A lot of people say they dislike practical criticism: the poem is a butterfly and practical criticism is trapping and killing the butterfly and then pinning its dead body to a board. You may have found a beautiful specimen and mounted it with exquisite professionalism but in so doing, you killed the thing that made the thing beautiful. The examination of the poem leaves the poem lifeless.
For me, the opposite is true. I enjoy unpacking poems. I can read something and not really understand it, but by exploring how it works, what its words are doing, how they talk to each other and to other words in other poems or books or ideas – these things help me understand better what is happening. Unpacking is not an entirely unhelpful way of thinking about it. If the poem is a beautiful piece of luggage that I admire, practical criticism gives me the opportunity to open it up and see what’s inside. Nothing is dead, rather, I have had the opportunity to touch and feel and handle things, and see how they fit together. Does my initial attraction follow through? Is the poem full of beautiful things? Or can I find nothing to interest me inside? And in fact, even something which appears at first glance unpromising can be full of unexpected treats.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to choose some different poems and have a look at them. I haven’t done this properly for a long time but am nonetheless hoping you won’t come back and find me surrounded by a small stack of dead butterflies.