The identification of a text as a poem triggered significantly more references to the conventional expectations as well as greater appreciation of aesthetic elements that add a layer of meaning. Students also spent longer thinking about the poem-shaped texts and rated the poems as more enjoyable, challenging, emotionally engaging, and as eliciting more imagery.Coming from a different direction, Reuven Tsur (1987) has proposed that Coleridge's Kubla Khan has features that include rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm, that give it a hypnotic quality, which he compares with some kinds of music.
At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA) Sarah Jackson of the University of Cumbria, UK, presented a paper in which she described a pilot study of four readers reading T.S. Eliot's poem Ash Wednesday. Here are the first four lines of Section V of the poem, (for which Jackson offered analyses).
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spentJackson had her readers think aloud as they read 19 lines of this part of the poem, and she presented summaries of their responses. For instance, Reader 3 offered: Lines 1-4: "confusion with no composition of place." Lines 5 to 6: "understanding starts after later processing." Line 7: "understanding starts on initial processing." Lines 8 to 10: "calm and stillness." Following Tsur, and offering analyses based on the kinds of stylistic devices he describes, Walker proposed that what readers were perhaps doing when they read Ash Wednesday was to take the apparently discrepant, and disorienting, parts of Eliot's text to form what she calls "a gestalt that characterized the whole as a meditative poem." My sense from the protocols she presents is of readers moving through confusion to moments of understanding, and of feeling moved.
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
I was reminded of Brian Stock's (2007) proposal, which I discussed previously on this site (click here) that some readers from medieval times up to the Renaissance followed an explicit practice of reading that Stock calls "ascetic," that is to say, designed to promote self improvement. Stock likens this Western practice of reading to Eastern practices of meditation. The Western—book-based—practice has two phases: first taking one's book, detaching oneself from the world, and reading the words to oneself, then second a reflection to make the meanings of what one has been reading parts of oneself. Before I heard Jackson's paper, I don't think I had heard the idea put directly that reading poetry is a form of meditation. Although the explicit practice that Stock describes may now be confined to people who each day read a devotional religious text, perhaps implicitly we adopt this kind of practice when we read poetry.
T. S. Eliot (1930). Ash Wednesday, in The Waste Land and other poems (pp. 55-64). London: Faber (current edition 1940).
Sarah Jackson (2009). Does Ash Wednesday enable a reader to perceive an altered state of concsiousness. Paper presented at the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009). Middelburg, the Netherlands.
Joan Peskin (2007). The genre of poetry: Secondary school students' conventional expectations and interpretive operations. English in Education, 41, 20-36.
Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Reuven Tsur (2006). Khubla Khan: Poetic structure, hypnotic quality and cognitive style: A study in mental, vocal, and critical performance. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Drawing of TS Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse.