Language and Communication

Parsing Poetry and Public Discourse

I have been quiet over here because I have been using the summer to finish my manuscript of Rhythm: A Theological Category. I have now submitted the manuscript and expect to be entering into several rounds of revisions over the next year or so. The last weeks of developing the manuscript have involved dealing with a few interesting side issues related to rhythm in theology that I wanted to share here. In this case, I want to talk about parsing poetry and why it matters.

Since my methodology has involved categorizing approaches to rhythm in theology and philosophy according to approaches to poetic rhythm, I performed my own analysis of a poem according to different approaches, including using the layered grouping approach of Richard Cureton, which involved mapping out a variety of layers of the rhythm – meter, semantic arch (prolongation), and the groupings that mediate between them. Here’s what my, simplified version of Cureton’s method looks like applied to Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: InkedSynchronic perspective on hopkins-1_LI


I won’t go into all the details here of the analysis that I give in the book but I do want to draw your attention to one discovery that I made about this verse that I would have overlooked had I not done the work of pulling apart the layers. The most interesting part of the verse is lines three and four: “Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s/Bow swing finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” It’s interesting because of the discontinuity. The lines are enjambed, which means that the semantic beginnings and endings of the phrases do not match up with the beginnings and endings of the lines. At the same time, the meter (alternation of strong and weak) changes between these lines from a more stilted, punctuated meter represented here by triplets to a swinging meter that increases in speed, represented here by doubles.

Yet, what makes this section so interesting is that despite these metrical discontinuities, harmony is nevertheless maintained at higher levels, those of sound and meaning. Thus, the enjambment between the second and third line, with its drastically different beat, nevertheless involves a mirrored alliteration between the “r” and the “s” of “roundy wells” and that of “stones ring,” evoking a perfect pivot. This enjambed pivot, moreover, takes place within the larger pivot of the whole third line, which separates the strong-weak from the weak-strong alternations using triplets in a line that is enjambed on both ends. However, just as continuity is maintained in the first transition from lines 2 to 3 through alliteration, the shift from line 3 to 4 also does not disrupt the harmony, in part because of the rhyme between “tells” and “bell’s” and in part because the weak ending of the line facilitates a push into the strong meter of line four (corresponding semantically with “swung”). This rhyme likewise continues into the second half of the poem in lines 2 and 3 (“dwells” and “spells”), just as it appears in lines 2 and 3 of the first half, and just as “flame,” “name,” “same,” and “came” appear in the 1st and 4th lines of both halves. The rhyme between “hung” “swung” and “tongue” also continues across the lines to hold them all together despite the changes in meter and the enjambment, creating the most dense nest of rhymes in the verse thereby ensuring a strong harmony despite the multiple metric changes.

Had I not done the work of separating out all of these layers, had I not slowed down, I would not have understood how this nesting rhyme scheme was doing the work of maintaining harmony across the metric tension. I deal so often in large-sweeping theories that there was something refreshingly intimate about paying very close attention to one tiny, carefully-crafted bit of text.

But how much does this really matter? Why should anyone choose to spend their time identifying the minutiae of a poem’s rhythm?

On the one hand, it’s a practice that feels gratuitous, even luxurious. The world was coming down around us this summer, with threats of nuclear war, with protests and counter protests, and yet there I was, just reading this one verse over and over again, paying attention to a different layer each time. How does this help anyone? How was this not a self-indulgent use of my time?

On the other hand, however, I think poetic analysis is the sort of practice that could make all the difference. So many of our local and global problems are bound up with or exacerbated by a problem of discourse, which in turn, seems to me to point to problems of thought and character. We do not listen to one another well. We think that memes are arguments. We self-righteously shout, insult, deride. We do not really care enough to engage those with whom we disagree, preferring instead to play to our base. In short, we fire off the quick quips dripping with condescension and dismissiveness. We prefer the easy way. We live lives filled with so much distraction that we do not have the time, or perhaps we no longer even have the capacity, to sit with uncomfortable ambiguity long enough to listen, to sort out facts from fictions, good arguments from bad, both in our own positions and in those of the other. We do not pay attention to the messy particularities on the ground. We prefer the abstract caricatures.

Parsing poetry requires skills that are precisely the opposite of our collective, social-media knee-jerk reactions. It requires that one give one’s undivided attention to one tiny particularity, to listen very carefully, to pay attention to each layer, trusting that doing so will reward one with understanding. If such a practice replaced the social-media practice of snap judgements, what would be the effect on discourse? It seems to me that public discourse would improve if we started treating people and questions of our common life together like poems, namely with an attention of care, interest, patience. Where is the training arena for such an attention other than in practices like parsing rhythms?

It is fitting that the discovery I made in analyzing “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” was how Hopkins was able to maintain harmony through including tension. Perhaps, if we approach the rhythms of reality, of public discourse, through such careful analysis, we might likewise find ways of maintaining harmony amid the tensions.

1 reply »

  1. As a poet I found this to be intensely interesting. I think Hopkins would have found it interesting as well. But of the poets I’ve personally known none are aware of their work in the way you are. They are simply not that methodical. Which is NOT to say that they are not doing precisely what you have observed, only that it is not taking place at a calculated level but more likely at an intuitive aesthetic level of awareness in analytical thought. My appreciation of “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” has soared with your article.

    Liked by 1 person

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