Poem of the Week: “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”

Emily Dickinson

Image via Wikipedia

I suppose there’s no better way for me to get back to my writing here than to start with this week’s Poem of the Week: Emily Dickinson‘s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense.”

Much Madness is divinest Sense —
To a discerning Eye —
Much Sense — the starkest Madness —
’Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail —
Assent — and you are sane —
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous —
And handled with a Chain —

Why did I pick this poem? There’s a rather convoluted story here.

  1. I wanted a short poem that I could easily fit into the schedule. We’re getting close to exam week, and we don’t have a ton of time to work with a highly complex poem.
  2. I wanted something by a woman poet. Right now my “scorecard” on women vs. men is 12 men to 6 women, and I’m not too happy about that. I can do better.
  3. I wanted something that I could use as a critical lens.

It’s the last one that’s the crazy one. I’m working up a new approach to teaching the “critical lens essay,” and I need a lens. My original plan was to have students outline an essay using the poem of the week and one other text. But then it occured to me that I culd simplify things by finding a poem I could use as the critical lens.

So then I went looking for a poem I could excerpt for a critical lens quote. And I found this one while flipping through my copy of Women’s Work. Incidentally, I was feeding the twins at the same time. Call me a modern father.

I promise that at some point I will write a piece explaining the whole “Poem of the Week” concept. For now, feel free to take a look at my class wiki, where I briefly explain the poem of the week and list the poems of the week I’ve chosen so far.


Poetry six-pack: the Renaissance

National Poetry Month posterI’m back again to celebrate National Poetry Month with a “six pack” of poems.  This time, the poems are from the Renaissance.  Yes, they’re old.  But they’re all, to one degree or another, timeless in their own way.

Here’s hoping you’ll find a few new poems to enjoy and revisit a few you remember fondly!

  1. Sonnet #116-– William Shakespeare.  How could I not start off with Shakespeare?  There are 154 sonnets by the man to entertain you for years.  And while I won’t pretend they’re all equally great, there are a lot of good ones.  This one is special to me because my mother read it at our wedding.
  2. The Sun Rising — John Donne.  I’ve always enjoyed this poem because it’s one half of the fascinating before and after story of England’s favorite rake turned minister, which you see in…
  3. Holy Sonnet #14 — “Batter my heart, three person’d God” — John Donne.  This one is intense.  To me, it’s always seemed that this was Donne’s take on the stereotypical Petrarchan relationship of renaissance love poetry.  Only in this poem, it’s God that’s holding the proverbial whip.
  4. Lux, My Fair Falcon — Thomas Wyatt.  This one makes the list for the most profoundly disturbing use of metaphor to describe the loss of his friends after falling out of favor in court.
  5. The Faerie Queene — Edmund Spenser.  Okay, so this is not exactly the shortest of poems.  But Spenser’s allegorical tribute to Elizabeth has to be on any list I might make of great Renaissance verse.
  6. Sonnet #138 — William Shakespeare.  I wanted to bookend the six-pack with another poem by Shakespeare, and this is one of my favorites.  It’s sad in a sense, but it’s a wonderful poem.  His pun on the word “lie” is spectacular.

Again, no order or ranking is intended here. These are just a set of poems from the Renaissance I like. There are others. Anyone have any other favorites?

National Poetry Month: The women’s six-pack

National Poetry Month posterSo a few days back I kicked off National Poetry Month with a “six pack” of poems I liked.  I was horrified to discover that, among my numerous oversights, I hadn’t chosen a single poem by a woman.  Does this mean my subconscious has betrayed my feminist street cred?  Ugh.

But I need to make amends.  So here, again with minimal explanation, are six poems by women I like:

  1. The Prologue — Anne Bradstreet.  One of the most interesting facts about American “Literature” (define it how you will) is that the first published author in New England was a woman.  While she’s better known for her more “domestic” poems, I always prefer this one, as it gives the reader / student some good things to chew on.
  2. #324 — Emily Dickinson.  Lots of poems to choose from here, but I think this one will amuse frequent visitor and fellow literary chap Misha.
  3. Poetry — Marianne Moore.  How do we find the “imaginary gardens with real toads”?  This is the challenge faced by all fiction writers.
  4. We Real Cool — Gwendolyn Brooks.  The voice here is cutting, powerful, and important.
  5. The Well — Denise Levertov.  This is one I’ve only recently come across.  I really like it, and want an excuse for teaching it in combination with something like Speak, perhaps.
  6. Living in Sin — Adrienne Rich.  It’s the details in this poem that always attracted me; the “beetle-eyes”; the yawn of the boyfriend.  The cat actually prompted me to write a fiction story once.

Again, no order or ranking is intended here.  These are just a set of poems by women I like.  There are others.  Anyone have any other favorites?

National Poetry Month: Poetry six pack

National Poetry Month posterIt’s National Poetry Month.  And I know that a lot of people right now are participating in “Poem a Day” challenges or working on “Favorite Poem Projects.”  I’m not that organized right now and, quite honestly, I’ve got enough projects running right now to know I can’t handle another one.  But as a good English teacher, I do solemnly swear that before the month is out, I will complete a Favorite Poem Project posting.  Though I think that I ought to be exempt, given that much of this site qualifies as a Favorite Poem Project.

Meanwhile, in no particular order, with only minimal explanation, here are six poems I love.

  1. Mowing — Robert Frost.  It’s the sound of this one that always gets me.
  2. Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night — Walt Whitman.  The narrative , along with the pictures painted by the poet, make me read this one aloud a lot, even when I’m by myself.
  3. Ulysses — Alfred, Lord Tennyson — I know this is an old war-horse of a poem, but I love it.
  4. Fern Hill — Dylan Thomas.  “Nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs…”
  5. Under Ben Bulben — William Butler Yeats.  There are poems by Yeats I think are much better, but I love the idea of the poet “pulling it all together” near the end of his life.  This was one of the last poems he wrote.
  6. Introduction to Poetry — Billy Collins.  This one probably says a ton about my experience — good and bad — with poetry and school.

So in compiling this list, I note that I have not selected

  • any poetry by women;
  • any poetry outside the traditional western canon;
  • any Shakespeare, Spenser, or anything else from the period that’s supposed to be my specialty.

Horrors!  I promise to complete more six-packs before the month is out to address these oversights.

Thoughts on “Inniskeen Road: July Evening”

Patrick Kavanagh statue

A statue of Patrick Kavanagh in Dublin. The irony of a solitary, contemplative statue of a poet who criticized such solitude is striking. (Infomatique/Flickr/CC-A-SA)

Patrick Kavanagh has long been one of my favorite poets. But I wasn’t introduced to him until I took Kevin Murphy’s Irish Literature class at Ithaca College.  I’ll have more to say about Dr. Murphy later; for the moment, I’ll stipulate that he was one of a small handful of teachers who truly impacted my life.

Back to Kavanagh.  There are several poems by him I really enjoy.  “Shancoduff” and “Spraying the Potatoes” are standard works.  “Pursuit of an Ideal” has always been an under-appreciated favorite of mine.  And of course “The Great Hunger” is the standard for anyone trying to understand the twisted conflicts of rural Irish society.  Be sure to set aside an hour or so for reading that one.

But my favorite poem by Kavanagh was the first poem of his I ever read.  It was actually the first poem to appear in The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry.Inniskeen Road: July Evening” tells the story of a writer who finds himself on the outside looking in.

As the poem opens, the speaker describes a perhaps stereotypical rural scene:

The bicycles go by in twos and threes –
There’s a dance in Billy Brennan’s barn tonight,
And there’s the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.

Pretty standard stuff, and you don’t have to be Irish to appreciate this.  Anyone who’s either lived or can project themselves into a small town knows those times when everyone’s on their way to the same event.  It might as well be a middle-school dance, with a pack of giggling tweens texting each other about who likes likes who.

But then there’s a turn.  Without warning, in the next line the scene jumps forward:

Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

Where is everyone?  At the dance, of course.  We knew that.  But where’s our speaker?  Alone on the road.  Everyone else is at the dance having a good time.  But not him.

And he’s not too happy about this:

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

It’s the word “blooming” in the final line that gets me.  Both an acknowledgment of the creative powers that come from isolation and a expletive spat out in disgust as he recognizes what solitude’s brought him, it’s one of the great lines of poetry.

There’s so much in this poem I like.  The allusion to Alexander Selkirk, for example.  I also love how it’s a twist on sonnet form.  I tend to use this poem when teaching poetry to point out that not all sonnets need follow one of the “approved” styles.  And other that pointing out how Kavanagh enjambs so many lines to keep the poem moving, I wish I had the skill to explain why the poem’s meter is so cool.  That’s never been my strong point.

And these days, as I think a lot about writing, and the sort of life a writer needs to lead, Kavanagh’s poem provokes reflection.

I always wonder, when reading this poem, why the speaker wasn’t in the barn to begin with.  Was he not invited?  I doubt that.  Somehow it’s hard to imagine Billy Brennan set up a rope line and hired a bouncer to keep out the little people.

Perhaps he was shy.  Nervous around the ladies.  Certainly that theme’s picked up in Kavanagh’s other work.

Or more likely the speaker fell into the trap of thinking writers must stand apart from the community to be effective.

Isolation isn’t a good thing.  Sure, your thoughts may bloom, but to what end?

Writers need to be part of the dance.  If you’re not in the barn, there’s only so much you can write about.  Sure it’s good and necessary to occasionally step outside and look in.  But then one ought eventually to go back inside.

Blog writers and poets have perhaps at least one thing in common: our primary audience may be our peers.  When no one else is paying attention, we’re there.  We need each other to stay sane.

So we build our own barns online to dance in.  And this is good, because we challenge, support and applaud each other, when a lot of the world couldn’t care less about the songs we’re dancing to.

It’s a big barn, with a lot of dancers.  But it’s not the only dance in town.

Kavanagh’s poem reminds us all to find that middle road between engagement and solitude.