Occam's Razor: The Principle of Parsimony in Analyzing Poetry
by Tina Blue
December 9, 2003
To many students, poetry seems mysterious and inaccessible. Some poetry is, of course, just as mysterious and inaccessible as they think it is. But generally speaking, most good poems can be accessed at some level even by a relatively inexperienced reader of poetry.
The trick is to pay really close attention, just as you would if you were eavesdropping on a couple of strangers having a private conversation near you in a public place. But too often students are too panicked even to consider the possibility that they might understand a poem.
In "Eavesdropping on a Poem: How to Understand What You Can Understand" I offer an example of attentive "listening" to what is readily accessible in a poem. In this article I want to show how applying "Occam's razor" can protect us from reaching too far and over-interpreting the details of a poem.
Occam's razor is a logical principle attributed to the medieval philosopher William of Occam (or Ockham). This principle, often called the principle of parsimony, states that one should not make more assumptions than the minimum needed to explain a set of data.
Occam's razor underlies all scientific modeling and theory building. It should also underlie our attempts to get at a poem's meaning.
One poem I use to illustrate the principle of parsimony in class is William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark." I do not intend to analyze the poem as a whole in this article, though we do so in my class. For now, I just want to use Occam's razor to get at certain essential information in the poem while avoiding egregious misreading.
I start off by asking my students to describe exactly what the physical events of the poem's story are. This is an essential step for most students in a poetry class, because they are often so confused by the very idea of poetry that they can't believe a poem can convey anything as simple as a sequence of events that might easily take place in the real world.
Here is what happens in the poem. The persona* is driving up a narrow, dangerous mountain road (the Wilson River Road) at night when he comes across the carcass of a doe that has recently been killed by another car. He says, "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: / that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead" (3-4).
He stops his car and "stumbles" back "[b]y glow of the tail-light" (5) to drag the dead doe off the road. As he touches her he understands why she is "large in the belly"(8): although the doe's body is almost cold, her side is warm because she is pregnant, and the fawn is still alive inside the carcass.
Although he knows "[i]t is usually best to roll them into the canyon" (3), the presence of the living fawn introduces an unexpected variable, and he is forced to think about his intention to push the dead doe over the edge and into the canyon below. He does it nevertheless, because there really is no other option, but he doesn't do it casually or callously. In fact, despite the danger to himself and others if he takes longer than necessary to dispose of the doe, he hesitates, not because he expects to find a way out of having to kill the fawn, but because he recognizes the value of the fawn's life and considers the sacrifice to be not only unfortunate but worthy of a moment of respect.
After we have the basic story line established, I start asking my students questions about the persona, to establish what we know about him and how we know it. My first question is, what is he doing driving on that mountain road at night?
They come up with all sorts of ideas, but the most common is that he is probably going visiting or sight-seeing. We dispose of the sight-seeing idea pretty quickly--who goes sight-seeing on a mountain road in the dark? It just isn't a very likely scenario.
What about visiting? Well, he would have to have some very good friends up on that mountain for him to be able to say, "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon" (3). Even in the country, one doesn't come across dead deer every day. The word "usually" implies that he has encountered such roadkill on many occasions, which means he must drive this road quite a lot.
Yeah, he could be visiting on the mountain all the time because he has close friends or family up there, but there are far more likely possibilities, ones that don't involve imagining an unusually intense visiting schedule and extra people that the poem itself never refers to.
One girl suggested that maybe he works up on the mountain. So I asked her, "What sort of job would require him to drive up on that mountain all the time?
She answered, "He could be a fire-fighter."
Okay, now we have not only signed him up as a fire-fighter, but as one who fights fires on the mountain at night? Far-fetched, don't you think?
Then she came up with another job he could have up on the mountain: maybe he works at a ski resort.
At this point I said, "If you have to invent a night-time fire-fighting brigade or build a whole ski resort and have it operate at night, just to provide him with employment, then you are reaching too far."
Even as she spun these bizarre scenarios, it didn't occur to the girl that maybe the persona just lives up there in the mountains. Night-time fire brigades and ski resorts with downhill skiing in the dark notwithstanding, there just are not all that many jobs available up on a mountain. It is far more likely that those who drive this road frequently live on the mountain and work down below, in a nearby city.
See what I mean? We have the details that tell us the persona drives this road quite regularly. All we have to do is explain why he would drive that road frequently, and often in the dark. If he's just visiting, we have to make up other people, and make him so fond of them and so welcome in their home that he would visit them pretty much all the time. Otherwise he wouldn't have encountered so many dead deer along this road. Such frequent visits are not impossible, but they are not all that common, either.
If we have him working up on the mountain at night, then we have to have night-time ski resorts or fire brigades--or who knows what other night-time mountain jobs one might manage to invent for him to engage in.
But if we let him work down in the valley, where most normal jobs would be, and live up on the mountain, then he would have to drive that road each morning to go to work and at night to come home from work.
Voila! We have accounted for the frequency of his trips along the road, as well as for the fact that quite a few of them take place at night.
Even more important, we have done so with a scenario that is downright common. A lot of people live on mountains and drive down to work in the valley below. There is nothing at all implausible about that scenario.
Plus, that scenario has the advantage of leading us to other useful information about the persona. Why would the persona choose to live in a location that would make it inconvenient and often even dangerous to get to and from work? If that narrow road is dangerous under normal conditions, imagine what it must be like in rainy, snowy, or icy conditions.
Asked this question, students will often suggest elaborate possibilities. Maybe he was born on the mountain and is sentimental about it. Maybe he can't afford a home or an apartment in the city. Maybe . . .maybe . . . maybe.
But think about real people and how they really act. A lot of people choose to live out in the country, even if it means an inconvenient daily commute. And even on flat terrain such a commute can be difficult or dangerous in inclement weather. Why do people subject themselves to such difficulty and potential danger?
Well, how about because they like living in the country? Prefer it, in fact, over living in the city. And if someone chooses to live not just in the country, but up on a mountain untamed enough that it can be referred to, as it is in this poem, as "wilderness" (14), then that person probably likes the wilderness quite a lot. Certainly a strong attachment to nature and to the wilderness would suffice to explain why he lives on the mountain and regularly undertakes an inconvenient and sometimes dangerous commute on the Wilson River Road.
These details also tell us that he is no Unabomber. He loves the wilderness, for sure, but he doesn't dislike his fellow man or man's technological civilization. After all, he probably does work down in the city. And he drives a car to get to and from work. Furthermore, even when he is already safely past the dead doe, he gets out of his car and subjects himself not only to the strenuous labor of moving the carcass, but also to the risk that someone might come up the road as he is moving her. He could get himself killed!
Moving an animal weighing several hundred pounds is going to take a bit of time, and we know this road has enough traffic that the car that hit her has passed by just a few minutes earlier. After all, she is "almost cold," but not quite, and the fawn is still alive inside. If the doe had been dead for more than a few minutes, the fawn would already have suffocated.
To take this task and this risk on himself, the persona must care about the fact that "to swerve might make more dead" (4). Besides, it isn't just this once that he takes on such a risk. He has obviously done it before on many occasions, and will do it again in the future. This willingness to put himself out for others, even to put himself at risk for others, suggests a great deal about his character and his concern for his fellow man.
But we wouldn't find our way to this understanding of the persona's character, his love of nature, or his concern for others if we allowed ourselves to get sidetracked by elaborating fanciful scenarios to account for details that can be explained in very simple, ordinary terms.
Occam's razor, you see?
*The "persona" is the first-person speaker of a lyric poem.