“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.

I have had little love affairs with other poets:  Rumi, Kahlil Gibran and Marina Tsvetayeva, most notably.  And, I write poetry, but not nearly so much as when I was younger.

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.

About Karen Joy

I'm a partially-homeschooling mother of six -- 3 boys ages 19, 17 and 15 years old, and three girls: 11, 8, and 3. I like birding, reading, writing, organic gardening, singing, playing guitar, hiking, the outdoors, and books. I very casually lead a very large group of homeschooling families in the Phoenix area. I have a dear hubby who designs homes for a local home builder and who is the worship pastor of our church. I live in the desert, which I used to hate, but now appreciate.

Posted on March 13, 2007, in Art, Books I'm Reading, Homeschooling, Introspective Musings, Poetry, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Wonderful poem, isn’t it? The most brilliant moment to me is of course:

    When the stars threw down their spears
    And watered heaven with their tears

    About which the well-known scholar and critic Stephen Booth gave an hour-long impromptu lecture one day that I will never forget. Well worth seeing Blake’s works in person as well.

  2. rubber chicken girl

    I tried unsuccessfully to start a book club for ignorant wannabes…..I wrote of books scattered languishing all about ones shelves–UN-LOV-ED (see So I Married an Axe Murderer for correct pronuciation)….I don’t get poetry so I often ask DH to ‘splain it to me. You also need to be married to an Oregonian to correctly pronounce Willamette. ;O)

  3. rubber chicken girl



  4. Poetry. I love it, don’t write it, have tried to read a poem a day to the boys so maybe they’d appreciate it. I discovered the poetry of Ruth Bell Graham. I will show you her book when you come. She is deep, but a mom with struggles and fears. I can so relate to her and cherish her poetry. In school I think I learned to despise poetry because I had to descipher it. But I am growing up and appreciating good coffee and good poetry.

  5. Nice post! I dig that tyger poem. I always say symme- TRY in my mind but I think Blake was probably just cheating a bit on his rhyme scheme. I wrote a post on a similar theme awhile back— it has some links to poetry stuff at the bottom that might interest you.


  6. Actually, you’ve hit on something very important here. Seeing how words in old poems rhyme is a trick used by historical linguists to deduce how they were originally pronounced. I read this poem to my class and they instantly picked up on the non-rhyming couplet.

    It turns out they were more used to this than they thought. Many of the kids in my class are used to going to churches where the metrical psalms are sung in worship. I pulled out a Bible and read a few random verses. There are MANY which don’t rhyme using modern pronunciation. Funnily enough, the most common non-rhyme seems to be words ending in ‘y’ like ‘abundantly’. Presumably, this was once pronounced as ‘abundant-lie’.

    Bill Bryson talks a LOT about this kind of stuff in ‘Mother Tongue’. If you’re in the slightest bit interested in the evolution of the English language, especially in America, it’s well worth getting hold of. Great book.

  7. Robert ~ I’ll have to visit your blog again. I only had a few minutes to peruse it last night, but you’re an interesting and unpretentious poet. I love those lines, too, of Blake’s. My boys and I thought it was likely he was speaking of lightning and rain. Think you?

    Shellie ~ You’re incorrigible. 😛 I think why Gibran appeals to so many is because of the indistinct deity to whom/of whom he wrote so frequently. It makes his works suitable to folks of varying beliefs. I don’t think that makes him necessarily wrong, though… I had forgotten that D was from Oregon. So, I guess you could have asked for a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley with your head held high, confident of your pronunciation. 🙂

    Lisa ~ I do look forward to sharing your company with coffee & poetry. 🙂 I think, too, that there is a fine line, easy to cross, which separates a “good” working knowledge of something, into the plodding decipering that rips the joy and beauty from poetry. I TRY not to cross that line w/ my kids!

    Erin ~ I was interested in how you’d react to this post. I think, of all the things at which you’re… better than me, your knowledge of, and appreciation for poetry is the most intimidating. I tend to do that: Instead of getting inspired and excited to learn from someone else’s expertise, I get a little cowed by my lack. Sorry. 😦

    Iain ~ LOVED your comment. I had suspicions about the “original” pronunciations… I think language in general used to be much more flexible than it is now. Much as I’m fond of Noah Webster, I think that the advent of the dictionary had its good points AND is regrettable ones. ALSO, funny that you should mention Bill Bryson. Waiting at the library for me, on hold, right now, is a copy of his book “Notes from a Small Island.” I plan on taking it on my impending trip.

  8. That was a really lovely post, Karen Joy. Thanks.

  9. rubber chicken girl

    I found this on Wikipedia….I guess that is part of the reason I don’t dig Gibran:
    Juliet Thompson, one of Khalil Gibran’s acquaintances, said that Gibran told her that he thought of `Abdu’l-Bahá, the divine leader of the Bahá’í Faith in his lifetime, all the way through writing The Prophet. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s personage also influenced Jesus, The Son of Man, another book by Gibran. It is certain that Gibran did two portraits of him during this period.[1][/quote]

    Also, DH’s hippie parents, being loathe to give their son up to Christendom, sent him a copy in about 1997 and the inscription read:

    “Remember your roots.”
    IOW remember you are from Eastern thought, somewhere between Hare Krishna and Hindu. Garumph!

  10. The printed poem above fails to capitalize Lamb. This is easily verified by looking at the photo of the original printing. Blake capitalized “Lamb”, deliberately using Christian symbolism of Christ.

    • I’m not sure, Mr. Davis, how it is that you happened to find this post from three years ago, and I must admit that I think it’s pretty contentious to go posting corrections on others’ blogs. Also, I have frequently observed the fairly random capitalization that many 100+ year-old literary works contain. However, in this case, you’re likely right (even though the print at the top is not “original” to Blake’s time), given Blake’s well-known Christianity. Duly noted and changed.

  1. Pingback: Clock-a-Clay, John Clare, more unrhyming rhyme, and being too content « Only Sometimes Clever

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