Parsing the garden

To parse is to analyze components–in linguistics, we parse a sentence, in computer science, we parse coded commands. In the literary analysis of a poem, a reader may divide a line or phrase into its parts of speech and then analyze the components (or look at an unusual expression or syntax in a line) to try to interpret meaning or to expand on possible readings or meanings…the semantics behind the tokens of image, grammar, metaphor, allusion, sound, punctuation, placement upon the white space of the page.

Today, I pushed the metaphor by parsing my garden.

The weather from July onward has been hot, humid, and unusually wet. The corn and the beans in local fields were happy; but much in my vegetable garden reveals, with parsing, specific summer details of stress and the gardener’s neglect.

IMG_5601.jpgToo much rain during ripening time led to cracked tomato skins and viruses in the vines. The zucchini did well for a time, then succumbed to powdery mildew. The beans didn’t mind the weather, but I had a plague of voles whose small depredations worked some cumulative damage–they nibbled a number of plants at the stem base, which meant a slightly less abundant yield, of course. Cucumbers offered lots of fruit initially, then downy mildew set in. I harvested one of the two cabbages with only minor slug damage, and the fat variety of carrots grew well (with no sign of whiteflies); but there were lots of bugs on the kale this summer and, given the intense heat, I had a short lettuce season.

And then, there are weeds, which offer many details about the weather conditions…and the fact that the gardener gave up and stopped pulling weeds when the soil devolved into heavy mud and who then refused to brave the task in the numerous over-95 degree F days that weren’t rainy. Today, I began a list: nutsedge; crabgrass; English plantain; pigweed; puncturevine; bindweed; galinsoga; creeping thistle; multiflora rose; horseweed; knotweed; spotted spurge; rabbitfoot clover; virginia creeper; japanese stiltgrass; wintercreeper; mugwort; solidago; wild aster; chicory; poison ivy; not to mention various sorrels and clovers and Queen Anne’s lace…and others I have yet to identify.

If I were to parse each weed, I could detail its likes and dislikes as to soil, growing conditions, root systems, pollinators & pollination strategies, seed dispersal methods, attractiveness to birds or rodents (see seed dispersal methods), and eventually could compile a meaningful ecological and environmental semantics for the little plot that is my backyard truck patch. No doubt I’d learn a great deal about the garden, but no doubt I have done so already–if less exhaustively, less “scientifically.” Would the garden then become more meaningful to me?

It’s a thought experiment; I’ve no intention of trying it, though I do think it would yield interesting results. In the many years I have worked the soil, I have written poems that, perhaps, do parse the garden. That will have to be interpretation enough for my part.


Interesting sky above the garden.


Backstory, continued

What brought the idea of backstory to mind was a poem of mine that recently appeared in Peacock Journal’s  print anthology. The poem appeared last year in the journal’s online site. (See: “Imagined Painting of Mary Magdalene Bathing.”)

A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”

This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.

“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.

As my good friend knows, I have been intrigued since adolescence by the art and iconography, the symbolism and the stories of the saints, despite my Protestant upbringing. I love art, aesthetics, and the divinely natural (empirical, phenomenal) World and feel an ambiguous but compelling relationship with myth, religion, history and a culture I cannot escape. And I have imagination.

I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.

I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.


There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to and purchase the anthology at the link above.

Thank you, friends in literature and imagination.




Poetry & backstory

My primary interests on this site are consciousness, nature, philosophy, the arts, and poetry in particular. Recently, poetry has been taking a backseat to other concerns; but poetry has a way of constantly asserting itself into my consciousness–of whatever that may consist (see previous posts for wrestling with that concept).

I have been reading poetry but not writing about it much and not composing at a productive clip, though I am not feeling “writer’s block.” I have, instead, allowed other events in my life to take over space formerly reserved for writing poems. This is neither bad nor good–it is just the state of affairs at present. Recently, a discussion with a friend brought up an aspect of poetry-writing that I have not spent much time thinking about; and the reason I haven’t is probably because I was warned away from the practice long ago when I first began to write verse.

The practice is “explaining the poem.” Of course, in theory the poem should do its own explaining, and if it requires too much prose telling, then it ought to be fiction or memoir or history or something other than a poem. That’s what my mentors and teachers imparted to me about poetry (all hail received wisdom!), and I do not disagree with this tenet–but having taught classes that introduce people to poetry, let me add a few cautions and qualifiers.

See, there’s explaining, and there’s explaining. One version of explaining the poem is to tell what inspired you, how you started to write it, what you were aiming for in terms of purpose, what you intended to “do” in the poem, and what each of the references means as relates to your life, the nation, culture, religion, or a love affair. If that is what the poet does before reading the poem aloud or presenting it upon the page, then the poet is doing all of the poem’s work for it. Too much information.

If the audience does not understand or appreciate the poem without this sort of explanation, then you have either a failed poem or a failed audience.

Then there are forms of interpretation and analysis by critics, reviewers, or fans; these texts or discussions can be immensely interesting and fruitful but do not involve the poet him or herself, so they do not really qualify as “explanations.” This process is what we try to teach students to do in university literary analysis coursework. Sometimes we encounter lackluster or lazy audiences in the classroom: people who want the professor or the textbook to do all the work of understanding poems for them. Poems are complex, like polymer molecules or neurological wiring. Not easy to explain.

But there are explanations of a kind that can be valuable, even if they are fabishop lowell ltrsr from necessary when one encounters a really terrific poem. There are reasons to learn the backstory of a poem, if such a thing exists for that particular poem (not all poems have one). Anyway, it may be worth asking the poet about it, if she is still living and can answer or if the answer may be deduced from archival materials. We have learned the backstories of a few Elizabeth Bishop poems, just taking one well-known poet as an example (see Words in Air); the stories–in this case, letters–do not necessarily help readers interpret a poem or even understand it any better, but the stories remind us that the poem was initially embodied in the brain of another human being who was undergoing and observing experiences–or leaping into realms of imagination.

More about why that’s a good thing, and more about the embodiment of the human brain, in later posts.







Interpretation & finesse

A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because I didn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!

It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.

That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!


Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.

That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.

Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.

Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).

I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.




Irritation, explanation, interpretation

I had another testy conversation about poetry analysis recently. Hence, this brief explanation, rationale, and license to interpret.

Feeling a mild irritation...

Feeling a mild irritation…

I truly sympathize with people who prefer to avoid any sort of literary analysis; so many times, it is such a badly-taught subject. Nevertheless, it is never a good idea to refuse to learn about something thanks to one or two negative experiences. If that were the case, no one would ever learn to walk (we fell down, we cried, we refused ever to rise up and take another step).

First, let go of the idea that the purpose of literary analysis is to understand exactly what the writer meant. Second, let go of the idea that poetry contains a symbolic hidden meaning.

Instead, recognize the following fairly obvious observations:

1] the poet wrote what he or she meant; the reader can interpret on the reader’s terms.

2] the meaning is in the poem itself.

Poetry is a form of communication, and it is not a detective story. The poet said what he or she said because the poet determined that was the best way to communicate the experience.

Problem: You, the reader, fail to understand the poem. All that means is that you and the poet may be speaking in different terms and that, to you, the poet’s determination of the best way to say what he or she meant does not convey much. Welcome to the world of human interactions.

The reader has choices: turn the page, for example, and ignore the poem. Or read the poem and find its sound or rhythm entertaining. Or read the poem for its summary–the top-line story, if there is one. Or relish the poem’s mood or use of language. Or its images.

Or throw the poem across the room in frustration or anger. Poetry is powerful enough to evoke such responses.

You could also try to examine the poem, look at how the poet uses rhythm or sound or language or image or metaphor or rhyme…you might learn something about how a writer puts a poem together; and even if you do not manage to shoo the “real meaning” out from under a chair, you may be able to come to terms with the poem in your own way.

You are permitted to interpret what the poem means for you.*


*CAVEAT: This approach may not get you an A on your analysis paper (though it might), but it will serve to enhance your lifelong appreciation of the poetic art.

On being understood

I’ve just learned that a poem of mine, “Fainting Goats,” was awarded a prize from the journal in which it appears, Philadelphia Poets. Liz Abrams-Morley was the judge.

To my delight, the editor of Philadelphia Poets (the lovely and talented Rosemary Cappello) requests judges to write their rationale for choosing the poems as winners, and here’s what Abrams-Morley has to say about “Fainting Goats.” She understands the poem, and that feels deeply rewarding to me.

A very close third place, Ann Michael’s “Fainting Goats” is a poem which intrigues and engages from its unexpected title (and subject) to its terrific, enlarging and emotionally challenging final stanza.  The opening is conversational, a straightforward statement which addresses the reader, and introduces an unexpected fact: “Next door, the neighbor is raising goats.” This drew me right in to the detailed treatise on the quirky fainting behavior of goats, which are almost playfully and so perfectly described as murmuring “like a small crowd at a/magic show” and rolling on their sides “like live piñatas.”   The poem takes a darker turn as Michael reveals that the goats are living distractions, bred by shepherds to draw predators away from sheep. “Think of the white sheep fleeing in droves,// …toward safety while the goat/recovers, bellering, attempting its escape.”  The neighbor, meanwhile, simply “chose them for their novelty,” a statement which chilled this reader following, as it does, immediately on the heels of the harrowingly detailed description of the goat as potential sacrifice to some predator.  As a reader, I felt the panic of prey animals and heard that goat’s cry.

Structurally everything about this poem works.  The unrhymed quatrains, even meter,  conversational language and line breaks—all the poetic choices Michael makes support the poem’s content and feel “right,” even inevitable.

The final stanza opens out the poem, enlarges its vision magnificently, transforms the goat story from conversational tale into powerful metaphor.  Michael’s closing is flat- out gorgeous and provocative.  It leaves the reader, as many of the best poems do, with a question to ponder, rather than with commentary or answer.  I found myself returning and returning to these lines: “This is how//we keep our frailties alive, inbred, and how we fall/ sometimes luckily, sometimes into the jaws/of a starving winter day, asking ourselves if it’s destiny/or heredity.”

I am always interested in how other people interpret my work and appreciate it when they see things that I may not have had in mind; but Ms. Abrams-Morley gleaned from my poem the very things I intended.

Thank you!

Teaching analysis & meaning

My students want to jump to conclusions.

Give them a text, a work of art to view and consider, a billboard, a musical selection…they will make one observation and immediately either evaluate or interpret. I am pleased that young people want to find meaning in so many things–or at least understand that they might be able to find meanings–but I want to tell them to slow down.

It’s tempting to suggest that “kids today” want instant gratification, are spoiled by having instant Google searches on their iPhones, or have no work ethic. I do not think that is true. Perhaps we have not taught our young people how to look, describe, analyze what it is they are noticing. It’s not that they are incapable of these steps; they just do not know that they know them. I think some of my students don’t even realize that they do notice things.

Really, who has not made snap judgments, or interpreted something–a work of art, a remark in passing–without thoughtful analysis? Guilty as charged, in my own case. But I am still learning, and my patience with my own learning process should carry over to my students; at least, I strive for that.

I notice the urge to leap to interpretation most when I am teaching the survey of poetry classes. Students know that poems are supposed to mean, not be (MacLeish got through); but they lack the confidence to explore meaning on their own, in their own ways. They get frustrated and want to find experts to tell them what the poet meant. Delving into their own uncertainties is frightening to them. They’re just out of high school, where they learned that it’s wrong to be “wrong.”

So many good texts out there try to convince students (or other interested, frustrated readers) that there are other ways to be with a poem, to explore, discuss, notice, and find meaning. I read such books to find inspiration for my teaching, for my students, and for myself. When I have time to get back to this post, I’ll begin a list in the comments box below. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions, add them below. I’m always looking for more ideas, more good books, more reasons not to jump to conclusions.