Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rabbit Catcher by Sylvia Plath Part One

It was a place of force--
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into the hollow.
And the snares almost effaced themselves--
Zeros, shutting on nothing.

Set close, like birth pangs,
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.
The glassy light was a clear wall,
The thickets quiet.

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china.
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.

And we, too, had a relationship--
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.

Let me start off by saying that I love this poem. It speaks to me about an abusive relationship and how you can feel trapped by love.
But what makes me think that a poem about catching rabbits is about the perils of love?
Well lets take a look.
The first thing we can do is look at the Author of the poem. Once you become familiar with the work of a certain poet, you start to see similar themes in their works. Sylvia seems to have a very interesting view of love. That's something that shines through in a lot of her poems, especially the ones we have looked at so far.

Now lets look at the poem itself. If we remember our bases then we know how to tackle this new poem.

Step One: The read through. Read the poem through in its entirety to become familiar with it.
Step Two: Read for symbols. Take each piece and think about what it might mean and what it means to you.
Step Three: Read for understanding. Here we put all of the pieces together, what we know about the symbols, what we know about the Author, and what we know about ourselves.

Let's start at the very beginning. (A very good place to start.)
After reading it for the first time we see that the poem is talking about a Rabbit Catcher, someone that is setting traps in the woods and killing rabbits. It's an interesting topic for a poem. The first half is all about the setting, telling us where she is and how she feels. The last talks at last about the Rabbit Catcher himself and her relationship with him. She seems to be comparing herself to one of his rabbits.

Now, this is a longer poem so analyzing the symbols might take a little bit more time, but this poem is easier to understand than the last one, I promise.

For today lets start off with the first stanza, the first group of lines.

"It was a place of force--
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil."

The description here is just unreal. "It was a place of force." She feels gagged and blinded by the very setting and even her own hair. Everything about where she stands is working against her. Then it mentions the lights of the sea, the lives of the dead. Picture the way the sun sparkles on the ocean. Normally that's a beautiful sight but here, to her, it signifies something dark. The lives of the dead. From the title we can assume it the lives of the rabbits that the Catcher has killed. They are numerous, spreading like oil across the water.

It's the very first stanza and already we know how she feels, where she is, and what she's thinking about. She's opened up her heart and let us in with very few words.

Next time we'll look at more of the poem and read for symbols to understand what it means.

What do you think about this poem? If you have a symbol that means something to you, please share with us and leave a comment below!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Rabbit Catcher

The next poem we look at will be The Rabbit Catcher by Sylvia Plath. Before we get into it I want to show you what a poem looks like when I've finished reading it.

You can see the process here. When I have a question or don't understand something, I mark it down. When I have a theory or a comment I will always write it to the side. It helps me to better understand the poem and make it mine. 

There are a million ways to analyze poetry and this is just one. 
If you have a different way, let me know in the comments below!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Couriers Part Three

Last week we went through more of the symbols in The Couriers by Sylvia Plath to try and understand what this poem means. We saw how the second stanza mirrors the first and we began to see Plath's attitude towards love and matrimony. Today we'll look at the rest of the poem and see if we can hit our third Base: Reading for Understanding. If you're joining us for the first time you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

The Couriers by Sylvia Plath

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it. 

Acetic acid in a sealed tin?
Do not accept it. It is not genuine.

A ring of gold with the sun in it?
Lies. Lies and a grief.

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate
Cauldron, talking and crackling

All to itself on the top of each
Of nine black Alps,

A disturbance in mirrors, 
The sea shattering it's grey one--

Love, love, my season.

The last line we looked at was, "Frost on a leaf, the immaculate/ Cauldron, talking and crackling" and we saw how Plath was talking about empty promises and cold words. The next couplet reads, "All to itself on the top of each/ Of nine black Alps,"
"All to itself" is referring to the frost on a leaf. The frost covered leaf is alone on top of nine mountains. It's a strange picture, I grant you, but like the rest of the poem it is trying to convey an emotion.

The leaf is alone, which is symbolic, but it is also on top of each of the nine Alps. This suggests that on top of every mountain is a lonely frost covered leaf. This isn't something out of the ordinary, it isn't a one time occurrence. This betrayal of love is something that Plath believes is as inevitable as winter, as frost on the mountains. Winter will always come. Love will always be betrayed.

Then the last couplet: "A disturbance in mirrors, The sea shattering it's grey one--" The sea cannot shatter, but a mirror can. If you take something like the sea, something eternal and powerful, and shatter it, that is a powerful image. Maybe the love that she thought was boundless as the sea has ended. Since the sea cannot end, it must have been an illusion. She must have seen only what she wanted to see, her dreams reflected in a mirror that she mistook for the real thing. Maybe that's what the "grey one" is: The promises and gifts and words from the first stanza that she thought would never end. The bright outlook she must have once had in regards to love is now grey and shattered.

This has not been a very hopeful poem. Plath seems to be in direct opposition to love and all that goes along with it. But then we read the final line. "Love, love, my season."

Love, that is what the poem is about. Love, that is what she lost to the inevitable winter of betrayal. But love, even after all it's done to her, even after all she's gone through is still her season.

I cannot express how powerful this line is to me. The entire poem is about her bitterness. The whole time she is telling us why we must not fall for the trap of affection, why we will always lose what we once loved, why it will never end in a "happily after." But what she was really doing throughout this poem was telling all of these things to herself. She was trying to convince herself to let go, to stop being so emotional, to do what is clearly the logical thing and stop believing in something as frail and fragile as love.

She does not succeed. All of these words, all of these symbols cannot change the fact that the summer is not less beautiful because it ends. Even after all the grief and pain, love is her season!

Picture yourself in High School. There's someone you've got a crush on, even though you know you shouldn't. Maybe they're dating someone else, maybe you're from two different worlds, either way you know it's not a good idea. That's what you're telling yourself, in this poem. There's no hope, you'll never be together, you'll never live happily even after, so why bother? This is your rant to your best friend, this is your journal entry trying to will yourself to like someone else or to magically become a Vulcan so you won't have to feel your stomach drop every time your crush walks into the room.
But after you're done you realize the same thing that Plath does here. Love, even unrequited love, even love lost, is a wonderful thing. Even though sometimes it hurts to love other people, it's always worth it. It's worth the butterflies in your stomach. It's worth the secret glances with your best friend in the hallway, or the surprise when you run into your crush unexpectedly. There is something wonderful about love, even if it doesn't last.

This poem is, at its core, incredibly hopeful. Tennyson famously said,
"'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all."

I believe that. Sylvia Plath did too.

Now it's time for Base Three: Reading for Understanding. Base Three is something that I can't do anymore to help you with. It's something you have to do on your own.
We've looked at the symbols, we've analyzed the structure, you have all the tools that you need.
The next step is reading the poem again one more time, or twenty more times, and discovering what these words mean to you.

Words, books, and poetry belong to their readers. This poem, and every poem that has ever been written or ever will be, belongs to you now. It's up to you to hear what they say.

Until next time,

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Couriers Part Two

Last week we took our first look at The Couriers by Sylvia Plath. We learned the first two Bases of Poetry (Base One: The Cold Read and Base Two: Looking for Symbols and Structure) and started to look at the symbols Plath used in this poem. 
Today I want to go over the rest of the symbols to make sure that we understand them and then move on to Base Three: Reading for Understanding. 

Here is the poem again for reference. 

The Couriers by Sylvia Plath

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it. 

Acetic acid in a sealed tin?
Do not accept it. It is not genuine.

A ring of gold with the sun in it?
Lies. Lies and a grief.

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate
Cauldron, talking and crackling

All to itself on the top of each
Of nine black Alps,

A disturbance in mirrors, 
The sea shattering it's grey one--

Love, love, my season.

Last time we looked for symbols that were familiar to us. The "ring of gold" is pretty easy to recognize as a symbol of love or matrimony, and the following line "Lies. Lies and a grief" gives us an idea of what Plath thinks of love in this poem.

Another tool we can use to help ourselves understand poetry is the structure that the poet uses. This poem is split into two stanzas, or parts. Each stanza is made up of three couplets. We can use these as clues. If the third couplet in the first stanza is talking about marriage, then the first two must be similarly about love.
The words of a snail might be talking about promises. Plath councils us not to accept them.
The acid in a tin is something the we should not accept. The image of acid is a pretty strong one to invoke for no reason. If it's sealed in a tin it means that we cannot see what is inside without opening it. She is suspicious of the gift, and maybe of all gifts in general, believing them to be traps.
In the third couplet I love that she says "Lies. Lies and a grief." as though she is talking about one grief in particular. "Lies and a grief" like it is a grief that she knows well, a specific grief caused by the promises and gifts she mentioned before.

The first stanza is all about how she feels about love. It suggests that promises, gifts, and matrimony can only lead to suffering. So what is the second stanza about?

"Frost on a leaf," Wait a minute, the first couplet in the first stanza mentioned a leaf too. The second stanza is mirroring the first. But this time instead of a snail on a leaf, there is frost. The imagery has gone from something sunny and promising to winter.
With such a contrast already in the first line it is asking you to keep the first stanza in mind as you read on.

Honestly, I found the second stanza to be as confusing as the first. If you're feeling that way, don't worry! All we need to do is look at our Bases.
First we'll look for symbols we can understand. The first couplet in the second stanza reads, "Frost on a leaf, the immaculate/ Cauldron, talking and crackling." Now, I don't know what an immaculate cauldron is, but frost talking and crackling is something that I do understand. Cracking ice makes a distinct sound that I can remember and instantly call to mind. The ice is talking here just like the snail was in the beginning. If the snail was meant to symbolize promises or words, then maybe the frost is too. Icy words are very different from the promises in the first couplet.
But what about "the immaculate cauldron?"

Immaculate is a word that my mother taught me. It meant "What your bedroom better be before you go outside and play with your friends." A Cauldron isn't something that we use very often these days, but we've lived through enough Halloweens to have a pretty good idea of what they look like. A Cauldron was a bot that you hung over the fire to boil water and cook soups. An immaculate cauldron would be one that was very, very clean. A clean cauldron is empty and wouldn't be left over a burning fire, the same way you wouldn't leave an empty pot on a hot stove.
We already decided that this couplet was talking about cold words and an immaculate cauldron would be empty and cold.

This is what I mean when I say that you have to spend time with a poem. The imagery isn't meant to be confusing or mystifying. The symbols that poets choose are there to help you personally relate to the emotions that they are trying to convey.

If Plath had wrote this poem instead this way:

All promises are lies
Don't believe them.

All gifts are deceitful
Don't take them. 

Love is suffering and empty words.

Her poetry would never have withstood the test of time. While it might have been easier to understand, all of the meaning and all of the connection we have to this poem is lost. While using a cauldron to convey emptiness may seem a little obscure, once you understand it's place in the poem you can almost feel the cold metal. The image of an empty cauldron alone in a dark room carries emotion with it.
But the most brilliant thing is the subjectivity of it. Words belong to those who read them. These symbols belong to you. They mean something different to you than they will to me, or to Sylvia Plath, or to your English teacher, and that is why poetry is so great.

Poetry comes alive for us. The same poem will live a thousand different lives in a thousand different ways.

Next week we'll really hit Base Three and finish the poem.

What do you think of this poem so far? Leave a comment if you have any idea about the end of this poem and what it means to you!

Teeth by Phil Kaye

This is Sarah Kay's partner Phil. Together they started Project Voice which you can learn more about here. 

Spoken word poetry is poetry that demands to be heard.

What did you think of this poem? If you'd like to see more videos like this one leave a comment and let me know!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Spoken Word Poetry

Some poetry is for reading, and some is for listening to.
This is Sarah Kay, a poet who specializes in a form called Spoken Word Poetry.
In this Ted Talk she reads one of my favorite poems If I should have a daughter, and explains why anyone can write poetry. She ends the talk with a final poem, as haunting as it is beautiful.

If you liked this poem and want to see more videos like this, leave a comment and let me know.

The Couriers by Sylvia Plath

The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?
It is not mine. Do not accept it. 

Acetic acid in a sealed tin?
Do not accept it. It is not genuine.

A ring of gold with the sun in it?
Lies. Lies and a grief.

Frost on a leaf, the immaculate
Cauldron, talking and crackling

All to itself on the top of each
Of nine black Alps,

A disturbance in mirrors, 
The sea shattering it's grey one--

Love, love, my season.

 Sometimes poetry seems distant and mystical and totally incomprehensible to anyone without an English degree, but that is just not true. Anyone can learn to understand poetry. That’s why I want to start with this: The Couriers by Sylvia Plath. I read through this poem three times with a baffled expression. I knew that she was trying to say something but I was at a loss as to what it was.
This happens. Do not panic.
I’d like to show you how I read poems to prove that anyone can understand poetry.

Reading poetry is different from a novel or a comic. You have to spend time with a poem and get to know it a little before it gives up its secrets. I guess you could compare understanding a poem to meeting someone at a bar… and baseball. Understanding the poem is your home run. That’s the end goal, but we've got a few steps before we can get there.

You've decided to read a poem. Whether this is for a class or for your own pleasure, this is First Base. This is where we read the poem for the first time in its entirety. Don’t worry about things you don’t understand just yet, you are becoming familiar with the poem. You've seen the attractive person a few seats away from you and decided to make small talk. This is a big step! A lot of people never make it this far.

On the first read-through of The Couriers it’s difficult to understand much. This poem isn't very talkative. It answers your questions with one word replies and absolutely refuses to discuss the weather. With such obstacles in your way it would be easy to call it quits. That YA Fiction novel in the corner booth looks much more pleasant. But you’re no quitter. Undeterred by this poems curt behavior, you decide to keep trying because you know that underneath its tough outer shell there is depth and meaning and beauty.

The next step is to read for symbols. This is Second Base where you've established familiarity and broken the ice. Now it’s time to ask the hard hitting questions. Let’s see what this poem is really about.
If the meaning of a talking snail on a leaf is not immediately apparent to you, it wasn't to me either. A tin filled with acid was equally strange, so I searched through the poem for something that felt familiar to me. “A ring of gold with the sun in it” seemed like a good place to start. A gold ring usually stands for marriage or love, and the sun is bright and happy. The line is probably talking about a happy marriage or some kind of relationship. But the very next line reads, “Lies. Lies and a grief.”
This is the first taste we get of what the poem means. 

In my next post we'll talk about the other symbols in this poem and what they might mean. 

What do you think of this poem so far? Leave a comment is there's a symbol you'd like to talk about!