“The Tyger” and thoughts on poetry
I was thinking of this poem yesterday, as I was doing laundry. Doing laundry is a good time to reflect, IMO.
Poetry inspires in me all kinds of hopes and fears and joys. I decided that delving into poetry is a lot like enjoying wine. The experts tell you to just drink what you like, like there is no right or wrong. However, there also exists the world of wine full of sommeliers who tell you that it’s not “Willamette Valley,” it’s “Wull-AH-m’t Valley” when one is trying to find a wine one likes in the hoity-toity food store… IOW, even though the knowledgeable ones will insist on simply drinking what you like, it turns out that there really is a right way and a wrong way in which to enjoy wine, and the World of All Things Wine can be quite an inhospitable place.
But for those who understand the ways of wine, and who take the time to educate themselves, the World of Wine can be quite rewarding and enjoyable. So it is with poetry.
I hardly deem myself knowledgeable about poetry (or wine, as evidenced by the steward’s gentle — but needed, apparently — correction). However, I have tasted a few of its joys, and I wish to know more.
I fully remember being six years old, and in Mrs. Gibson’s first grade classroom, and opening my literature textbook (which, incidentally, I think are largely travesties — go read the whole book, silly, not just an excerpt!!) to discover Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing.” It took my breath away. I was agog that someone could so adeptly capture the rapture of swinging. To this day, I remember the picture that accompanied the text.
Yet, the education I received was largely unappreciative of poetry, and I can say with certainty that I, unless I look it up on Wikipedia, have no idea what iambic pentameter is. I’m surprised that I actually know what a couplet is.
I love language. I love that I was born into a family of English-speakers. So difficult and rich and complex, history-laden, and derivative language that it is. There’s always more to learn when it comes to the English language. I love how poetry can evoke the most powerful and wistful emotions in, often, just a few words.
However, I’m so obtuse. I’m so broad. I am slow to pick up inference (or never do). I don’t get the hints and the things alluded to so often in poetry. I, unless I make effort not to, read things at face value, which means I often miss what the author intended, sometimes aware that I’m not “getting” it, and sometimes blissfully ignorant, not knowing that I should be embarrassed about my stupidity.
Poetry can do that: it can make me feel stupid and lacking in depth. Or emotion. Or something else unknown to me.
All that said, I still cautiously pursue poetry. When schooling my boys, when we read poetry, we don’t just fly through it once and tick off the box: “Done!” I generally read it once, then we discuss any unknown words, or what the author might have meant by such-and-such. We discuss the rhyming pattern, if any. We sometimes clap out the syllables to see if the author holds himself/herself to a certain rythm. I might have one or the other boy read it… then, armed with all our investigative knowledge, I have them close their eyes and relax, and I read one last time. I’m thrilled when my boys, through my limited-knowledge-instruction “get” it. My heart leaps when they beg, “One more! One more!!”
The current book of poetry that we’re reading through is Classic Poetry, An Illustrated Collection, selected by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Paul Howard, whose drawings evoke the era and emotion of each poem. The book is put out by Candlewick Press, which seems to have a special place in its heart for all things lovely and artful. The pictures are beautiful, and there’s a short biography of each poet. It’s really a well-done book, directed at children, but worthwhile for anyone, really.
We came upon the poem illustrated above (though that pic is from Wikipedia) by William Blake, called “The Tyger.” (Honestly, I was introduced to William Blake by one of my quirky no-one’s-ever-heard-of-‘em bands, Daniel Amos/DA in this lovely song by musical genius Terry Scott Taylor.) Since we recently read through A Child’s Garden of Verses by Stevenson, we had discussed how an author’s accent can cause words to rhyme that, according to our Arizona pronunciation, don’t rhyme at all.
So! To (part of) the original point of this post — Blake has rhyming couplets in this whole poem. Yet, he ends the first and last stanzas with “eye” and “symmetry.” Blake wrote in the late-18th and early 19th centuries. Back then, and with an English accent, did those two words rhyme? We read it both ways: “symme-TRY” and “symme-TREE.” The first sounded funny/odd/senseless, and the second did not flow. We know that not all poems have to rhyme, but when a poem is written in otherwise obvious couplets (bright/night, art/heart, spears/tears), it’s apparent that, somehow, it’s supposed to rhyme. In all other ways, it’s such a powerful and beautiful poem. We also discussed the idea that, back then, there was no photography, no video. It would have been a rare and spellbound person who actually saw a tiger. We are so satiated with images that even the tiger, readily seen at zoos, holds not the mystery that it did for William Blake. He was completely unjaded, unabashedly awed.
- Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
- In the forests of the night:
- What immortal hand or eye,
- Could frame thy fearful symmetry!?
- In what distant deeps or skies
- Burnt the fire of thine eyes!
- On what wings did he aspire?
- What the hand dare seize the fire?
- And what shoulder, and what art,
- Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
- And when thy heart began to beat,
- What dread hand? And what dread feet?
- What the hammer? What the chain,
- In what furnace was thy brain?
- What the anvil? What dread grasp,
- Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
- When the stars threw down their spears
- And watered heaven with their tears:
- Did he smile, his work to see?
- Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
- Tyger, Tyger, burning bright,
- In the forests of the night:
- What immortal hand or eye,
- Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
All food for thought. Or, drink for thought. Marina Tsvetaeva agrees with me, likening her poems to wine:
Scattered in bookstores, greyed by dust and time, Unseen, unsought, unopened, and unsold, My poems will be savoured as are rarest wines – When they are old.