The Writing Tutor: How to Love a Poem

Posted by Chris Schlegel on 9/10/14 10:16 AM

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Hands, do what you’re bid;

Bring the balloon of the mind

That bellies and drags in the wind

Into its narrow shed.


Hello, writing students!

I’ve just relocated from Iowa City to Somerville, Massachusetts, to start an English PhD program—Iowa through Indianapolis to Columbus, Buffalo, Albany, then Boston, with my stuff in a little white VW hatchback. Iowa is a beautiful place, not nearly so flat or unremitting as people imagine, and in the dark winters and the blue-white summers one finds oneself with plenty of time to take out books from the library and read them.

I was in a poetry program there, so some of my reading was “coursework”; but since the program was a creative one, almost anything could count as inspiration, and I tended to follow my nose. One day, in my second year, a friend of mine gave me a collection of William Butler Yeats’s poetry—a pretty, goldenrod paperback, with Yeats pictured prominently on the front.

Like some other people in Iowa, I had read W.B.Y. in high school and in college, only really the poems in anthologies: “The Second Coming,” which includes the line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (that of the “bee-loud glade”); and maybe a couple more. My familiarity with his work was minimal, but I did at least understand that Yeats—like Auden (whose name I once pronounced “Ow-den”) and someone named “Lord Tennyson”—was a person worth knowing about.

I thought I would take a few moments in this post to discuss one of the first Yeats poems I read during my second-year winter in Iowa City. It’s called “The Balloon of the Mind,” and is reprinted in its entirety at the top. Because the poem is short, it seems perfectly blog-able; and because it’s almost dizzyingly, nearly infinitely wonderful in its ramifications, it makes for a good introduction to a longer conversation about the study of literature, as well as an example of how studying poetry with a creative writing tutor can help your essay writing more broadly.

If someone were to hand me this poem and call it something else—say, a “blarg”—and ask me to make sense of it—and if I had never seen or heard of one of these blargs before—I would probably start with a few observations about its appearance. It consists of four lines, and the ends of the lines have some relationship to one another: more specifically, the first and the fourth, and the middle two, sound similar (bid / shed; mind / wind). One could call that relationship “rhyme.”

But bid doesn’t really rhyme with shed—it almost rhymes with it. Bed and shed would rhyme, but of course Yeats couldn’t ask his hands to do what they’re bed, and at any rate, the “almost rhymeyness” of bid and shed is, in a sense, more interesting—it points us toward the rhyme, while also making clear to the reader that the rhyme isn’t really present. Only its ghost is. Mind and wind are a variation on “almost rhymeyness.” Here, mind and wind look as though they ought to rhyme, but the words (owing to idiosyncratic English pronunciation) don’t actually rhyme. It’s a bit of a fake-out, because in this pair, as in bid/shed, the reader expects a rhyme and comes away with something not quite the same—same-like, if one may use the phrase. English teachers would call the bid/shed pair a “slant” or “half” rhyme, and the latter a “sight rhyme.” Yeats can do both.

The other blarg-feature I’d probably identify would be the length of the lines: namely, the fact that they appear about the same length (the same-like length). When I read the poem aloud, I also find something interesting:

HANDS, DO what you’re BID;

BRING the baLLOON of the MIND

that BEllies and DRAGS in the WIND

INto its NArrow SHED.

Each line contains three natural stresses and a number of “unstressed” portions that aren’t exactly fixed. Like the slant and sight rhymes, Yeats has inserted something like a “meter” (the word one uses to describe a blarg’s alternation of stresses) without overwhelming the piece with a ticking clock (there are, however, other blargs of his, and other blargs generally, that do have very fixed, starchy meters—ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM—and employ them brilliantly). Despite some herky-jerk moments here and there, this little blarg has three strong DUMs per line—and one of those stresses always comes in the line’s last word.

Then, after doing all this, I might check out what the blarg actually says, and how it goes about saying it. It begins with an address to an inanimate object (some English teachers would call this an apostrophe, although others would quibble, saying that apostrophe is directed to absent persons or objects distinguishable from the speaker; and the hands above, “doing what they’re bid,” are certainly a part of Yeats). The first line is a command: “Hey, hands: listen up; do what I say.” The second part of the blarg, the final three lines, are the actual order, and they’re transmitted as an image, or a single, concrete picture, conjured in language, but assembled visually in the mind. And the image also happens to be a metaphor, or direct comparison, since Yeats appears to be saying that the mind is a balloon.

Why a balloon? And what does this image-metaphor mean? That seems like a major component of the blarg’s beauty, as it is difficult to reduce the image and the metaphor to easy substitutes—a literary scholar would say the poem is “irreducible,” and cannot be expressed in paraphrased form. But another literary scholar might argue that that’s exactly what we’re doing anyway when we read a poem: we’re translating it into the complex network of our own ideas about writing, our own experiences in the world. So, with that in mind, I might venture to say that the poem encapsulates the feeling I have whenever I want to take an idea, or something larger than language, more cumbrous than language, and shove it into the “narrow shed” of—well, expression, or at least of organized thought. What Yeats seems to say, in this blarg—in part—is that ideas like to “belly and drag in the wind” for a while, as we attempt to gather them, or organize them. It’s the pulling “into the narrow shed,” done with the hands (the things that write, after all) that makes the ideas real. But in making them real, we also lose what makes them ideas: their unruliness, their “bellying and dragging” that’s so exciting in the first place.

There you have it: a few ideas on why I love, or how I go about appreciating, this poem of Yeats’s. Poem, now, not blarg—but I do think it’s an interesting exercise to remove the label “poem” from works so clearly identifiable as such: produced by canonized writers, written in lineated patterns, containing rhyme and other “poetic devices.” That’s why when I do English tutoring in Boston, I often involve poetry in my 1 on 1 tutoring sessions. It broadens us, and sharpens, too. There’s a whole technical language of criticism out there, and some of it’s useful, but some of it can obscure the things we already know about the works we read. That’s what I love about Yeats, even when he gives us only four lines: he’s also giving us all the information we need to make a great world of meaning. 

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Tags: creative writing, English