Understanding Poetry 7: Poems and Audience

Relationships to time and space are fundamental in poetry, but the most fundamental relationship of all is the poet’s connection to the reader. Lesson 7 looks at ways poets relate to an audience, describe and practice seduction, and manipulate reader response. We finish our look at a poem’s subtle interactions with a reader with a close reading of “My Last Duchess.”

Pay Attention

“Slam” — the infusion of energy into poetic gatherings — makes no secret of the poet’s need to connect with his audience: success in slam is rated directly by the audience. For all their spontaneity, slam readings are often given at a predictably loud pitch, as poets dramatize the desire for the largest possible reach.

To read slam’s rules and some results, see Gary Mex Glazner’s Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry.

Making Our Visit

A Poem’s Reach

A poem can tease out continual inspiration from the landscape or weave elaborate reactions to the passage of time, but without an audience, it’s all for naught. Every poem hosts readers in some way — even if, as is often the case, the poet makes no explicit acknowledgement of us. That’s OK; we’re always invited in, and our engagement is crucial.

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to watch for ways that poems reach for their audience. These vary, of course, with every individual poem. But we’ll cover some major ways of modeling an audience, even while pretending to speak in its absence. We’ll look at the implications for the reader of the seduction poem, the love poem, and the dramatic monologue.

Just as the pastoral highlights a poet’s relationship to place, and the elegy her interaction with time, poetry about love most vividly reflects poetry’s interaction with audience. Very few of us have been fortunate enough to inspire a brilliantly executed love poem. But every description of seduction, passion, or betrayal reflects on a poem’s union with the only lover who can bring it to life: its reader.

Before we turn to love poems, though, let’s look at the wide range of poetic address.

Listening In

Let us go then, you and I

Those were the first words of our first case reading in Lesson 1, but Prufrock’s direct speaking to us turned out to be a rare thing. Let’s remember where the other case reading poems were directed:

  • Hart Crane’s ode was addressed to the Brooklyn Bridge.
  • Shakespeare’s sonnet wasn’t addressed to anyone specifically — which opened it to anyone. Still, the revelations about the couple’s deceitful patterns gave the poem an intimate character, and we might have felt voyeuristic reading it.
  • Keats’ ode was addressed to a Grecian urn. Unlike Crane’s object, which could at least respond to his world with its “choiring strings,” Keats’ urn had nothing to say to his world, aside from a conjectured riddle at the ode’s close.
  • Wordsworth’s poem seemed to be a monologue to himself, until he turned and made it clear, two thirds of the way through the poem, that he was addressing his sister.
  • Gluck gave an impassioned, but terse introduction to Dido’s speech.

In all five cases, we as readers seemed to overhear the poem. Even “Prufrock” got a little dicey for us, once we realized (and it didn’t take long) that the speaker was a little cracked. Could it be that “you” wasn’t you at all, but some splintered alter ego of a man with a fragmented sense of self?

Of course, we didn’t toss these poems aside and say that they were none of our business. We probably didn’t even worry too much if they didn’t acknowledge our presence. To read poetry is to jump quite quickly into the conventions of being an audience.

Once again, poetry’s oral heritage silently and strongly affects how we treat it. We tend to approach poems as if they were performed in front of us, meant for our eyes and ears, but rarely addressed directly to the reader.

If all poems were simple ballads, they would differ little from theater. But poems can present interior thoughts more directly than theater ever could; they are often mysterious and demand study; and they’re available to us in a variety of formats (books, tapes, online) and settings (school, home, café, bus).

In short, poems can demand more from an audience and orient it much less than staged performances. But it’s often the case that the speaker of the poem can give off signals about how the poem would like to be regarded by its reader. And those signals are at their strongest in seduction poems. Let’s now turn to the poetic come-on.

The Seduced Audience

Holding a Reader

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s celebrated “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (AFP, p. 54) opens with a graphic picture of a poet’s search for an audience. The Mariner, so desperate to tell his story, has to grab onto an unwitting passerby — twice. The Wedding Guest wrenches away from the Mariner’s hand (“‘Hold off! unhand me, graybeard loon!’”), and the Mariner is then forced to cast some kind of a spell:

He holds him with his glittering eye —
The Wedding Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.

Anyone who has tried to read his poem to someone else — or has hoped a publisher would read a manuscript — will envy the Mariner’s success.

But most poems aren’t so insistent; they have more seductive ways of attracting an audience. In fact, poems that are in some way instruments of seduction are often quite effective at indirectly seducing a reader.

Love poems (or poems whose designs can’t be quite dignified as love) have in mind the reader, even if they’re swearing there’s nothing else in the world besides the beloved. Let’s look at a seduction as strong as the Mariner’s unearthly grab.

Transpiring Souls

Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (AFP, p. 183) is a notorious seduction poem that has more in mind than the mistress. Its speaker makes a coyly overblown case to his beloved for her to drop all resistance and give into pleasure, while there’s still time.

We’ve stumbled into the “rosebud theme,” named after Robert Herrick’s much-quoted “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” Herrick begins:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Marvell’s contemporaneous poem sounds the same kind of urgency — to absurd lengths. At the same time, iambic meter and steady rhyming couplets create a counterpoint to the speaker’s wild sweeping rhetoric. Consider this passage:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shoudst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood . . .

Punctuation, enjambment, and the rare disruption of meter (the spondee of “ten years”) tell the story: the coy lady, blockaded by commas, delays; the speaker impatiently pushes the edge of metaphor and decorum. It’s the tension of the poem. “She” imposes delays; “he” lunges against time.

So even though our speaker addresses a coy lady, their consummation is felt in the mind of the attentive reader. And, of course, immediacy is greatly valued in this “rosebud” poem.

In fact, centuries after the poem was written, its reader is the only one left who could possibly light up with “instant fires.” The poem is well aware of the transience of its immediate situation:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

It’s a grim thought, until we realize that Marvell is really playing to that vast eternity. Marvell’s speaker can escape “the iron gates of life” only by deserting his age. Eternity is full of readers.

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

A poem doesn’t have to be as insistent as “To His Coy Mistress” to reach for its audience. Love poetry of many different tones beckons the reader, never free of trickery. Let’s look at three specimens.

Sliding Away

Hollywood has looted the seduction poem’s techniques. At the heart of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” is a mystery that promises to explain the meaning of Kane’s life: what did Kane’s dying word — “Rosebud” — mean? We’re teased until the end, when the camera zooms in to provide the answer that no character could.

Can you think of other examples of poetic seduction in cinema? Tell us on the Message Board.

Love’s Attractions

The intimacy of love poetry is a powerful draw. More than a few best-selling books have the word “confessions” in their title. A poem can play on our voyeuristic impulses. It can even fuse us with the drama it describes until we feel personally invested.

On a broad level, these truths are obvious, but be aware of artful tricks employed in love poems to draw the reader into the rhythms of the poem. Three examples:

For Your Eyes Only

Thomas Moore’s charming “The Time I’ve Lost in Wooing” (AFP, p.199) seems, at first glance, like a simple lyric. I used that word “glance” on purpose, though, because Moore makes such clever use of eye contact:

The light that lies
In woman’s eyes,
Has been my heart’s undoing.
. . . Beauty won me,
But while her eyes were on me:
If once their ray<
Was turn’d away,
Oh, winds could not outrun me.

The last line is a bit of a puzzle: if a woman’s eyes turn away, does the speaker then run to catch their light again? Or does he outrun the wind to get away from a woman who looks elsewhere? Both possibilities exist, and we’re liable to read the poem again to rule one of them out.

Now our eyes are held from turning away. By playing on the congruencies of looking and reading, Moore seduces us to “lose” a little more time.

A Tug of the Heart

Sandra Cisneros’s “You Called Me Corazon” (AFP, p. 52) seems equally simple and is equally resourceful about involving its reader. Once again, though a love poem is addressed to a specific “you,” we’re intimately involved.

The poem’s distinguishing features are in its title: a mix of languages, an act of naming.

Notice the only full rhyme in the poem: “corazon ” and “phone.” This odd congruency of Spanish and English — highlighted by the connecting function of a telephone — almost forces the reader to sound out the Spanish so prominently emphasized. In effect, we place our mouth on the name we’ve read. Our speaking of the name (“Said corazon” the speaker again insists) is the real heart of the poem.

Called me corazon
in that instant before
I let go the phone
back to its cradle.
Your voice small.
Heat of your eyes,
how I would’ve placed
my mouth on each.

You Can’t Be Serious

The “you” in Arthur Rimbaud’s “Romance” (AFP, p. 232) twists in another way: it seems to be “me the author” or even “you the reader,” but “you” turns out to be provocatively abandoned. This twist destabilizes the reader and forces us to redefine a new relationship to the poem.

Rimbaud’s stanzas are powerfully attractive. Familiar June smells (beer, lemonade, lindens, roses, sap) and widely evocative settings (a cafe, a promenade, a starry sky, a streetlight) offer a broad invitation to the reader to identify. The first pronoun comes as part of a broad generalization — “Nobody” — and Rimbaud slyly ushers us into the description: “You look up and see a little scrap of sky . . .”

But who is this “you”? As the poem wears on, “you” becomes someone whose acts start to get treated ironically:

You are in love. Rented out till fall. You are in love. Poetic fires ignite you.

The poetry here is deliberately trite and unconvincing, a striking contrast to the “breeze . . . full of sounds” from before. If we were once tempted to identify with “you,” we pull back here, sensing that the author has done the same.

Rimbaud has manipulated us into mimicking the pattern of the poem: sweeping and reckless identification (“Your heart Crusoes madly through novels, anywhere”) followed by quick rejection (“Nobody’s serious when they’re seventeen”).

We might feel tricked by the repetitious end: can we believe anymore in those “linden trees on the promenade”? But such is romance — both as described to and played out with the reader. It doesn’t always end well. We learn and move on.

Poems that explore love’s treachery are often the biggest test of a reader’s own orientation. Let’s turn to a close reading of one: Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.”

The End of Poetry

Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing at 19 — a tragedy, given his gifts and the early recognition of them. But his intense teenage vision seemed to repel him: “I called myself an magician, an angel, free from all moral constraint,” he wrote toward the end of A Season in Hell. “I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation, to wrap gnarled reality in my arms!” He died at 38, ashamed of his writing.

Case Reading: Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”

“My Last Duchess” (AFP, p. 34) is a preeminent example of a special test of a reader developed and, many say, perfected by Robert Browning: the dramatic monologue. It’s a poem written as if it were spoken by an imaginary person to an imaginary person. Needless to say, this premise makes special demands on us readers. Especially when the character speaking seems to be less than savory, it’s hard to know how to process his words.

Browning is as hard on his reader as Rimbaud was: we’re pulled along in the poem without quite knowing what to think of dexterously framed, but possibly dubious thoughts. This marks the dramatic monologue’s important difference from another long speech in verse we’ve read in this class, Wordworth’s “Tintern Abbey.”

Though he was talking to his sister, and our realization of that introduced an extra ripple of meaning at the end of “Tintern Abbey,” we never doubted the poet’s sincerity. Browning, on the other hand, doesn’t pretend to represent a poet’s real thoughts in “My Last Duchess.” Like a playwright, Browning is filtering his words through a character, thereby making us more cautious when reading them: they are marked as subjective. This technique is often referred to as dramatic irony.

Keep in mind that Wordsworth’s poem took place in front of nature, while Browning’s plays out in front of art. The anchor of nature kept meaning stable in “Tintern Abbey,” while in “My Last Duchess” we’re in a hall of mirrors.

The first word of the poem is “That’s.” We’re immediately in a scene, being shown a portrait by a solicitous man. Moreover, this host anticipates our reaction.

. . . never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus.

Only much later in the poem is it clear that “you” is, once again, not us: this time “you” is a defined character, an envoy of a Count. But we’re in the same position as this envoy: watched by the Duke (the speaker) as we read what he shows us. Would anyone blame us for being a little uncomfortable? Especially as we’re told what reaction to have?

The Duke is in control, no doubt about it. He seems debonair and conversational within the poem’s heroic couplet form — not afraid of enjambment, dexterously (but not ostentatiously) rhyming. He notices very small things, such as the length of mantles or the half-flush of a throat. And he’s highly critical of indiscriminate reactions:

She had
A heart — how shall I say? — too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one!

If we weren’t unsettled before as readers, we certainly should be by now. Do we share the duchess’s fault? Are we charmed by the wrong things? With what should we be impressed? And how much should we believe the values of this controlling speaker?

These doubts build through a series of surprises as the poem speeds to an end:

  • The Duke is inconsistent. He says he didn’t “stoop” to make his will clear to his late wife, yet later on he says he “gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together.”
  • The “you” is an envoy for the father of another woman.
  • The Duke is planning to buy his way into marriage with that woman, a “new object.”

By the time the poem ends with the word “me,” the Duke is the real object, requiring genuinely discriminating study. What are his ethics? Does he have any self-consciousness about such blatant traffic in wives? How did the last duchess die, anyway?

At the heart of the lively testing of audience in “My Last Duchess” is another seduction, another romance replete with beauty and betrayal. The shaping form of love poetry, however disguised, draws us into Browning’s dramatic monologue. What we expect from the poem — and what it expects from us — is a lover’s appraisal.

A Dark Model

Dramatic monologues can be particularly hard on a reader when they depict anger and hate. Look at the violent career of “you” in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (MP, p. 274). Like all great love poems, the “Daddy” really speaks to the reader — the speaker’s father “died before I had time.” Plath’s angry poem is, like “daddy, you bastard,” a bastard of love poetry — and a disturbing one at that.

Moving Forward

Browning’s poem ends with one more item to notice: a bronze cast of Neptune. “My Last Duchess” finishes by ironically emphasizing that art, as well as duchesses, can be objectified — trapped in a form and crassly traded.

The awareness of a poem of being an object is a point of anxiety — insecurity, if you prefer — alive to the ways poetry circulates today. In our final lesson, we’ll expand on the way contemporary poetry reaches for an audience. By smashing open old forms and conventions, new poetry reaches for an honest connection with its reader — a gesture which the Duke, framed in heroic couplets, surrounded by cast bronze and clinging to a 900-years-old name, would never make.

Assignment: The Love Poem

Choose a poem in AFP addressed to a lover, such as John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (p. 75), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43? (p. 33), Ezra Pound’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” (p. 222), or Mark Doty’s “The Embrace” (p. 77). Read it carefully and answer the following questions:

  1. How do meter, rhyme, and line formation bolster or resist the lover’s message?
  2. What images and metaphors are used, and how do they relate to the relationship described?
  3. Does the poem acknowledge an audience other than the beloved? In what way?
  4. What kind of betrayal is described or suggested? Are the expectations of a reader betrayed in any way?
  5. Does the relationship described in the poem shape the way the poem reaches out for a reader?

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