The Transmogrified Hedgehog: how to approach poetry, for the prickly

I have heard it, and you have heard it. Even if they’re too scared to make the sound, you can feel it in the wanting.

The Transmogrified Hedgehog: how to approach poetry, for the prickly
Photo by Sierra NiCole Narvaeth / Unsplash

I have heard it, and you have heard it. Even if they’re too scared to make the sound, you can feel it in the wanting. When you announce that we’re ‘doing poetry’, there is a certain timbre of grunt, an exhalation of not so much hate but exhausted inconvenience. Poetry, to the average student, is waking up in the dark on a camping trip they don’t remember signing up for, being forced to traipse through fields and dykes and brambles, and feeling thoroughly rotten about the whole endeavour. For students, they think they don’t like poetry because it doesn’t feel like home. Drama and prose, while different disciplines to film and TV, are narrative-based. They’re used to narrative; the stuff of narrative makes sense. There’s less to parse. The language does what it’s supposed to do and the story does what it’s supposed to do. But with poetry, no such luck. Comparing it to music doesn’t quite cut it, either, because the average pop lyric contains not the complexity of poetry’s deft nuance. And they know this: they’re not getting the cosy rub of character, and setting, and plot. They’re getting - they think - a codex, a fiddly and finicky puzzle that they didn’t want for Christmas; but the relative who gave it to them is beaming, so they wince a smile. Best to grit the teeth and get on with it.

Each poetry unit would roll around and I’d ask myself how I’d sell poetry to the students this time. But maybe this isn’t right. Because if I’m actively trying to sell something it means I’m putting a spin on it that shouldn’t be there. I’d be trying to, like a salesman, accentuate certain attributes and hide others. Poetry is more important than that. What follows is my honest attempt to present it to students in its own terms, from the ground up. My special guest is Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Mower’ - whatever one thinks of Larkin, this is a moving and mournful sliver of poetry perfection.

I intended this post to be one entry. I’m not brief. I’m working on it. The best I can do is cut it down. There will be at least one more part to this.

Images

Let’s grab a picture. I got this from Unsplash and I’ve used it as a creative writing prompt, too:

Much in the same way I’d ask students how this image could inspire a piece of creative writing, I ask students what this image might mean. What ideas are behind it. What feelings it might convey. We could talk, too, about how this image could be interpreted by others in different ways, and about what could colour or otherwise influence those decisions. Could this image be read through a feminist lens? Is this image making a political statement? Is it a meditation on the nature of beauty? Who knows? But that’s the point: we only have the image, and ourselves. Nothing else. It’s up to us to consider and discuss what the image could be communicating. It’s through this discourse that we grow. The image is a shared focal point, a meeting place of minds, a pin on empathy’s map.
So, too, is poetry. We take what we’ve realised here, and we apply it to poetry.

To grasp the ungraspable

The old cliché goes: a picture paints a thousand words. There’s truth there: this image says plenty, and plenty various. Moreover, the image is held anew inside each viewer’s skull, in which it is remade and reprocess, becoming a part of the viewer. In order to engage with the image, the viewer must remake it on their own terms. It is the same image to every viewer, and yet it is not. Such is the human condition. So, we need to get that poetry will be rewritten inside each reader’s skull. It will be a different poem to them.

Why is this?

It has to do with the stuff of poetry. Poetry is a sleight of hand. It starts us in a familiar place. Notice how in poems there are dominant images, and that they’re familiar to and simple? Wordsworth has a boat and a lake. Shakespeare has the sun. Donne has compasses. Poets start us there because that’s what we’ve got in common with them. We need to be led by the hand into the netherworld of the abstract; the images get us there. They’re Charon ferrying us across the Styx, if you like.

This abstraction of which I write is the beating heart of poetry. A poet doesn’t pen a poem without a damn good reason to. The poet is gripped by such a conviction - or else blown by gusts of uncertainty so severe that it’s write-or-capsize - that the poem must be written, by any means necessary. It must come out. It will churn the poet inside-out otherwise, and it will take everything. It will dominate the mind, like cordyceps does to an ant.

Sorry about that.

As we can see from the fate of the ant, it’s better out than in. The same goes with poetry: the idea takes the poet’s mind hostage, to the point at which the poem simply has to be written. There are no two ways about it. If we get that, we can get that poems are therefore only written about BIG and IMPORTANT things. They’re about the unknowable, the ungraspable: love, death, desire, regret, god, sex, kindness, morality, power. The poet writes about these things knowing she’ll never parse them, knowing she’ll never crack the code, knowing even that through enquiry she might end up further away from the answers than before. Why do this impossible thing? Who knows? What we do know, though, is that this is a pretty neat example of the human condition: we squint with one eye and try to touch the stars, though we know we can’t. It’s a curse, this curiosity that drives us restlessly forward, but it is a blessing, too - it has made us discover. We reach, to fall or fly, knowing we’ll fall. But the alternative is stasis. We thrive in the chambers of sweating fear. And it is in these chambers that poems are born.

The universe in a grain of sand

The trouble with going all hifalutin is that we, the humble earthbound reader, can’t meet the poet there. That’s the trouble with abstraction; by definition you can’t pin it down, can’t quantify it. This is where imagery comes in: imagery, and the act of transformation. It’s here that we need to turn to our model poem. Now isn’t the time to discuss the author at all: let’s look at this like unseen poetry and just look at the poem as a little stab of meaning, self-contained. Context is tremendous fun, and can greatly enrich readings of the poems, or create new ones entirely, but it’s a hindrance to us when we’re trying to get to grips with the mechanics of poetry. Let’s learn to deal with the poem as of itself first.

Here it is:

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not. The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time

The poet and the reader need a common language if they’re going to communicate. That common language is best kept as simple as possible, so poets often use commonplace or recognisable images. Sometimes, the poet will help us out and stick the most important image in the title: ‘The Hospital’ by Patrick Kavanagh; ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ by Derek Mahon, ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice. It will be something tangible, physical, concrete: Duffy’s pearls, Armitage’s tape measure, Keats’ urn. Sometimes it’s alive: a raven, a fox, a flea. It doesn’t matter: it has got to be real and it has to be able to hold the poet’s ideas macrocosmically within it. Let’s see how Larkin does this with ‘The Mower’.

The title seems to give it away: this poem is going to use the image of the mower to explore something greater than mere gardening. Here’s its first appearance: The mower stalled The key to working with the main / dominant / key image (call it what you will) is just to notice things about it. Here, we’re given a simple subject-verb combination. Notice how the mower is doing the opposite of what it’s supposed to do. If we take this, we can pull away from the poem and think abstractly: this will be a poem about things doing the opposite of what’s expected of them, perhaps. It’s a thought, and we’ve taken it wider. Let’s let the sentence unspool, tracking what it does: The mower stalled, twice; Notice how the comma before ‘twice’ slightly stalls the reading of the poem, with a truer or heavier caesura slamming the poem to a stall on the semi-colon. Take it wider: This could be a poem about sudden or unexpected changes. Let’s look at the next section: The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found We switch focus from the mower to the operator. The first verb attached to the operator (who, as we can see from the first person pronoun, is the speaker of the poem) is quite different from the sudden jerkiness of ‘stalled’; it has a supplicatory or else vulnerable flavour. The pronoun is tucked at the end of the line, hiding away? The unresolved ‘found’ tips the reader over the cliff edge; we are guided by enjambment to the revelation of what has been found. It’s delayed. Larkin makes us wait, mimicking the wait between the stalling and the checking of the blades. It’s here that its useful to annotate the poem with questions as you notice things:

  • Why does Larkin break the line before he reveals what he has found?
  • Why does he reveal it as a hedgehog?
  • Why does he leave ‘killed’ to the start of the third line, followed by the choke of caesura?

These questions are seeds sown to flower later; for now, the noticing and the questioning are enough. It’s best with poetry, especially early on, not to tip students into a cognitive overload crisis, which is easy to do with poetry, because everything about it is unknown, unchartered.

So we make our way, pen in hand, through the poem, noticing stuff. Here are some prompts for students, so they know what to look out for:

  • The order words appear in
  • Punctuation
  • Sounds (start hard / soft and get more complex from there)
  • The verbs (if a sentence is interesting, it’s usually because of the pulse of verb in it)
  • Breaks: stanza and line
  • Lineation in general
  • The speaker:
  • Clues about their identity
  • Their relationship with the world; their place within the poem
  • Their persona or voice
  • Their relationship to the dominant image (e.g. in ‘Ozymandias’ Shelley’s speaker is distanced from the statue by time, distance and his own lack of direct experience, hearing the account second-hand)
  • Images or words that seem to hold potency (knowing why isn’t important yet)
  • Patterns: start with repetition
  • Unexpected things
  • Unfamiliar words
  • Colours or other potential symbolic content
  • Rhythm, meter and rhyme

With all the above, it’s a case of finding what the poet’s working with. The list above is a poet’s toolbox, albeit simplified. Once it is found, it can be questioned, associated with other findings, or allowed to be noticed. Sometimes, the noticing is enough; once something is noticed, the subconscious gets to work. Don’t rush it.

Here are ten more things we could notice about ‘The Mower’:

  1. The language is spare and simple throughout.
  2. The poem is divided into three tercets and a couplet (why end with a couplet)
  3. The poem does not rhyme
  4. In line four we learn of the past relationship between the speaker and the hedgehog.
  5. Larkin repeats the same single word, caesura pattern he used for ‘Killed’ for ‘Unmendably’ in stanza two.
  6. ‘Burial was no help’ does not tell us what help was needed; the sense of loss seems greater than that of a hedgehog.
  7. The second line of stanza three seems to stop being about the hedgehog and start being about death and loss.
  8. The first line of stanza three seems to anthropomorphise the hedgehog, albeit subtly (‘got up and it did not’)
  9. ’Should’ is repeated.
  10. ‘Kind’ and ‘time’ are assonant.

There are plenty more things that could bear noticing. The best approach here is to model to the students the thing we’re looking for, and then let them have a look. It’s hard to get noticing things wrong; the low chance of error should therefore encourage rather than exclude.

The moment of transformation

Let’s go back to the penultimate stanza. Now, Larkin makes this more obvious than a lot of poets do - he really spells it out - but here, nonetheless, is the thing that makes this poem a poem: the MOMENT OF TRANSFORMATION. The poem stops being explicitly about the concrete and elevates itself to the abstract. It is still about the hedgehog, but it’s so much more than that now.. The hedgehog is a tool, used by Larkin to mediate on … what?

  1. The cold realisation of the permanence of death?
  2. Man’s awareness of the damage that can be caused by his carelessness?
  3. The need for empathy?
  4. The transitory nature of human existence?

With questioning, these realisations can be teased from the students. If you follow the link below you’ll find a template that you can use with any poem - I’ve got ‘The Mower’ in as an example. It’s just a Word doc and can repurposed into PowerPoint slides easily if that’s your thing. It’s really important to discuss this moment of transformation with the students in depth. Do this by referencing the things they noticed earlier - how do they act as a vehicle for the poet’s ideas?

There will be plenty more about the minutiae of this - the connecting, the drilling, the writing - in Part Two. For now, I hope that this has given you some ideas about how poetry can be explored in the classroom, and I hope the resource is useful.

You can download the resource here.

Thank you for reading,

Alex