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Poetry/Etymology and Historical Context


I am studying American literature in college and I am deeply troubled by my professor's teaching methods. He imposes a sexual connotation on everything. The most egregious example I can provide is his interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 656 (i.e. "I started early). He see's the entire poem as relating a sexual experience, though I and most of my classmates see it describing a walk on a beach. He interpreted the word "pearl" in the fifth stanza ("Would overflow with Pearl"), as semen — yes, semen! Knowing this to be a 20th century innuendo, I respectfully challenged him and asked him for evidence. He began quoting evidences in unrelated literature. I asked him for the etymology of the word "pearl" and what it meant to people in 1863. He suggested that perhaps Dickinson was the first to suggest this meaning within the word, which I felt was a stretch.

I've conducted my own research on the etymology of "pearl" using the online Oxford dictionary and have drawn the conclusion that the word did not carry that connotation in the 19th century.

So in the last class period, he went over different methods for analyzing poetry and specifically stated, while addressing me in particular, that he does NOT want cultural, sociopolitical, or historical context in our analyses, nor does he want etymological analyses in our essays. He specifically said he wants our interpretation in light of today's culture and meaning. After doing some research online, I could not find any information confirming this as a common teaching method. It seems to me that absent historical context and meaning, poetry (and practically all literature) becomes so subjective that it could mean anything to anyone ad infinitum. So basically, in my view, the poetry just becomes a cluster of words with little real meaning or value. Without having a real method for discovering what was in the mind of the author, what is the point? It just seems to lack logic.

Is this normal or common? What really is the purpose of interpreting poetry however it fancies oneself?

Dear Matty,

You are correct about poetry interpretation; your professor is incompetent and should not be in a classroom.  

I would advise you to drop that course and find a course with a professor who believes poetry has real meaning and is not just a clay-like glob of words.  If you decide to continue with this class, you should keep a log of his claims and write a detailed report to hand to his department head.  Such incompetence should not go unreported.  If you and other students in the class can join together on this effort, that would strengthen your position.

I wish you well and hope you can find a competent professor.  And I also hope you can get this professor out of the classroom; his views are so ludicrous that they trivialize the profession of teaching.

Hope this helps.


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Linda Sue Grimes -- Classic Poetry Aide


Please be aware that my field of expertise is "Classic Poetry." I do not study and write about Hallmark-Card type verse, doggerel, or pornographic versification.

I assist students/readers in understanding the poems most widely studied in high school and college English classes, for example, Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for death," A. E. Housman's "Loveliest of trees," Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming," Rabindranath Tagore's "The Journey," Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," Dana Gioia’s "Words." I direct students/readers to online poetry analyses and/or research sources.

I do not dispense advice on creative writing issues, such as critiquing poems or offering ideas for poems.

Something controversial or provocative about this subject:

Poetry is not so difficult . . . but the claim that "a poem can mean anything you want it to mean" is absurd . . . while there may be room for interpretation, poems are not like clay that you can shape into anything your choose . . . poets express feelings, thoughts, experience . . . the notion that anything a poet writes is as malleable as a piece of modeling clay is insulting and demonstrates ignorance of what poetry, nay language itself, is all about . . . language--including poetry and all other art forms--is about communication . . . if you denigrate "meaning" as a component of poetry, you fail to communicate . . . failure to communicate begins with the lazy mind . . .


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Maya Shedd's Temple

1967 Miami University, B.A. Major in German

1971 Ball State University M.A. German/English

1984 Ball State University M.A. English

1987 Ball state University Ph.D. American, British, World Literature, Rhetoric and Composition

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