Study Guide

Cleanth Brooks Quotes

The poet must work by analogies, but the metaphors do not lie in the same plane, or fit neatly edge to edge. There is a continual tilting of the places; necessary overlappings, discrepancies, contradictions. Even the most direct and simple part is forced into paradoxes far more often than we think, if we are sufficiently alive to what he is doing. [From The Well Wrought Urn]

You know what keeps me up at night? The idea that people might read a poem and just take every word at face value. I have a public service announcement: it's all about metaphors, and poems are chock full of them.

I'm not saying every single word is a stand-in for something else, but let's say you come across the image of a fork in the road in a poem (like in Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"). Think that's just a dusty old place where the road divides? If so, you're only half right. It also represents the decisions we must make in life.

Frost's fork in the road is pretty straightforward, but it's not always that cut and dried. Sometimes poems can be really contradictory, and that can make them more difficult to understand. Don't be afraid of contradiction and paradox—those things are supposed to be there, and once you get used to them, you find that they often make the poem more interesting.

Poetry gives us knowledge. It is a knowledge of ourselves in relation to the world of experience, and to that world considered, not statistically, but in terms of human purposes and values. [From Understanding Poetry]

Poetry isn't just words on a page arranged in a fancy way with a few charming references to tweeting birds and broken hearts (although, unfortunately, it can be that, too). Poetry is a way of understanding the world. Now, don't get me wrong— "the world" does not equal "the life of the poet"—it means the human condition, the common sorrows and joys and so forth of all humanity across time and space.

Poetry can also help us understand ourselves. After all, if poetry helps you understand the world better, it'll help you understand yourself better by default, and vice-versa. It's like each poem is an intricately crafted nugget of self-help. If you don't believe me, go read a few poems by Emily Dickinson (one of my faves).

Our students, many of them bright enough and certainly amiable and charming enough, had no notion of how to read a literary text. Many of them approached a Shakespeare sonnet or Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" or Pope's "Rape of the Lock" much as they would approach an ad in a Sears-Roebuck catalogue or an editorial in their local newspaper. [From "Forty Years of Understanding Poetry"]

I'm afraid this is a story told all too often by teachers of literature. Students are just so distracted these days with Twitter and Instagram—wait a minute, I presented this speech several decades before those were invented. Even so, the sentiment remains—but have students learned to read and appreciate poems yet? Never mind. Don't tell me.

I don't mean to diss my students. I've had a lot of smarty-pants kids in my classroom, but they never learned how to read a poem until they got to me. But my point is that even the smartest smarty-pants out there need to be taught how to read poetry. It's an acquired taste—you need someone to guide you along the way.

This book has been conceived on the assumption that 
if poetry is worth teaching at all it is worth teaching
 as poetry. The temptation to make a substitute for the poem as the object of study is usually overpowering. The substitutes are various, but the most common ones are: 1. Paraphrase of logical and narrative content;
 2. Study of biographical and historical materials;
 3. Inspirational and didactic interpretation. [From Understanding Poetry]

Apologies for the lengthy quotation, but if you want to get to know my ideas, these are some things you need to know. This is pretty much a quick and dirty primer on my main ideas. Basically, I'm saying: teach the poem, not the poet.

What do I mean by that? Well, let's say you're going to teach Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." My advice is not to talk about the causes of World War I or about Owen's upbringing and fear of rats and allergy to peanuts. Instead, talk about the speaker's (that's like a poem's narrator) experience in a trench, watching as someone staggers up to him gagging from the tear gas. Look at the words "guttering, choking, drowning"—they tell you everything you need to know.

Also, don't teach poems as if they were a set rules or morals to live by. That will just get you into a mess—especially if you're reading Coleridge.