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Learning poetry through reverse engineering a poem

Published on September 27, 2022


Learning poetry through reverse engineering a poem

Naomi Pandey
Shiv Nadar School, Noida- 12 IB

Growing up, poetry was definitely a very important art form to me. Around me, I saw many people who were equally as passionate as I was, if not more, about poetry. My head would constantly be swimming with ideas, pen always jotting down streams of consciousnesses on discarded sheets of paper. Thinking it to be the greatest piece of art I may ever create. 

And then… picked apart that same piece of paper a few days later and making a face to signify exactly how unimpressed I was by it. 

Poetry isn’t that easy. It’s easy to write a poem that feels good at a particular moment but when you read it shortly afterwards, something always seems to be amiss. That thing, in most cases would be nuance. The words are all simple and straightforward. There are a few phrases that are mildly interesting, but apart from that, everything seems unappealingly mediocre. 

One day, however, I realised, that was kind of the point. That was step one. The raw ideation of a poetic idea. Something worth working upon. The fallacy was not the mediocrity, no, instead it was harshly judging a work in progress. 

The next step could be to work on it yourself or maybe, to find inspiration somewhere else. 

Whenever I asked my favourite English mentors for writing advice, it was always to read all sorts of literature I can get my hands on. It sounds fairly clichéd but to no one’s surprise, it absolutely works. When you read more, you expose yourself to new ideas, and sometimes, to different interpretations of the same idea. Different ways the same idea is conveyed through different words. The different ways are somehow breathtakingly beautiful in their own right. 

Apart from that, you expose yourself to different writing styles. There are so many. Do you want to be structured? Do you want it to rhyme? Do you want it to form a shape across the page? Do you want it to be all over the place? Do you want it to be guarded or transparent? Complex or simple? Self-aware or completely unaware at all points? From the eyes of a random girl or through your own eyes? 

What this does is help you find what styles resonate the most with you and feel true to you. 

A very profound poem that shaped me as a budding and growing poet was “What Kind of Times are These”, by Adrienne Rich. Adrienne Rich was one of the most prolific American poets during the late 20th century, having won numerous accolades for her influential writing. A devout feminist and a deeply vocal writer, her writing leaves a deep impact on readers. 

Moving forward, I will be reverse engineering this poem, so as to unpack how such a piece of writing was formed in the first place.

The universe of this poem

Although there’s no set rhyme scheme, this poem is divided into four stanzas of four lines each. There is no uniformity in the length of the paragraphs or the lines, however, Rich uses her structural division to add suspense to the poem. 

Each of the first three stanzas, in and of themselves, develop unanimous crescendos of mystery and thrill. It is clear that the poem is political, Rich talks of nature. Of trees meeting, of woods, of roads, of shadows and of lights and this greatly contributes to the tone of the poem. Airy yet determined. Confused, yet sure. Like an oxymoron or a paradox. 

In the first two lines: 

“There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows”

Rich uses alliteration in “grass grows” and “revolutionary road”, which provides this sensory pleasure garnered upon reading this poem, which along with its vivid imagery, paints a picture in the reader’s mind. Another important element of these two lines is the motif of a ‘tree’, because this will come up later in the poem.

“I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.”

At this point, it becomes clear that Rich is addressing you, the reader. She’s telling you that this ambiguously dreadful and hidden secret that she is trying to unfurl, this mystery, it is nowhere else but here, beyond the reader’s line of sight. It’s clear that this is specifically about America, however this could apply easily in today’s context. Today, where we still see and feel that something is missing, that something is not right and that something might go horribly long. Today, we still feel a storm is brewing but we have no idea from where. This is not somewhere else but here. Addressing the reader makes this poem a special and intimate experience, where now, as a reader, you feel singled out and what’s more, you feel even more immersed, even more involved.
“I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.”

The third and penultimate stanza adds even more to the tension, that eerie feeling of dread that you can’t put to words- this poem is especially compelling because it is so open to interpretation and it doesn’t tell you how to feel. It doesn’t tell you to be happy or sad or scared or angst-filled or full of empathy. Yet you feel those emotions, because you don’t have to be told anything.

The imagery furthers the beauty of this realm. This place is like a misty mountain behind an abandoned road, next to a century old well. This place is like a destination where the sky is perpetually grey, foggy and misty, but then again, this place is nowhere else but here…

Full Circle

“And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.”

What is even more resonant about this poem is the way it ends. Not with talks of war, bloodshed, violence or carnage, but with this sense of earnestness. When the tree motif came full circle the first time I read this poem, all the hair in my body stood up, and now, as I write this, they still are. When things come full circle, a motif, an idea, a melody or a theme, it never really loses its charm. 

The ending is like a partially resolved chord to end a song with, like Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a film). Yet, it’s the perfect place to end. The tapestry has been woven.

To conclude

Through this experience of reverse engineering a poem, I hope to bring forth a set of points you might want to consider for your next poetic venture. Of course, it’s not necessary because every writer is different, but this points could still be important to keep in mind:

  1. Do you have a structure and does it have a meaning?: do your stanzas, line breaks, rhyme schemes and forms have something deeper to them. Maybe having another layer could help provide depth to your next poem
  2. Do you use any sensory or literary nuances?: playing with the phonetics of a word, wordplay, alliteration, anaphora, asyndeton, similes or metaphors can be fun- but it would also be important to make sure it fits in well with the rest of your words
  3. What is the atmosphere like and how do you set it?: This poem has a suspenseful tone, but what is your poem’s tone, mood and atmosphere? How will you bring it forth? With imagery, structure, poetic devices, form or something else
  4. And finally, do you want your writing to be open to interpretation?: Although this poem is politically charged and has its own historical context, it is still quite open to interpretation and has both a personal and global significance because of its metaphors and imagery being of nature and secrets. Do you want to write about something specific or do you want your poems to have multiple meanings.

Conclusively, I would suggest finding other poems that are special to you and reverse engineering them and who knows, maybe you find something life changing and special there!

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