THE NEXT SENTENCE
A SPECIAL CASE . . . POETRY (a protocol approach)
If you happen to be writing an essay about poetry, here are
9 questions to ask about a poem.
1) What is this poem about?
This is job one. Most poems are about something going on: some action, observation, or chain of thought that can loosely be regarded as the “plot” of the poem. With narrative poems this is simple; a story is being told. With more introspective, philosophical, descriptive, or argumentative poems there is still some chain of conceptual entities being laid out for the reader’s consideration. Something moves in the poem. One thing follows another. (There are no one-word poems.) Your first job is to get this right. What, literally, is going on in the poem? If you think the “woods” in Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are golf clubs, you are barking way up the wrong tree. If you misconstrue the as/so construction in the first two stanzas of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” you are going to think that the poem is about a bunch of old dudes dying in bed rather than the parting of two lovers. So, while a poem may throw a lot of conceptual curve balls at you before its done, you’re likely to strike out, and strike out badly -- even hilariously -- if you don’t get the basic action of the poem down right to begin with. The first and the last line of a poem are usually hot-spots that stake out the boundary of the poem. Be sure you have taken them into account.
2) What is this poem really about?
We all know that poems can go deep. They have ways of getting at heavyweight truths and conjectures about human nature and the nature of things. Poets do this by spinning out a tighter-than-ordinary network of plain words that somehow catch and reveal this deeper stuff. For example, a poem about a boy who cuts off his hand with a buzzsaw can really be about the capriciousness of fate and the banality of everyday life (“Out, Out . . .” by Robert Frost), or a poem about simply catching a big old fish can be a poem about the inexplicable holiness of existence (“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop). A man, deep in a desert, finds only the feet and ankles of what had been a colossal stature of a mighty king. (“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley), and we are powerfully reminded of the perils of vanity and the frailty of regal pomp. The words vanity, or banality, or holiness of life do not appear in these poems but they are perfectly appropriate, if imperfect, answers to a question like What is this poem really about? True, it is more than likely that the poets would throw up their hands in protest if you presented them with these “deeper” meanings. But it is not theirs to decide. It’s for you to decide. They just write the poem. When your read it, it becomes yours, and to the degree that you read it carefully -- exactly to that degree -- you will own it.
3) What are the formal aspects of the poem?
Now things get easier. This is mostly grunt work, like filling out an application. Form refers to shape and order. Is the poem a sonnet, an ode, an elegy, a limerick, an epic, an epigram, an epigraph, or an epitaph? A haiku, a ballad, or a lyric? Or any of scores of other poetic forms. And within any of those forms, how are the lines bunched? In stanzas, couplets, tercets, epodes, or cantos? Does the meter of the lines come mostly in pentameters, tetrameters, dimeters, etc.? Which words in a line are stressed? Do the predominate accents or stresses in a line indicate an iambic or trochaic pulse? Is that pulse complicated by three-beat feet like anapests and dactyls? Is there a rhyme scheme? Are the rhymes perfect or slant? End rhymes or internal rhymes? Is it free verse or blank verse? (Both names sound sort of loosey-goosey, but only one of them is.) Are there repeated sound elements like alliteration, assonance, consonance, or sibilance? Poetry, like all language, is unavoidably musical -- even when it's trying hard not to be. Formal elements are mechanical, quasi-mathematical matters. Pointing them out may or may not be useful in getting at the heart of a particular poem, but they will always lie close to that heart. Meter, in fact, you may regard as the poem's heart beat. But don't be a show-off and splatter your page with an inventory of every formal element you can find. That's not cool. It's not a scavenger hunt. Carefully select which elements are relevant to your case. In Emily Dickinson's funny little eight-line poem about a hummingbird ("A Route of Evanescence"), there is a near-perfect end rhyme in the first four lines (Wheel/Cochineal), but, like the evanescent bird, rhyme itself vanishs in a blur of almost imperceptible near-rhymes in the last four lines. Something worth mentioning.
4) What rhetorical devices are present?
Here we have all those Greek and Latin monstrosities that you learn in school: hyperbole (exaggeration), litotes (understatement), anaphora (repetition), prosopopea (personification), jargon, juxtaposition, sarcasm, irony, and those two pillars of abstracted language: metaphor and metonymy. It is truly remarkable that there are a thousand or so terms for these rhetorical and poetic devices, all intended to name linguistic constructions that six-year-olds use every day. Nevertheless, these are the toys in the poet’s play chest and if you are going to play too, you should know their names. It is not the case that you need to know their names to feel their power. That will just happen. But because these packages of verbal high energy occur with greater frequency and in greater concentration in poems than they do in prose, they become vital indices of a poem’s nature, of what makes the poem a poem. Knowing their names is a useful step to getting at the poem from a critical perspective.
5) What allusions are made?
A provocative theory of modern linguistics holds that all words in a language are connected and that any single word should be appreciated as merely a high spot, a little pricked-up glowing tent on a vast tapestry of millions of words all joined to each other in the panoply we call a language. Dictionaries deliver tight little definitional boxes for each word (hot: being at a high temperature -- its denotation), but they also report on how the word has over time strayed from home base and has collected additional meaning (hot: popular, sexually attractive, recently stolen, etc. -- its connotations) that colors its use. This remarkable aspect of language by which words, beyond just pointing at things, point to other words opens up a realm beloved by poets, a realm of connotation, allusion, implication, metaphor, metonymy and symbolic meanings.
Sometimes a word or phrase in a poem will allude to a historic entity like a person, an event, or a place. “Bananas” call to mind the tropics. Robert Frost's title “Out, out . . .” calls to mind a famous line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The word “master” increasingly reminds current readers of the moral failure that bred the institution of slavery. The word “fo’c’sle,” if you know your sea lore, points to the bow a sailing ship where deckhands are berthed and where skullduggery gets hatched. It you didn’t know this (or did not go find it out), the full implication of a wonderful line in a Phillip Larkin poem, “Poetry of Departures,” would be lost to you. Why did Larkin choose “fo’c’sle” over “crow’s nest,” “galley,” “hold,” or “quarterdeck”? (And, by the way, how do you pronounce it, and what are all those apostrophes about?)
6) What images strike your eye?
If metaphor and metonymy are the bread and butter of poetry, then imagery is its candy. These are the word-images that thrill, disgust, or terrify us as we read along. In their rawest form, they are little pictures of things that lie imbedded in the poem’s narrative. Langston Hughes prints an image in our minds of a vast and hopeful dream drying up “like a raison in the sun” and we shudder at the thought/sight. Jack Kerouac says “God is Pooh-bear” and even if we can’t guess what he means, we still see the image. In the case of "Imagist" poetry and some haiku, mental pictures are basically all you are given to work with. Faces in a dank Paris subway station, says Ezra Pound's poem "In a Station of the Metro" are “petals on a wet, black bough.” That’s it; poem over.
Because the visual world is by far our most favored sensory realm, the images called to mind by words on a page speak to us at a level up and beyond that which other words and phrases, having lost their visual associations, can muster. Note: It is thought by some that all language originated prehistorically from visual images, but most words and phrases we use today have been stripped of their visual power by time and repetition. Phrases become clichés, so “to wing it” really doesn’t flutter in our minds anymore, and “tip-toeing” around an issue presents no real visualization of the accused being en pointe. It is the poet’s challenge to invent new images that deliver fresh kicks and punches to our imaginations, and it is your job as a critic to evaluate that effort, weigh its success, and weave that judgement into you understanding of the poem.
7) *VERY IMPORTANT* What turns, shifts, discontinuities, disruptions, dark spots, obscurities, opacities, problem words, problem lines, puzzles, or provocations present themselves? (Do not ignore even the least of these!)
Right. Here’s where things get tough again. Meeting this challenge requires three things not always found together in the same skull: brains, self-respect, and an eye for detail). So, skip this section if you think you don’t qualify, or if you’ll be happy with a B+, at best.
Poets wrack their brains over most of the lines they write. (A few lines, they say, do just drop on the page from god-knows-where.) The end result is that poets slide incredibly complex and almost unfathomable verbal tricks under your nose as your read along -- dum-dee-dum-dee-dum -- maybe wondering why anyone thinks what you are reading is worth a second thought. Now, a lot of the time it isn’t; the world is full of lousy poetry. But here’s the problem: the good stuff is often hard to distinguish from the lousy stuff if you’re reading the poem like you’re reading an email from a friend. Like, “Oh, that’s funny -- dum-dee-dum -- yeah, that’s true. Hold on. What's this? Dunno. Let’s just skip over it.” So, don’t do that. It is a sure way of missing out on the best things a poem has to offer and also gumming up a perfectly good brain with a lot of rotten or half-digested poetry.
As a critic (which, by the way, is what you are when you write about a poem) you often must wrestle with a poem, must search and probe in its words; you must make love to it with your mind, unlock its secrets, and let nothing go by unconsidered. The courage it takes to really read a poem is the same courage and self-respect it takes to stand up to any difficult confrontation. You must have faith in your own mind. Letting a line (or a word) go by without doing your best to absorb its import is in the end a small failure of nerve, a way of admitting you don’t match up to the challenge.
8) How, quite honestly, does the poem affect you? (Answering this question to yourself will make what you write more believable and thus more readable.)
Words move us. That’s the best (and the worst) thing to say about language. A poet once said that language is “fossil poetry,” but poetry is also fossil language. A poem can be distinguished from all the chatter around it in the same way that a fossil with all its sharp, shaped intricacy stands out from the rock couching it. A good poem is like that. And a great one endures time as fossils do. When you read a poem carefully, you may be moved, and that immediate emotional response cannot be impugned. If you understand the poems narrative, its shape, its music, its devices, allusions, and images, you will have a gut response. This is a good place to begin your evaluation of a poem. Good because its honest.
In school, you probably will be asked to read a lot of really bad recently-written poetry. It has always been that way. Behind the few-hundred poems in English that get carried forward in our literature decade after decade, there are millions of poems that have fallen off the back of the wagon. You are the judge. Just because a poem is printed in, say, The New Yorker magazine doesn't mean it will survive past the next issue. Be careful. You may respond favorably to a poem simply because on its surface it endorses things that are important to you like fairness, military service, social justice, patriotism, this or that ethnicity, inclusiveness, anarchy, or gender equality. But this is not enough to keep the poem on the wagon. It must do much more than stroke your own political or cultural allegiances. It must bring the magic of poetry (the ingredients heretofore discussed) to the task. After all, what good is it if it doesn't add to, challenge, or brighten what you already know?
9) Then, in the end, in the broadest and deepest sense, what is this poem really really about?
You may not even get to this level. You may not want to. Doing so may require a lot of biographical, historical, cultural, or philosophical study that you don't have time for. A poem, say, Shelley's "Ozymandias," may be, at its base, simply about a traveler finding the demolished statue of a long-dead king half-buried in the desert. It may really be about the vanity of human wishes and the transitory nature of worldly power. Still on another level, the poem may be about about the endurance and the paradoxical fraility of art or it may be a critique of the Romantic over-valuation of the artistic afflatus. Who knows? Perhaps it's best to leave these last, speculative levels of aboutness to the professors and their graduate students. But that doesn't cut you out of the game.
Your role as a critic is not to produce the be-all and end-all take on this or that poem, nor is it merely to dissect or explicate. You may need to address specific parts and qualities of the poem, but never lose sight of the glow from the whole. Your job, in a word, is to illuminate. Poetry dwells in mysterious realms, and your challenge, which is very much a measure of your wits and your raw intelligence, is to bring light to what is already luminous. I'll say that again: Your job as a critic is to bring light to what is already luminous. That is a very high bar. Respect it.
So tread modestly, but purposefully. Bring humility, curiosity, and suspicion to the task. Don’t demean yourself or your subject by hiding out behind inflated technical vocabularies, simplistic reductions, and literary clichés. Be brave, stand tall, and be brilliant, as that word was defined in a musty old English dictionary in 1696: "Casting forth sparkling Light."
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And just a wee note on style: Try not to write about a poem as if you were holding up an extracted liver to a group of interns. Avoid pointy (deictic) language like “This shows” or “It can be seen” or “The author utilizes," as in this all-too-typical clunker: “Clearly, it can be seen that the author utilizes personification to portray . . . .” In fact, strive to avoid overused words like portray and utilize. There is a smelly lexicon of English class jargon that collects around poems and stories like flies at a picnic. There will probably never be a case in which the word utilize offers an improvement over its sweeter, simpler cousin, use. Rookie writers think this will impress their teachers. Find your own voice and use your own words. And remember: illuminate!