Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetic Interpretation II

Let us continue our analysis of "The Door" to further exemplify the poetic mode of expression and its interpretation. The next lines read:

And back to his very own Waldorf Astorian hovel
Perched gloriously amidst beer cans and metal detectors.

We can gather from these verses that the prisoner has escaped to a place that is "his very own". But the phraseology employed is bizarre and counterintuitive. "Waldorf Astorian hovel" seems like a contradiction in terms, being that the Waldorf Astoria is one of the premiere luxury hotels in the world. Similarly, being amidst "beer cans and metal detectors" would seem incommensurate with "perched gloriously", which carries an air of grandeur.

This case illustrates how poetry can purposely invoke inconsistency and contradiction in order to convey a deeper message. The prisoner returns to a place which would be objectively deemed a hovel. But to him, a newly escaped inmate, it is the Waldorf Astoria. His neighborhood might be a bad one, with beer cans strewn about and metal detectors positioned at the front of every building. But to him it is a gloriously perched palace of the first order.

Surprised arms of the girl of his dreams greeted him
Hovering about him so as not to break him
Tantalizing him with their almost warmth
Her vision still confounded by a misty bewilderment
- Because, after all, what was he doing there?

The girl wants to embrace him warmly but hesitates. She is confused by the whole situation and doesn't know what to make of it. This leads her to cautiously restrain her emotion, to his mild chagrin. Her vision is blocked by a "misty bewilderment", i.e., she is crying, probably out of joy, but is also profoundly unsure of what is happening.

The next line "because, after all, what was he doing there" is an instance of what James Wood calls "free indirect style" (I don't think he invented the terminology, but I learned it from his book). For a moment we hear what the girl herself is actually thinking, in her own words, but without being informed as such. The abrupt change in poetic style leads us intuitively to the conclusion that we are listening to her inner response to the circumstances unfolding around her.

If the poet had written, "she thinks to herself" or "she says 'what are you doing here'" then the surreal quality of the poem would have been replaced with the formality of traditional narrative which describes phenomena rather than allowing us to experience them. The use of free indirect style offers us a glimpse into the mind and heart of one of the characters in the poem without jolting the reader out of an image-based, purely poetic mode of reflection.


Anonymous said...

Do you plan on eventually showing how developing this skill can help us understand Torah (with ex. an example)?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...


I see your vision of poetry makes it a powerful zooming technique.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...


Here is a candidate for Torah example.

32:1 Listen, you heavens, and I will speak.
Let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
32:2 My teaching shall drop as the rain.
My speech shall condense as the dew,
as the small rain on the tender grass,
as the showers on the herb.
32:3 For I will proclaim the name of Hashem.
Ascribe greatness to our God!
32:4 The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice:
a God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and right is he.