The power of poetry and the pleasure of interpretation: case study

The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate two crucial points about poetry:

  1. that what any given poem is able to do depends on the way it is put together (which is to say that what poetry makes happen is determined by how it is made)
  2. that the reason a poem can be interpreted in a number of different ways is not so much because its content can elicit different responses from different people (though this is true as well) as that its formal properties elicit different responses from different people and give each of us a slightly different vantage point from which to experience and interpret the material it contains

In order to see how these two things work for ourselves, we will be taking Emily Dickinson’s poem 657 (‘I dwell in Possibility’) as our case study. This is a poem about poetry and it claims above all that poetry is superior to prose. As we will see, the poem bases this claim more on what it regards as the superior manner in which poetry is put together than on any putative differences between the language and themes of poetry and prose.

Your first task is to read the poem carefully until you feel you have acquired a clear sense of what it is trying to say:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
 Your second task is to
  1. Identify what the poem says about poetry
  2. Identify the degree to which the poem ‘does what it says’ – i.e. to identify the degree to which this poem itself contains and demonstrates the powers and qualities it ascribes to the house of poetry in general

In order to accomplish the second of these tasks, you might find it helpful to compare and contrast the poem with both a paraphrase and a prose version of it in the manner advocated here.

Your third task once you have completed the other two is to watch the following video, in which I offer my own analysis of how I believe this poem ‘does what it says’ and uses the distinctive formal properties of poetry to demonstrate its claim that the experience of reading a poem is completely different from the experience of reading a work of prose. (I will leave it to you to decide which –  if either – is better):

Hopefully our study of this poem has established the first of the two points we wish to demonstrate: that what a poem makes happen is determined by how it is made. Now it is time to demonstrate the second point we wished to make: that the formal properties of the poem do not bring with them any pre-determined meanings, but that these meanings emerge during the process of reading the poem and vary from one reader to another.

This brings us to task four, which involves watching the video below. This shows a group of students taking the ModPo (Modern Poetry) course at the University of Pennsylvania conducting a close reading of Dickinson’s poem with their tutor, Professor Al Filreis. It offers a nice example of the first, ‘brainstorming’ stage of literary analysis, in which you go through the poem word-by-word and seek to extract the possible meanings of every single word (organising all of these ideas into a coherent reading comes later). The discussion illustrates how even what might at first sight seem to be the smallest aspects of a poem are capable of being interpreted in a variety of stimulating and significant ways that can radically alter one’s understanding of the whole poem. The students and their tutor talk for the most part about the poem’s vocabulary, although between 15:55 mins and 16:55 mins Professor Filreis makes some interesting comments about the form of the poem and how this relates to Dickinson’s ideas about poetry and society more generally. As he rightly indicates, one of the reasons Emily Dickinson’s poems look and sound so very different from those of her contemporary Walt Whitman, is because they had very different ideas about the role poetry plays in human life and human society.

This completes the ‘Introduction to poetry’ unit. If you wish to return to the beginning of this unit, click here. Alternatively, go back to the front page of the poetry module or forwards to the next unit: Elements of poetry.