Poetry For The Perplexed - A Guide To The Incomprehensible.

by Jerrold Soh | May 3, 2014 | 11898 views

This article is written for Lit students, so I’m making two assumptions:

  1. That you know what a Shakespeare is, and
  2. Since you know Shakespeare, you’re familiar with No Fear Shakespeare.

These competencies are important, because in the following paragraphs we'll will be ripping apart the very bastions of literary genius. We'll spray-paint a huge I WAS HERE right across the centre.

Assuming that’s not possible, though, what we’ll do is re-write them in…*gasp* plain language. Because no one likes an incomprehensible, artsy fartsy poem, right?

So let's not waste time...

1. Does it matter? -Siegfried Sassoon


Here's the original:

Does it matter?-losing your legs?...

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When the others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter ?-losing your sight?...

There's such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter?-those dreams from the pit?...

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won't say that you're mad;

For they'll know you've fought for your country

And no one will worry a bit.


Probably no one understands it all on first reading. What with the question-mark-dot-dot-dots and all.

If he wanted to make a point, he could’ve said it directly, like this:

It really matters if you lose your legs.

Really. People are only kind that long.

And it’s horribly difficult not to mind

When everyone else comes back from hunting

And they eat and drink in your face.


It really, really matters if you lose your sight.

I have no idea what work blind people can find

in post-war Europe. People are never kind.

It hurts to sit on the terrace imagining

What it looks like from memory.


Your dreams matter. But they’re all gone.

You can drink forget and be happy

For only so long. People start thinking you’re crazy

Even if you’ve given, lost it all for your country.

And everything’s horrible.

Yup, much better now that only good’ol commas and full stops remain. And speaking of dreams…

2. Dreams -Langston Hughes


Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.


This one’s already awesome. Short and sweet. The longest word only has two syllables. That is if you excuse the hifenated jargon. But hey, what’s the point of all those metaphors? Life is a barren field? It’s not like we’re all farmers. Are we? I’m sure we’re not though, last I checked we lived in the 21st century.

Really, why waste words when he could’ve just said:

Dreams are important.

Yes they are.

They’re really important.

Hold on to them.

Otherwise you’ll have a sad life.

5 lines did the trick. We’re on a roll. Now let’s tackle something harder…

3. Sonnet XVIII -William Shakespeare


The Bard himself. Terrorising lit students since 1564. Can you imagine how his English teacher must’ve felt when he read this?...

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

First things first: No one knows what a sonnet is. It sounds a like a cross between a comet and a clarinet. It’ll probably do well as a line of tennis apparel too. There’re a fixed number of lines in every tennis racket right? And seriously, thou art? That’s like so five centuries ago. Till date no one has any idea why we’re still studying such obsolete, perplexing poems which have no relation to modern living.

Let’s modernise it a little, shall we?

Rose are red, violets are blue.

A summer’s day is lovely and hot,

And so are you.

In May the winds blow petals off flowers (if you know what I mean).

Summer (holidays) passes way too fast.

Sometimes the sun can be really scorching.

But even the sun gets dark.

And beautiful things usually decline

Either by chance, or by nature, even if we leave them alone.

But you are eternally lovely and hot.

You’re really fair too.

If you die everyone will be sad.

Especially when your eternal hotness grows with time.

As long as men live and see (which basically means forever),

Your beauty lives in here and in me.

Many romantic. Such feels. Observe how every dating trick in the book has been incorporated within. And speaking of beauty…

4. Stopping by woods on a snowy evening -Robert Frost


Whose woods these are I think I know.  

His house is in the village though;  

He will not see me stopping here  

To watch his woods fill up with snow.


My little horse must think it queer  

To stop without a farmhouse near  

Between the woods and frozen lake  

The darkest evening of the year.  


He gives his harness bells a shake  

To ask if there is some mistake.  

The only other sound’s the sweep  

Of easy wind and downy flake.  


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,  

But I have promises to keep,  

And miles to go before I sleep,  

And miles to go before I sleep.


Here’s another great one with no words of more than two syllables. Simply brilliant. But he’s just describing a forest, some trees and a lake. There’s a horse somewhere too. And the only sense of a linear plot (which, clearly, all poems require) is when the bells ring and he moves on. This all sounds like a wonderful casual journey in the woods but why should we care?

Perhaps if he said it this way:

I’m in a beautiful forest now but sadly it’s owned by someone else.

He lives in the village though. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Luckily he won’t see me here so he can’t chase me out. Plus he’s missing out

On the beautiful views here of the snow falling in his forest.


My horse probably thinks I’m crazy

Stopping like this in the middle of nowhere. Probably other people will think I’m mad too

Stopping between the woods and a frozen lake in

The darkest evening of the year. But this only makes it so much more beautiful and surreal.


My horse rings his harness bells and wakes me up from my daydream

It seems like he’s reminding me I’m making a mistake stopping here in the middle of nowhere.

It’s so quiet. I can only hear

The snow gently falling in the light breeze.


This forest owned-by-someone-else is beautiful. A silent, soothing darkness lurks. It draws me in.

But there are so many things I need to do. So many things I must chase. And I’m already behind time.

There are so many things I have to do before I can rest.

There are so many things I have to do before I can rest.


Isn’t it wonderful how a little elaboration and removal of all poetic devices and metre makes things so self-evident and easily understandable?

Off that, here’s the final one for today. Be warned…it’s madness.

5. The Jabberwocky -Lewis Carroll

Pictured: Every Lit Student's Worst Nightmare.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


'Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!'


He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought --

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood a while in thought.


And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!


One two! One two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.


'And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'

He chortled in his joy.


'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


Whatisthisidonteven…Of course, what else could we expect from the insane dude who gave us Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I mean, he’s the founding father of the genre known as literary nonsense (yes, this really exists).  Hardly flattering, if you ask me.

And this jabberwocky thing, if a thing it indeed is, makes marginally less sense than rabbits with stopwatches rushing for circular ad infinitum tea. Cheshire cats and growth mushrooms – at least these have some real-life equivalents don’t they.

I don’t know what kind of - substances - prompted this poem, but safe to say none of the following – brillig, gyre, wabe, frabjous, borogoves, mome, raths, outgrabe, jubjub, manxome, tumtum, uffish, tulgey…are actually words. Are they? I’m not even sure what words are now. Carroll here creates more words per line than Shakespeare.

It’s probably impossible to rewrite this without entirely changing its meaning and significance. This only shows how absolutely incorrigible and worthless this is, doesn’t it?


The best I could do was:

Behold a Jabberwock – a fearsome monster with jaws and claws (I think).

Someone grabbed a sword.

And killed it.


And one more thing.

Here’s one of Emily Dickinson’s great writes:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?


The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –


This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –


Got that? That last part? As freezing persons…snow…chill…stupor…letting go…?

Sound familiar?...

hypable.com || Disney

Let it go, let it go

Can't hold it back anymore

Let it go, let it go

Turn away and slam the door

I don't care

what they're going to say

Let the storm rage on.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Kudos to Disney for helping us understand was Emily was trying to say :)

Now that that’s over, I do hope you’ve figured out the actual point of what we’re doing. Although I honestly still have no clue what Carroll’s poem is about.

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