What is a poem about? Some people start to talk about the ideas that the poem is conveying, but equally important are the words that the poem is using to convey them. I’ve said it before many times that the poet works hard to choose the right words to convey the right ideas, so when we read the poem we need to be aware of every word used, but not just the connotation of the words, but also the dictionary definition of those words.
On January 30th’s post I talked about William Carlos Williams’s very simple poem “This is Just to Say”. I differed with the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Edition, Kennedy) and said that it was a poem where the interpretation is up to you. The textbook states that it’s a simple poem just saying exactly what it’s saying. The poet enjoyed some plums and they were delicious. But in both interpretations the words are to be taken as is – they mean exactly what they are saying. There is no connotation. But how do we know when this is the case?
This takes a close and careful examination of the words chosen for the poem. Do the words chosen fit? The poet said he ate the plums (something that can be eaten), not a brick wall (something that cannot be eaten). Are there any statements that contradict that these were something other than plums? He describes them as cold (straight from the icebox) and delicious, so far they just sound like plums. What if he had described them as spinning and purring? That would contradict the dictionary definition of “plum” (especially since they are inanimate objects) and we would be forced to see the plums as something other than plums. We would have to assume that they were being used to indicate an idea that relates to plums instead of being actual plums. We would have to think about what plums connote – summer, jam, wine, bounty, sweetness (you can come up with many ideas). But the poet is then trying to lead you to a specific set of ideas using the words that lead up to the plums and the ones that follow.
The dictionary definition is important, and always focus on specifically what the word means – what exactly is the meaning of spindrift (the dictionary defines it as “spray skimmed from the sea by a strong wind”), so when the poet uses this exact word what is he saying exactly? He wants you to imagine spray in the wind. This is an important image for the poem.
But so are the connotations, what does the word spindrift seem to say? What does it suggest? its two different words – spin and drift what does it mean when the ocean spins or drifts? It could also suggest something similar that in essence drifts on the wind – the smell of salt and the sea, a seabird, thoughts (well, sort of).
In the poem “Fog”, we have the poet describing something real (clouds that have condensed on land) and describing it using terms that connote its physical existence.
Fog does not have feet, more or less cat feet, so we assume that what he means is that it approaches the way a cat approaches, quietly and with grace. When he describes the fog, he writes that it “sits”, but it seems an awkward term for something that does not have a backside. This gives us the image of a large lump of cloud on a hill that sort of resembles a man or… a cat lounging on a sofa. He also states that it looks over the harbor and the city (something else clouds cannot do) – now we can see the position of the cat’s head. This can bring up all sorts of connotations. When a cat looks at something, it can be watching out of curiosity or concentrating on its prey readying to pounce, but he does not linger on this look, so we assume it passes quickly. He talks about how it sits on its haunches. The word “haunches” is most often used to denote an animals backside and not a human’s, so therefore the words we’ve been given show us that not only does he see the fog as a cat, but that it also behaves as a cat does. It looks at the city and then moves on now that the city has no more interest to it.
by Carl Sandburg
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.