Second Thoughts: The Dissection of a Body of Work
Analyzing poetry is like performing an autopsy. The assiduous dissection of flesh and bone by the pathologist, looking at the body that tells a story of life and death—looking at certain parts that capture a fleeting moment in time that nobody but the person lying cold on the table was privy to. It is a meticulous task that demands a steady hand and a keen eye, you must see minute details, the ways in which the molecules whisper the person’s fate with the death of each cell. You must take every bruise and scratch into account before you draw the final conclusion.
Though it may sound harsh, I think the act of analyzing poetry needs this sort of precision and routine. It has certain steps one must learn to move through order to dissect it, and like a high school freshman in biology class to a frog, I will put on my goggles and grab the scalpel to make the first incision along the underbelly of the poem.
Something I noted in class was the summary of the steps to analyze a poem. It’s something that’s been discussed in my English classes since high school but is difficult to put into practice, and like the pathologist must perform an autopsy to declare the cause of death, I must perform these steps before I even begin to try and interpret any meaning from the poem.
The first step is always the most fun for me—to marginalize. I like the freedom that comes with it, just jotting down any observations I make about the text, usually done in a messy and informal fashion. Sometimes I will make profound connections from one stanza to the next, and other times its a word that I thought sounded funny. I will look at the bumps and bruises of the poem and jot them down without really looking any deeper than that—not yet ready to peel back the skin.
It is then time to understand the connotations of the poem—where was it born, where did it rest its head at night. It is important to find context for the language used, for example in my book of poetry I choose for the fourth project—Dark Fields of the Republic—Adrienne Rich makes note of many Jewish figures throughout the text. I look into the motives behind that, explore the contextual setting of the poem so that it may answer the question of, “why did the author write this?” The explications of the poem are then formed from this.
To explicate is to concern oneself with “the process of “unfolding” and of “making clear” the meaning of things, so as to make the implicit explicit”. This is where the meaning of the poem is revealed, in peeling away the epidermis and examining the way the blood once rushed through its veins, you begin to understand the cause of death. You apply the context to the literary evidence you have in front of you and it yields a meaning within the stanzas. Explicating evidence and data is a very scientific practice, but it is also heavily tied to literary analysis too. I find it so interesting how the word can be applied to both fields which are so often connected. This is similar to the analysis of the poem. In the same way one would analyze data or evidence, or in the same way a pathologist analyzes a toxicology report, the reader breaks the poem down and looks at all of its pieces laid out on the paper and forms a final interpretation from it.
Unlike the pathologist who has no room for error, one might say there is no error in interpreting poetry. There is room for variables and its what makes analyzing poetry very distinct from analyzing any other written document. There are key factors that must be understood and are largely irrefutable, but there will always be bits and pieces of the poem where the reader’s interpretations will differ.
Perhaps I’ve been listening to too many true crime podcasts, but I think the comparison between poetry and pathology is both humorous and disturbing, but none the less accurate. Poetics and science will always bump shoulders with one another, and there is a process in the creation and analysis of both.