Alice B. Fogel, former New Hampshire state Poet Laureate, reads William Butler Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

What Is Ahistorical Reading?

Poetry has always been poetry. Sort of. Everything changes. In history, magic transformed into science. Alchemy became chemistry. Natural philosophy became geology and physics. Poetry too has changed. But it has not changed as radically as those other disciplines.

We can treat poetry as though it is one thing and that it has always been the same thing. And that makes sense because poetry’s fundamental job of exploring and understanding what it means to be human has stayed pretty consistent. We don’t want to say that this is the only job poetry has ever had. As we’ll see in later chapters, poetry has had many jobs. But it has always also had this job. Maybe that’s because we human beings have always been more or less the same. Certainly there is at least part of us that has always been the same.

In the course of this term, we will spend a lot of time following the changes in poetry over time. But for this week, we want to ignore those differences and think of all poems as just poems. We’ll treat a poem by Shakespeare the same way we treat one by Donald Hall.

We will assume that, despite changes, there is an unchanging element in poetry that responds to whatever is unchanging in ourselves.

What is “timeless” in human beings is sometimes called “human nature,” and when human nature is mentioned, it has generally been considered our essence, and sometimes capturing human nature in words has been described as the goal of poetry (and in fact of all literature). It is natural in humans to fear death, for example, and to love, to fall in love, to hate, to seek justice, honor, dignity, power, and revenge; it is human nature to ask questions about existence and to seek answers. And all of these things are also subjects and purposes of poetry. Humans have presumably also always found comfort in meaning and in music. Poetry has provided these things too, always in response to these needs.

If in some ways people are always the same and poetry is always the same, then we don’t necessarily need to appeal to anything outside of a poem in order to understand it. We just need to understand the meaning of the words and of the sentences. Reading a poem without reference to when it was written or who wrote it means reading a poem ahistorically.

Students often find the idea of reading a poem ahistorically puzzling. Why wouldn’t you want to ask the poet what she meant to say when she wrote the poem? And why would you not want to look at the historical context in which a poem was written? If a poem is about slavery, wouldn’t you want to know if the poet was a slave?

While it’s true that knowing history and biography can be helpful in reading a poem, we can in fact understand most poems very well without any pre-knowledge of these things. Moreover, there are a number of reasons why seeking that knowledge may not be the best place to start.

  • As the poet Paul Muldoon says, “The idea that poetry comes from beyond oneself is vital.” In other words, according to Muldoon (and most poets) the writer is not the origin of his poems. Poets generally agree that they don’t know where poems come from. It could be the muse, it could be nature, it could be the unconscious, it could just be language. Poets are then, in an important sense, readers of their own poems. So they don’t necessarily have any better authority than anyone else to explain the meaning of their work. They are good and useful readers. But that is all they are. We might want their opinions. But we don’t need them.
  • History can mislead as well as clarify. At every moment in history an infinite number of things is happening. You could potentially choose any number of things to help read a poem. But how do you know which are relevant or how any one thing should be used to understand a poem? If you choose the wrong one, you will probably go in the wrong direction in your interpretation. Until you have gone as far as you can into understanding a poem without invoking history, it’s usually best not to invoke history at all.
  • If you do need to call up history, the history you need to call up is probably already in the poem. If for example the fact that the author was a slave is relevant to the understanding of the poem, that fact will probably be revealed in the poem itself. We’ll see specific examples this when we look at poems in the video lecture. So it’s a good strategy to look very carefully at the words of the poem before looking for anything outside the poem.
  • Invoking history and biography will tempt you to assume the poem you are interpreting is about someone else from some other time. But in the most important sense, poems are not about other people at other times. They are about you. They invite you to see and experience yourself and your life differently. Invoking history and biography will tempt you to divorce yourself from the essential experience the poem has to offer.

We do want to be clear: history and biography can be useful. But they become useful after you have read the poem as thoroughly as you can without them. They are rarely essential for understanding poems. Start with the poem itself. Most of the time you’ll find that this is enough for a sound, satisfying understanding.

As we said above, certain features of poetry make it possible to think of poems as always and everywhere the same thing. What are those things? We must start with one that seems so obvious it might seem not worth mentioning: the word “poetry” itself and its related words (poet, poem, poetics). William Shakespeare in the sixteenth century may not have been doing exactly the same thing in many respects that Donald Hall in the twenty-first century did when he wrote a poem, but certainly he wasn’t doing something entirely different either. And both poets were aware of the fact that they were writing a thing they called a poem, making a work of art out of written words. The word itself carries a certain degree of sameness.

The second and third thing may also seem obvious: the look and sound. Although it is not quite universal, the vast majority of poems are defined to a great extent by the line—that string of words that starts on the left side of the page and never seems to make it all the way to the right side. Nearly all poems look different on the page from the way non-poems look.[1] You can usually recognize poems just by looking at them. While this does not absolutely define poetry, it is one nearly universal feature of poems. Most poems also use the resources of rhythm and sound in such a way that you can recognize a text as a poem even if you are not looking at the words on the page but just hearing them read.

We’ve already pointed to two other features as well: subject and function. While it’s certainly true that poetry does not always and everywhere focus on the same subjects and doesn’t always do exactly the same thing, it’s equally true that certain subjects and functions persist over time. We’ve always had love poems. We’ve always had patriotic poems. We’ve always had poems about death and war and religion. And poems have always helped us understand and invited us into shareable emotional experiences.

Poetry has also always explored and observed the human and natural world. It has always tried to find answers to the question of what it means to be human, and it has always worked to give readers or listeners a particular type of intellectual/musical pleasure. In last week’s lectures we called poetry “sensual language.” This is useful. But, like all the qualities mentioned so far, it cannot be absolutely defining. All language (which is always in some sense material even if it is restricted to your own private brainwaves) is to some degree sensual, and the best prose may sometimes exploit the sensuality of language better than some poetry, but along with form and subject, the concept of sensuality certainly helps us get an understanding of the things that throughout history have continued to be true about poetry.

When we talk about the poetry ahistorically, we must talk about poetry’s relationship to language in general, its particular ways of using language. It has often been said of poetry that it uses language most fully: The Romantic-era poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called poetry, “The best words in the best order.” More recently it has been said that poetry is “language at its best: Poets use its full potential, using more of it and using it to better advantage than we usually do” (Guth and Rico, Discovering Poetry). Of course not all actual poems manage this. But the best poems and poets do. And it is always the goal. One thing that makes something a poem is the striving for the fullest use of language. Poetry is language with a musical (sensual) side. It’s language that calls attention to itself as language, and that has a tendency toward creating an experience. Poems use language to create or express meaning, but the poem is not about that meaning itself as much as they are about a created experience.

This is how the language of poetry is different from the language of science for example.  If, in science, you explain Einstein’s theory of relativity well, you have done justice to the theory. There’s no need to read Einstein’s version. If you explain it better than Einstein did, then losing Einstein’s own explanation would be no loss at all. With science the point of the explanation is the understanding of the theory because the language of science is all about its meaning; the point is not the language used to explain it. It’s not even the E=MC2, even though the formula is elegant. Other letters tied to the concepts of energy, mass, and the speed of light would serve just as well; for the sake of explanation, a sentence would do the same job as the mathematical equation.

A poem is different. If you explain a poem, you have done some service to the poem. But you have not got the poem itself. You can only hope to “have” the poem by reading or experiencing the poem. A poem, unlike a scientific treatise, is never exclusively about the thing it says, its meaning. It’s always also about the way it says it. If you say the same thing in different words you have a different thing.

So when we read a poem, what we want is the experience the poem creates. And to get that, worrying about the history of the poem and the intention of the poet can be distracting. That is why, to start with, we are happy to ignore these distractions.

So does reading ahistorically mean that we are free to interpret poems any way we like?

Let’s be careful here. Before we can answer that question, we have to answer this more basic one: What does it mean to “interpret” a poem (or anything else)? To interpret is to read and understand. We tend to use the word “interpret” for things whose understanding is not obvious or that different people are likely to understand differently. “Interpretation” is not just something we do to poems or to art. Certainly poems require interpretation. But so does pretty much every sentence that you read. And the process of interpretation is not fundamentally different whether the sentence is written in a poem or an essay or a news article or your own private journal. It’s true that poetry takes greater advantage of the material aspects of language (its sounds and rhythms and its look on a page) than other forms of writing. And it’s also true that poems are more likely to use elaborate figures of speech than other forms of writing. But all types of writing not only use figures of speech, but they use exactly the same types that poems use—metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, etc. You use these and interpret these same figures every day without thinking. Moreover, all types of language, even science, use rhythm and sound as well. So the question of interpretation is fundamentally a question about language and not a question about poetry. The best poems may use all the parts of language to create meaning. But even so, there is nothing about the language of poems that is true only in poems. There’s literally nothing unique about the way the poems use language.

It’s true that everyone is, to some degree, different from everyone else. It’s also true that all people are to a large degree the same. We will all bring our unique perspectives to everything we do—whether that’s poetry or algebra. But if we didn’t also bring our sameness, communication would be impossible. In both poetry and math our uniqueness can be both a hindrance and a help. One way we are not unique is that we all speak the same language, English. And in English (as in all languages) words have established, accepted meanings that we can’t ignore if we wish to talk to one another. That’s as true in poems as it is in any other form of language. This means that it is possible to have a common understanding of a poem—of what a poem is saying. On its most fundamental level, the understanding of almost any poem is common (that is, shared) to all readers and the author of the poem.

In fact it is not only possible but in most situations necessary to have a shared understanding of the meaning of a poem, of what, in the most obvious way, it is saying, in order to interpret it. We must share as much as we can in order to open ourselves to where we can legitimately differ.

So let’s be clear: There are right answers and there are wrong answers when it comes to poems. But this doesn’t mean there’s only one right answer. In fact there is never only one right answer if by “right” we mean a complete or perfect or final or absolute answer. We can say a lot of true things about any poem, just as we can say a lot of true things about a dog. And we can always understand any poem better no matter how well we understand it now, just as we can always understand ourselves or friends or our lovers better. This is something we have to understand: although no answer is final or complete, it is possible to misunderstand a poem. And it is even possible for two people to misunderstand a poem in the same way. Let’s look at an example.

This poem is by Emily Dickinson:

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop—docile and omnipotent—
At its own stable door.

If we ask, “what is the poet describing,” you might reasonably respond, “a horse.” And you might explain that horses live in stables and they neigh and they feed at tanks—sort of. But if we tell you in fact she’s writing about not a horse but a train, you might see that much more of the poem makes sense. Things you ignored because you didn’t know how to fit them into your horse interpretation now make sense. Real horses don’t neigh “like Boanerges” (sons of thunder). And they don’t really drink from tanks. They drink from troughs. And a horse cannot as easily be said to chase itself downhill as a train can. In fact “train” makes “sense of every detail of the poem, whereas horse makes sense with only some. In short if you said, “this poem is about a horse,” your interpretation would be understandable, but it would be wrong.

What this means is that in an important sense what a poem says is probably not “open for interpretation.” But as for what it means, that’s different. We all need to agree about the basic meaning of the sentences. What the poem itself uses these sentences to mean (in a bigger sense) is not limited to what the sentences mean on their surface. We can talk as long as we like about that deeper meaning. Is Dickinson celebrating progress? Is there any sense of irony in her celebration of a train as though it were a living thing? (Is she really saying she doesn’t like trains?) What does it mean to call a train “docile and omnipotent”? If she likes to see it “lap the miles” does she like the sounds it makes too (“complain… in horrid, hooting stanza”)? Knowing what a poem is saying does not end the interpretation. This is where interpretation starts. Knowing what a poem is saying is just a matter of plain reading. Missing or skipping this step often causes students problems.

And what a poem is saying is not a riddle. If you don’t understand it immediately, there are various reasons for that, depending on the poem. The grammar of the sentences may be too complex and hard for you to follow. You may not know all the words. You may think you know the words but not realize these words are being used in a special or rare sense. You may not realize that a certain image is meant figuratively. And on and on. These problems can be easily fixed. If you don’t understand a poem, this is not a judgment on you or the poem. All you have to do is explore—which means, as a start, asking questions. Since the poem is not a riddle, the question of what it is saying is not what we are after in this class. There is no secret we’re trying to uncover. We may need to paraphrase the poem to show that we understand it. But that is where the discussion begins, not where it ends.

In almost every case, if you are confused about what a poem is saying, you will not be able to interpret it. And in almost every case, it’s easy to show you what a poem is saying. As with this Dickinson poem, the misunderstanding will probably be easily fixed.

Does this mean that all poems are paraphrasable? No. Some poets play with language in ways that make it impossible to come up with an adequate paraphrase. But these are rare. A paraphrase tells you what the poem is saying. But the meaning of the poem in a more profound sense is in what it is doing, not what it’s telling you, but what experience it is offering you. If a poem could be understood by its paraphrase, then there would be no point writing the poem. Confusing a poem with its paraphrase is like confusing a picture of a bird with an actual bird. You cannot experience an eagle by looking at a picture of an eagle or even a filmed eagle. And you cannot experience a poem through reading a paraphrase. But sometimes that paraphrase offers you a way into a poem.

But to be sure that we’ve clearly answered the question: reading ahistorically has nothing to do with interpreting a poem in any way you like. You are always free to say whatever the poem leads you to say. Sometimes you may be right, and sometimes you may be wrong. And sometimes you will find people who agree with you and sometimes you will find people who disagree with you. That’s true whether or not you’re reading historically or ahistorically.

[1] The word that defines almost everything that is not a poem is “prose.” It’s an important word; you’ll need to remember it. What you are reading now is written in prose.

Video Lecture: Ahistorical Reading

Some Poems:

Wyatt, “Whoso List to Hunt,” (Links to an external site.)

Howard, “The Soote Season”  (Links to an external site.)

Herrick, “Upon Julia’s Breasts” (Links to an external site.)

Bradstreet, “To My Dear and Loving Husband” (Links to an external site.)

Smith, “Sonnet: On Being Cautioned…” (Links to an external site.)

Burns, “A Red, Red Rose” (Links to an external site.)

Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” (Links to an external site.)

Keats, “This Living Hand” (Links to an external site.)

Tennyson, “Break, Break, Break” (Links to an external site.)

Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (Links to an external site.)

Hardy, “Neutral Tones” (Links to an external site.)

Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (Links to an external site.)

Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

An Introduction to Poetry Copyright © 2019 by Alan Lindsay and Candace Bergstrom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book