The Blindfolded Men and the Elephant: Experience the Whole Poem


The Sum Is Greater Than the Parts: Take in the Entire Poem

When reading a poem, or when teaching a poem, we run into the danger of the same dilemma in the parable of the blindfolded men and the elephant. Each blindfolded man feels only a part of the elephant and cannot agree what they have just touched. One says a rope (the tail), a spear (tusk), a snake (trunk), a fan (the ear). When we look at a poem and search only for its parts, we run the risk of not "seeing the elephant," that is, not experiencing the entire poem.

A poem is not a scavenger hunt; it is its own event. While looking closely at the parts of the poem can help us to experience the poem better, it is not the same as the entire experience of the poem in itself. 

With that very important caveat in place, let's explore what, to my mind, the parts of a poem are.

The Parts of a Poem 

There are lots of components that make a poem a poem. Here is one way of thinking about the parts of a poem:

The Interior of a Poem - what comes from the writer of the poem

Texture - the materials of a poem
Structure - the organization of the materials; the architecture
Form - the final arrangement; the complete execution

Texture (Structure + Form) = Interior of a poem

The exterior of a poem - what comes from the poem being read

Substance - what the poem is
Function - how a poem works as art
Spirit - why the poem exists

Substance + Function + Spirit = Exterior of a poem

And throughout the whole poem, both the exterior and the interior is...


"Energy" is the most difficult thing to examine in a poem, but the thing that makes it successful; voice, distinction, authenticity, confidence, surprise.

Energy is often the thing that gets lost when we only look at one part or another and do not keep in mind the whole.

How to Teach This to Young Poets 

I found that elementary-aged poets can grasp these concepts pretty well, when you put it to them in terms you feel they can grasp. Because they are younger, they have not come to "fear" poetry or feel that it is something they "cannot get," because they haven't yet been exposed to the "scavenger hunt" approach to reading poetry too much. 

Concentrate at first on just reading lots of poetry. Don't tell them they have to "get" anything; just have them experience hearing words and seeing lines and stanzas on a page. Show them all kinds of poetry: rhymed, free verse, avant garde, nursery rhymes, concrete poems, haiku, sonnet, limerick or other special forms. 

Have them write about their thoughts on poetry in their commonplace books. Stress that there is no right or wrong, just messes to make and things to explore, as they start out. Later on, they will make things nice and tidy in the revision process.