David Venturo’s Close Reading

Images and ideas abounded in the Business Building Lounge last Thursday April 15 when David Venturo, professor of English, dissected two famous poems — Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Windhover” and Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz—when I died.”

“Thank you so much for being here on a day Wordsworth would have said ‘You could be outside drinking in nature,’” an animated Venturo said after technical difficulties stalled the close reading from beginning.

The lounge’s screen never did work, but that didn’t stop Venturo. He plowed through both poems with vigor and made many interesting discoveries along the way.

“(Hopkins and Dickinson) are debating indirectly about what symbolism is about,” Venturo said of the poems’ connection.

“The world is a place of process. It is dynamic,” Venturo said, drawing more conclusions about the similarities between the poems. “Poetry is dynamic and poetry alludes with symbolism to something beyond itself.”

It is through symbolism that both Hopkins and Dickinson convey points beyond what the surface of the poem implies.

The first poem, Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” is about the flight of a windhover (a kestrel or small hawk) and Hopkins’s reaction to it.

“Hopkins is absolutely astonished by the movement of the bird,” Venturo said.

Through symbolism, Venturo said that the poem is actually about divinity and what Hopkins himself shares with the bird. He pointed to some key verbs — “caught” (he pointed out that Hopkins was before his time since he used the word “caught” the same way we use it to say “I caught the Jon Stewart show”) and “buckle” in the line “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/Buckle!”

“Buckle is an extraordinary word,” Venturo said, since it can mean both to clasp and to fold in on oneself.

“It’s a love poem to the bird and to divinity,” Venturo concluded.

Next was Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.”

“This is a poem of radical perspective,” Venturo began. “’I heard a Fly buzz — when I died.’ What? Your speaker is dead.”

He points to her use of tropes (a twisting of language) like the “heaves of storm” and synecdoche (words that sound like sounds) like “buzz” to create her image of death (“And then the windows failed — and then/I could not see to see”).

“I liked how he was able to incorporate things from different poems and make them all come together,” Lisa Boyajian, junior English major, said of her impression of Venturo’s reading.

Venturo also pointed out a fun fact — that the meter of “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died” could be deciphered because it can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

You learn something new every day.

Caroline Russomanno can be reached at russoma4@tcnj.edu.