April may be the cruelest month, may be the time of cherry blossoms hung with snow, may be the time to celebrate poetry–as if we could confine it to one month, those of us who love it–anyway, it is also the last full month of the spring college semester. After endeavoring to impart some understanding of the principles of literary analysis of poetry to my students for the past ten weeks, I assigned a short paper that taught me a great deal. Perhaps it taught my students something, as well.
It occurred to me that metaphor–indeed, most figures of speech–are based upon likenesses, direct or analogous or implied. Yet we Western thinkers are taught to observe differences first and foremost. We learn that red is different from blue, that a ball is different from a block; and I am not disputing those differences. When we speak metaphorically, however, we imply similarity instead. My students default to contrast for analysis and to similarity for description.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s very Aristotelian. But what if we turn things 180 degrees? Think of Linnaeus, who classified so many plants and animals; he grouped life forms according to likeness. The differences branched off from the similarities. He described what was overtly or subtly similar, then analyzed for differentiation.
Any two poems have at least a few things in common, so I asked my students to do a comparison-only study, briefly, in a 2-page paper. Initially, they had a great deal of trouble with the assignment. They wanted to contrast. Their interests lay in what was noticeably different about each poem. They genuinely struggled to stay on the topic of similarity, but the outcomes were some of the best papers I have yet had from this class. A student told me that this exercise “really made me think.”
Fascinating response, really. What does it tell us about our brains, our education, our observational instincts, that we want to stress difference before similarity? Is this a Western civilization thing, or an in-our-DNA-thing? I wonder.
The process that makes a person think, though, is a learning process for certain. Once we can recognize similarities between disparate works of art, we can perhaps recognize similarities between philosophies, religions, human beings. The very differences may become beautiful or intriguing rather than frightening or alien. We may learn to become more comfortable with variety, and more appreciative of it. I know my reading life would be much the poorer if I refused to read, try to understand, or value novels or poems that seemed challengingly “other.” I do not love all of the work I read, but everything teaches me something.
The poems below are very different. In what ways, specifically, are they alike?
Spleen (by Charles Baudelaire, tr. by Robert Lowell)
I’m the king of a rain country, rich
but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch,
one who escapes Fenelon’s apologues,
and kills the day in boredom with his dogs;
nothing cheers him, darts, tennis, falconry,
his people dying by the balcony;
the bawdry of the pet hermaphrodite
no longer gets him through a single night;
his bed of fleur-de-lys becomes a tomb;
even the ladies of the court, for whom
all kings are beautiful, cannot put on
shameful enough dresses for this skeleton;
the scholar who makes his gold cannot invent
washes to cleanse the poisoned element;
even in baths of blood, Rome’s legacy,
our tyrants’ solace in senility,
he cannot warm up his shot corpse, whose food
is syrup-green Lethean ooze, not blood.
Arrival (by William Carlos Williams)
And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !
(These poems are shared under the Creative Commons and are copyrighted by the estates and/or publishers of these poets)