is complete. This issue makes us happy for a lot of reasons: great poets who share their work with us, a cover that showcases a white line print done by our very own Constance Brewer, and a nice new font to give us an updated look. The issue has a summer feel from start to finish, with poems that evoke the pleasures of the season: skinny dipping, filmy dresses, canoeing, gardening, travel. There are other topics addressed between summer moments, too, and we hope you get a copy of this issue as soon as possible so you can see for yourself. Pour yourself something cold to drink, take off your shoes, and settle into a nice hammock with our print edition. Or, if that’s not in the budget, you can find a PDF version on our Issues page on this site.

Gyroscope Review Issue 18-3

While you’re settled in your hammock, you might find a moment to consider whether you have any work of your own you would like to send out into the world. Are you a contemporary poet? Submissions for our Fall Issue are open July 1 – September 15, or until we have enough submissions to fill an issue. This is a new way for us to take submissions; once the issue is full, we will close submissions even if it’s not quite September 15 yet.

Why the change? We’ve seen an increase in submissions this year. Because we have a small staff, we have to be smart about how we manage to get everything read and evaluated in a fair, reasonable way. After a couple of reading periods that found us scrambling to get everything done at the close of submissions, we decided a change was needed. And this is it. So, get your submissions in early if you want a space in the fall issue and any issues after that.

There is one more bit of news about  our Fall Issue.  We decided to open a themed category alongside our regular submissions. The theme is The Crone. If that puts images in your head of an old witch stirring stuff in a cauldron, let us gently move that idea out of the way. Here’s what we are thinking: Women poets over the age of 50 are underrepresented in poetry publications. But they shouldn’t be; women over 50 have a breadth and depth of experience, knowledge, and wisdom to celebrate. So we want to hear from poets who identify as women and are over 50. We want you to shake things up, make us rethink your demographic, let us share your magnificence with the world. Same rules apply here for submissions; the category will close when the issue is full or on September 15, whichever comes first.

Happy submitting! But first, happy reading.

 

 

 

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