In this new essay project, our task is not to define a literary work in general terms, or to x-ray a story-world for its armatures (whether characterization, plot, symbol-system, or thematic frame) but rather to reveal the intricate braid of its workings, the crafted blending of its inner dimensions into a harmony of language, so that we can comprehend how such a braiding and blending can transform the reader’s perceptions and understanding of self, other, and world through the window/lens/prism of a poem’s specific words, phrases, lines, and stanzas. For the poem is a linguistic device which takes our attention, our sensations, our perceptions and converts them to knowledgeable experience, an experience woven of emotion and thought, sensations and ideas. And the challenge of weaving sense and significance from our experienced encounter with a poem’s structures and processes is very close to the experience had by any professional critical thinker, no matter the object, when she or he comes across something mysterious, strange, and opaque and—through a system of sequential questions and information generation—renders that mysterious thing known and familiar.
Yes, comprehending poems can be hard. But it is an intellectual and emotional challenge that is quite satisfying, even as it transforms one’s understanding of life and living (state and process), deepening, broadening, and intensifying it until a person becomes more capable of discerning and appreciating the intricate shapes and dynamics of the “worlding.”
Topic: After reading and studying all six of the poems from the PDF anthology Infinite Roses listed below, choose set 1 (poems 1 and 4) or set 2 (poems 2 and 3) or set 3(poems 4 and 5) or set 4 (poems 5 and 6) as the target of your analysis (though in your introduction and/or conclusion, as well as end notes, you might have occasion to mention one or both of the other four poems, if structures, dynamics, images, or associations offer comparative or contrastive value):
1) Derek Walcott. “The Light of the World,”
2) Li-Young Lee. “Persimmons,”
3) Debra Allbery. “Chronic Town,”
4) Ruth Padel. “The Two-Handled Jug.”
5) Michael Goldman. “Report on Human Beings,”
6) Michael Ondaatje. “Sweet Like a Crow.”
Your task is to analyze or ‘unfold’ the inner workings and meaning-making effects of those two poems in a specific way. It is a fine and classic idea, as you work on a given poem, to understand something of the poet’s philosophy and life course. So, researching the poet her or himself is important. Such information could serve as interesting framing commentary in your introduction or in a series of harmonized end-notes. But, having said that, you should understand that this isn’t a biography assignment: your primary task is to write an essay of considered analysis focused on two rich and worthy poems, revealed through the four-layer analytical plan outlined below.
Poet and literary scholar, Jane Hirshfield has given us a supple theory of how poems function. She argues, in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, that poems are born from a kind of origami of concentrations, an artful blending and crafted weaving of different ways of sensing and seeing and signing the world. She tells us,
The forms concentration can take when placed into the words of poems are probably infinite. Still, six emerge as central energies through which poetry moves forward into the world it creates—the concentrations of music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. Not all work at the same level, and in any particular poem each will always coexist with at least some of the others; yet each can at times stand at the core of a poem’s speaking. (Hirshfield 7)
Each of these ‘concentrations’ can function as a critical filter with which we can discover and weigh the ideas and images, the perceptions and experiences, the insights and remembrances which the poem gathers and displays. Each of these ‘concentrations’ is a window onto one particular layer of meaning-making which a poet has labored to create through the gift of words called a ‘poem.’ In this essay, your critical task is to use the concentrations of image, emotion, story, and rhetoric as ‘lenses’ to sift the poem’s rich and artful language and discover its deepest psychological, social, and cultural meanings, its hidden threads of essential sense and suggestive association that make its language and images and messages so resonant and meaningful.
To accomplish such a critical task, your essay should answer the following questions about how these concentrations operate in the poem you chose. Please follow the same order of discussion.
1. What images (things to be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted; situations to be encountered and deciphered) can be found in each poem? What are the most important images? What ideas, experiences, values can be associated with those images?
2. What emotion seems to motivate the poems? How do you know? What evidence of terminology, phrasing, and idea arrangement can you point to and unfold which reveals how that emotion is evoked, rung (yes, like a bell)? What emotional response does each poem seem to spark in the reader? (Not ‘reaction’ but rather the reader’s acknowledgment that the poem can be understood as requiring a certain emotional experience and understanding from the reader, a sympathy, an empathy of vision and understanding.)
3. What story does each poem tell? What senses of character (human perspective, memory, desire, understanding, knowledge) do the poems present? What settings of place and time are integral to each poem? Are these ‘universal’ settings (common to all people at any historical moment) or are they bound to a specific society and culture at a particular moment of history? What events of perception and action, encounter and reflection do the poems present, in a certain sequence or logic, to evoke a textured world or a specific perspective onto the world? What conflicts or imbalances do the poems identify? What harmonies does the two artifacts of tuned language offer to soothe those conflicts?
4. What rhetorical argument is each poem ultimately making? What message or concept emerges from consideration of the poet’s magic refinement of language? What view of the self, of others, of the world emerges as such a message or argument? What evaluation of human being, or of being human in specific ways (as a family member say, or a being in nature, as a worker, or thinker or maker of things), does each poem argue for, or even against? What particular terms or phrases or passages illustrate this message?
It would be advisable to begin your discussion with some broad definition of poetry’s power, and perhaps an orienting account (where available) of the poet her or himself and her or his aesthetic philosophy in order to frame your more particular analysis of the specific poetic work. It is also advisable to conclude your analysis by linking it to Hirshfield’s considerations of poetry’s forms, and functions, the demands it makes on a reader’s understanding and the gift of new sight it gives to the penitent reader who withstands confusion and ambiguity to arrive at clear insight and music.
By focusing your efforts on a comparison/contrast of two thematically similar poems, you are once again practicing the critical art of unfolding a work of art to reveal the powerful ideas and experiences at its heart or center. And thus, your analytical process will illustrate that the only way to attain some forms of understanding is to engage in a detailed, systematic procedure of close inspection, careful reasoning, and sympathetic imagining.
Recall that a starting place in seeking advice on critiquing poems is the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL) and its sub-sections on poetry and critical writing. Additionally, Poetry Magazine—celebrating a century of service to the art—maintains a vigorous and useful website to aid readers in entering the great concentrations of poetry: you can access the site at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine.
Format: Please format your essay in MLA-2009 guidelines (see the Playbook“Document Presentation Guidelines” document and the “Student Sample Essay” for direct models).
This essay can be best accomplished in an extended six-paragraph format. The opening paragraph of concept introduction and orientation (which presents and briefly defines the four key concepts), a set of four sequential ‘body’ or ‘development’ paragraphs (each taking on one of the four Hirshfieldean concentrations through explanation and direct quotation of the two sample poems), and a concluding paragraph which connects your analysis with the expert insight of Hirshfield and/or some other scholar of poetry, about poetry, about how readers’ re-imagine the world through the act of reading, about what and how literature creates and preserves value. You should include end-notes as ways of offering supplementary information which doesn’t fit into your primary discussion or which offers important though tangential concerns. You should include a works cited listing which includes at least five specific sources (including the poem itself, any reference text’s discussions of poetic form and tradition, the Hirshfield book [you’ll have to Google it to get all the publication info, though I’ve given you the specific quote and page source above], and other works on the poet you’re investigating, any other poetry in general which helps you conduct your parsing of the poems).
Remember that for the purposes of our study, the opening and closing paragraphs should be composed of at least fifteen honed sentences each, with the explicit thesis coming at the end of paragraph 1 (INT) and the re-statement of that thesis coming at the beginning of the essay’s last paragraph (SUM). The DEV paragraphs sandwiched between should each be a minimum of twenty sentences long (see the tutorial PDF’s on the class websites for a advice in building a well-developed paragraph as a ‘stack’ of linked and framed detail modules). Remember that your view, thinking, and experience of the literary text must be balanced against the views, thinking, and experience of other, especially expert readers of the writer, the poem, poetry, art in general, and even the considerations of creativity, psychology, and sociology which inform each poem and every reader. Proofread carefully, and use the old trick of reading your essay aloud to hear its elegant accents and trouble-spots, spots begging for sand-paper, attention, and just a bit more hand-churned lacquer.