Losing Your Fear of Poetry

little tree by ee Cummings

little tree by ee Cummings

When I taught ESL, my students dreaded analyzing poetry. I was able to relate, as I once feared the condensed rhythmical words myself, for their power to humble students and teachers alike. But I pushed past my fear, and delved into the dark dungeon of poetry, and unearthed a treasure, which I have been richer for ever since.

You feel a poem, not in your mind, but in your imagination. The meaning of poetry is in your interpretation of it, as long as you can provide supporting details to back up your statements.

Poetry communicates the sentiment to us, before we understand the words. It goes beyond words and magnifies our experiences, senses and emotions with life enhancing energy.

Here is the poem little tree, written in 1920, followed by the analysis:

Little Tree
E. E. Cummings

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

When we read a poem like “little tree” in class, and I would ask what it was about, the students would fall silent, as if they didn’t know the answer.

Then I would ask them to free-write their ideas about the poem, stream of consciousness style, without concern for grammar or organization, to capture the essence of the poem.

Their scribbles didn’t lie; they understood the poem, and a rough outline emerged for their analysis as proof on the page.

This helped them gain confidence in their own interpretation, and allayed their fears. They would be on a time deadline during their test, so they needed to get their initial impression down quickly.

Then they organized their free-writing scribbles under the headings we had discussed in class, such as: theme (what the poem is about), title, the rhyming pattern, or meter, (if any) the stanzas (or the group of lines forming recurring metrical unit of a poem, or a verse) the length, the imagery (words that paint pictures). Also, the narrator (the voice that is speaking and to whom the narrator is speaking to), and figurative language such as: similes –comparisons using like or as, and metaphors – (indirect comparisons where two unlike things have something in common), and personification – giving human qualities to inanimate objects. Also, literary devices would be a heading under such topics as: symbolism (one object representing another), and word connotations and inferences, alliteration – repeating the first letter of a word, onomatopoeia – words sound like their meaning, and hyperbole – (exaggeration). In addition the headings could include comparisons, contrasts, tone and style.

Most of my students were from South Korea, and were preparing to write the S.A.T., T.O.E.F.L., or BC Provincial English exam, to apply to American colleges. They came to the study academy to prepare for the English portion of the tests, which included poetry. They had been issued a list of around one hundred outmoded poetry terms to memorize by their high school teachers, which added to their poetry paralysis. Only about ten percent of Greek and Latin derived terms on the list are used to analyze most poems. The majority of terms would confound a PHD in Literature. I told them that the terms were secondary to their understanding of the sentiment of the poem, so their focus would shift to interpreting the meaning of the poem.

After discussing in class the main points and theme of the poem, the students were ready to write their analysis, which would go something like this:

EE Cummings poem “little tree” is about a tree that has been taken from the forest to become a family Christmas tree. There is no rhyming order, but the words form the shape of branches of half a Christmas tree and reinforce the subject. The poem is narrated by the sweet voice of a child speaking in simple diction, emphasized in the use of lower case letters, like a child first learns to print in school. The child says the tree is “so little”, “like a flower”, a simile that invokes our senses by comparing the tree to a spontaneously beautiful, colorful, sweet smelling, and delicate item. It also invokes the reader’s sympathy, and affection, as EE Cummings uses the metaphor of the tree as an orphaned child, who needs a mother.

Personification of the tree draws us into the theme of the poem – the tree is given human emotions when the child asks the scared tree: were you sorry to come away? Then the child makes the tree happy by giving it the spangles to hold, and promises: ”you’ll be proud”, and you will be so beautiful the passersby will stare! This is a picture poem that helps us visualize the tree framed up in the window. Cummings uses the imagery of the tree wearing ornaments like jewellery on its’ arms and fingers to personify the tree. The spangles are also personified, as they have been sleeping all year in a dark box, and have been awoken out of a dream like a flower bulb waiting to be planted in warm earth in the spring to flourish, or “shine”. The tree is also given a voice, as it is a “silent tree”.

The style is simple, with a playful tone, and full of sentimental emotions.

Cummings displays a reverence for nature in the spectacle of the decorated tree: ”Your beauty will cause my little sister and I to dance and sing”, and in relationship with nature – the tree increases the child’s happiness, as the tree is transformed by the child, naked at first, later dressed, cool, but later warm, afraid, but later proud. The child becomes a protective parent – comforting the scared tree by kissing its’ cool bark with warm lips, and hugging you safe and tight like a mother. The tree symbolizes nature’s innocence and the gifts of beauty it bestows on humans.

Lastly, I would tell the students ways to increase their mark, and asked them to share their feelings about how the poem impacted them, or if they could draw a comparison between an aspect of the poem and their own life experience. I told them my cherry on top was to say that I was similar in age to the narrator of the poem when I first read “little tree”, and forty years later, it makes me feel young again as I remember the wonder that I felt as a young child setting up our Christmas tree.

By analyzing the poem, it was clear the students lost their fear of poetry, and gained an appreciation of it.

Texasunderrgraduate writing centre – Texas Education.com

photo credit: HikingArtist.com via photopin cc