At our second lecture, the cohort was called to respond to Jacob Polley’s ‘A Jar of Honey’ and did what I thought to be a very promising effort on the whole. We heard everyone’s thoughtful elaboration – and personal voice – when it came to life’s struggles and difficulties, and the need to overcome these minor obstacles, all from (as it would seem) the poem’s closing line, ‘attesting to the nature of the struggle’. With this level of spirited interpretation, I’ll be inferring all future silences as evidence of humility, or perhaps call upon your thumbs to unleash your ‘voice’ upon your mobile device. With the overtone of defeatism in your technology-equipped responses, we will consciously avoid bringing sharp objects into future lessons.
Ms Yeo also made the observation (rightfully so) that we were not seeing the ‘whole’ poem in our response to the poem’s purpose. In other words, the cohort was responding to the second stanza and not including the first as the basis of the interpretation. This post is really intended to clarify misconceptions that many of my previous students had in the early stages of their A-level Lit journey, which I hope you would find of use here.
You hold it like a lit bulb,
a pound of light,
and swivel the stunned glow
around the fat glass sides:
it’s the sun, all flesh and no bones
but for the floating knuckle
attesting to the nature of the struggle.
In reading and analysing a poem, we have to consider it in PARTS and as a WHOLE. We can divvy a poem, play or novel in one of many ways: we can funnel each text into the broad methods of language, style and form; or we can simply understand the text by its structural parts of stanzas, paragraphs, chapters, acts and so on. This act helps us organise our own essay, with one body paragraph dedicated to language (point of view, tone, diction) and another to style (the use of light and sun images) for instance. That is to say, your response to the ‘nature of the struggle’ in stanza 2 is important and has its place in the “WHY” framework for a body paragraph.
In hindsight, Ms Yeo’s call was for us to interpret the purpose of the whole poem. This means that you would not restrict yourself to Stanza 2, and perhaps show (i) how the two stanzas are related to each other; (ii) the purpose of the whole poem. To demonstrate how these are different, I have written two sample paragraphs on Stanza 1, and the whole poem. While reading the latter paragraph, pay attention to the purposes of both parts (stanzas 1 and 2) are represented, the links between the two purposes, and the purpose of the whole; also note how this paragraph borrows from the earlier paragraph, and then extends its analysis and response to reflect on the whole poem.
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Sample paragraph on the first stanza
(What) The first stanza of ‘A Jar of Honey’, which one might extend to include line 5 (‘it’s the sun, all flesh and no bones’), evidently aggrandises and exalts the jar of honey in the persona’s hand. (How) Polley uses a range of light images to present the honey, first comparing it to a ‘light bulb’, then expressing awe towards ‘a pound of light’ and ‘the stunned glow’ contained within the jar. The connotations of ‘light’ place the honey as a source of knowledge and wonder, giving colour to the world around it as a ‘bulb’ and ‘glow’ would. These effects are more stark in the metaphor of ‘the sun’, which brings with it life-giving qualities. (Why) Thus, the first stanza marvels at the jar of honey, beyond something to consume and enjoy, as a celebration of nature, of its creations and of the shining, life-giving magic behind every ‘pound’ of it.
Sample paragraph on style in the whole poem
(What) The imagery in the poem’s two stanzas elevates the value and wonder of ‘A Jar of Honey’, within which we also sense the persona’s deep respect for the effort behind. (How) Images of light take their place throughout stanza 1, and reach towards stanza 2 in line 5. The jar of honey with its ‘fat glass sides’ is unable to contain the sheer brightness of a ‘light bulb’. It is a ‘pound of light’ with a ‘stunned glow’ that, inspiring the persona’s adoration and fascination, expands into even grander images of ‘the sun’ – a metaphor for nature and creation – and a vital body of ‘all flesh’. (How) It is on line 6 that the persona realises something different in ‘the floating knuckle / of honeycomb’ that comes closest to the ‘bones’ of the honey and represents the process of creation behind this ‘pound of light’. In the persona’s words, it is testament to the ‘nature of the struggle’, the toil and effort of bees at work. (Why) The second stanza does not overturn the magic of the first, instead acting as a call to appreciate both the product for its sweetness and light and the process for the unsung ‘struggle’. (Why) Read in its entirety, the poem is a tribute to nature’s wonders — not just in its state of beauty, but also the beauty of creating, supplementing and supporting life itself; there is perhaps a glint of a reflection on Man’s own role in the magic of everyday life as well.