How Does A Poem Mean?

This below is the beginning of a famous essay by Canadian critic, John Ciardi. George Szirtes distributed a copy of it to the class when I was a new bug undergrad in what seems like yesterday but was actually 1994. This morning it emerged from the pile of junk beside my bed.

“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind, “your definition of a horse.” “Quadruped. Gramnivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer. “Now girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, “you know what a horse is.”

–Charles Dickens, Hard Times

The School of Hard Facts over which Mr. Gradgrind presided was a school of fixed answers. Mr. Gradgrind would have agreed with a recent anthologist who wrote that the inspection of a poem should be as certain as a chemical analysis. Mr. Gradgrind would have assured himself that he was a first-class critic, of poetry as of horses. “Now girl number twenty,” he would have said looking up from his analysis, “you know what a poem is.” Today, a century later than Mr. Gradgrind’s School of Hard Facts, the idea is still current that the methods of measurement evolved by the physical sciences can be applied to all human processes. And there still lingers the belief that a dictionary definition is a satisfactory description of an idea or of an experience. There are many grounds on which dictionary definitions can be disputed, but only one need concern us here. Bitzer”s definition of a horse was a dictionary definition. Note that it is put almost exclusively in terms of classification. In those terms, it may do as a table of physical characteristics of Equus cabauus. But what can it possibly say of the experience one has had of the living animal? No horseman ever rode a “gramnivorous quadruped.” No gambler ever bet on one. No sculptor ever dreamed one out of a block of stone. For horseman, gambler, and sculptor are involved in a living relation to a living animal, and the kind of relation is expressed in the language each has evolved for his experience. (“A good winded bay,” says the horseman, “but he has a mouth like iron and won’t answer to the bit. He’s had bad schooling.” Or the gambler: “A good four-year old. Better than his performance to date. And a good mudder. He’s due to win, especially on a wet track. And at nice odds.” Or the sculptor: “The set of the stone suggested a rearing posture: the line of force curving down the haunches repeated in the straining line of the neck with the mouth held hard-down by the bit.”) Whatever the “gramnivorous quadruped” may be to the biologist, these three ways of speaking are three experiences of the living horse. As Tip O’Neill once wrote in a fine sarcastic line: “There’s not a wedding in the world that’s worth a running horse.” Now try the line revised: “There is not a marriage ceremony in existence worthy of comparison with a gramnivorous quadruped of the genus Equus caballus in rapid motion.”

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings toward them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry…

Time For Rupert: one gramnivorous quadruped who will win at Cheltenham in March

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3 Responses to How Does A Poem Mean?

  1. makemeadiva says:

    That omnivorous biped Hadden Frost must’ve been pondering all this when he rode the finish a circuit too soon at Folkestone earlier.

  2. Stephen Foster says:

    He’ll certainly have time to ponder it once the stewards have had the omnivourous bipedity of himself up in front of them.

  3. markelt says:

    Mmmmm curry

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