For any teacher of poetry with the slightest interest in reducing the often high-pitched level of student anxiety, one step would be to substitute for the nagging and ultimately pointless question, “What does this poem mean?” the more manageable question “Where does this poem go?” Tracking the ways a poem moves from beginning to end puts the emphasis on the poem’s tendency to travel imaginatively and thus to carry the reader in the vehicle of its language. Instead of asking what Matthew Arnold was “trying to say” in “Dover Beach”—as if he had failed—let us follow the poem’s steps as it finds its way from the tranquility of its beginning, “The sea is calm tonight,” to its climactic vision of the world as a frightening battlefield, a “darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
The imaginative journey of a good poem is the result of many contrivances ranging from rhetorical modulations to leaps of fanciful conjuring and sudden shifts in time and space—the kinds of hops that Emily Dickinson may indicate with the dash. The point can be extended to suggest that these maneuvers are really what distinguish poetry from other forms of literary expression. A negative way to account for the unrivaled degree of imaginative freedom in poetry is to point out its exemption from both the rules of nonfiction, which would include—a reader would hope—logic, credibility, sequence, even research, as well as the rules that guide traditional fiction such as plot development, verisimilitude, consistency of character, and the like. Poetry—thank the poetry gods—is not obliged to show how a character goes about overcoming a set of obstacles to achieve a worthwhile goal, to echo a standard definition of the story.
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