“How a Poem Means” class takes on Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet”

Last night in my workshop “The Art of Craft” we began our discussion about how a poem means. Not “what it means,” but how poems work, how to pay attention to music, rhythm, sound, repetition, what happens at the end of lines, tenor, tone, and all such matters. The first poem we took on was Martín Espada’s “Alabanza,” and we talked our way through it for a good long while. (Watch Martín read it if you don’t know it already!)

Next we took on the Terrance Hayes’ poem “Sonnet”:

Sonnet
Terrance Hayes

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

Everyone read it aloud (which you should do, too, because the experience of reading the poem out loud is very different than having your eyes glance over it!). A few things about the poem we discovered:

1. By the time you are done reading the same line 14 times, you are SO over smiling. Which is, of course, one of the meanings of the poem.

2. Each line jerks you back and forth between two pairs of sounds, “we” and “watermelon” and “sliced” and “smiles.”

3. The similarity in sounds between “sliced” and “smiles” makes the latter seem not so much smiley at all.

4. The separation of the first twelve lines into 3 stanzas creates cycles of repetition, which both pace the poem and trap you in the nearly-never-ending cycles. And the last two lines, home of the volta in a traditional sonnet, promise a change or resolution. But this doesn’t happen in the words or sounds of the lines, which stay in the same, but in the finality of them. After the reading the line in sets of four, reading it only twice stops you, breaks the pattern, and that breaking IS the resolution of the poem. (or, as Ezra said, “We are SO not slicing watermelons and smiling anymore).

5. Watermelons are the physical and emotional center of the poem. If the slicing and smiling are over by the end, the softer sounds of the “we” and “watermelon” remain hanging in our ears.

6. And this (thanks, MJ!) which I had NEVER seen in the poem: the sounds of the word “sonnet” appear in order across each line. S in slice, ON in watermelon, T in into. Hayes is clearly using the sonnet form, by breaking it, to make a new kind of meaning, but at the same time harnessing the power of the form. Wow.

Next week we take on two different villanelles will discussing how syntax and voice create the spine and joints of a poem. There’s still space in the class if you want to join in! Register here: The Art of Craft Series

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How does a poem mean?

from Chapter One, John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

For “what does a poem mean?” is too often a self-destroying approach to poetry. A more useful way of asking the question is “how does the poem mean?” Why does it build itself into a form out of images, ideas, rhythms? How do these elements become the meaning? How are they inseparable from the meaning? As Yeats wrote:

O body swayed to music, o quickening glance,
How shall I I tell the dancer from the dance?

What the poem is, is inseparable from its own performance of itself. The dance is the dancer and the dancer is the dance. Or put in another way: where is the “dance” when no one is dancing it? and what man [sic] is a “dancer” except when he is dancing?

[…]

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized.

[…]

Any teaching of the poem by any other method owes the poem an apology. What greater violence can be done to the poet’s experience than to drag it into an early morning classroom and to go after it as an item on its way to a Final Examination? The apology must at least be made. It is the experience, not the Final Examination, that counts.