American Literature

What is poetry ? Poetry goes beyond the rhyming of words. The object of writing a poem is usually to make a very complicated statement using as few words as possible; as Laurence Perrine says, poetry “may be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (517). Thus every word and stanza is packed with meanings. Poetic language could be said to have muscle because, in a sense, it is powerful. When a poet writes, he is trying to communicate with the reader in a powerful way.

He uses the elements of poetry to get his point across, and these elements consist of a variety of ways to use words to convey his meanings. In the analysis of poetry, then, two important questions the reader must ask himself are: What is the poet trying to say? How does he or she try to say it? What does a poetry analysis paper look like? Individual teachers may have specific requirements for papers written in their classes. A critical analysis includes an introduction, a thesis statement, perhaps a map of the essay, the body of the essay, and a conclusion.

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The critical analysis paper will consist of a proof or a demonstration of the thesis statement. Always begin with a thesis statement, which usually appears at the end of the introductory paragraph. The thesis of a critical paper should include a statement of the poem’s theme; everything in the body of the paper should apply in some way towards proving the thesis statement. In critical analysis, one looks both analytically and critically at a short story, a novel, What follows is a discussion of what the words “critical” and “analysis” mean: What is “analysis”?

It is helpful to think of analysis as decoding. Creative writers rarely say what they mean in a straightforward, obvious way, and this is especially true of poets. However, they are trying to communicate with readers. In doing so they use a variety of tools to nrich their purpose, and these tools are the elements of poetry. The combination of elements the poet uses makes up the “code” of the poem. Analysis means literally picking a poem apart–looking at elements such as imagery, metaphor, poetic language, rhyme scheme, and so on–in order to see how they all work together to produce the poem’s meaning.

By looking at a poem in terms of its elements, one decodes the poem. This guide is to help readers learn what to look for and what questions to ask in decoding a poem. What does “critical” mean? To criticize means to Judge the merits and faults of a poem. Questions to consider in this regard are: What has the poet done well, and what has he done less well? Has he successfully expressed his theme? Has he written a “good” poem or a “great” poem according to Laurence Perrine’s standards? How do I get started? Read the poem more than once.

Use a dictionary when you find a word about whose meaning you are unsure. Read the poem slowly. Pay attention to what the poem is saying; do not be distracted by the rhyme and rhythm of the poem. Try reading the poem out loud to get a sense of the way the sounds of the poem effect its meaning. Elements of Poetry Denotation and Connation Words in poems have denotations, or literal, easy- tounderstand dictionary meanings, and connotations, or figurative, less specific and less direct meanings. The latter is the more important in poetry than the former.

The fgurative, or connotative, meaning of a word means everything that the word might imply besides its direct, dictionary meaning. For example, the literal, denotative meaning of the word apple is something like this: It is the fruit of the apple tree, anywhere from gold to dark red in color, and it has seeds and a sweet taste. The literal meaning of a word, its denotation, can usually be defined in simple, clear language and can be understood right away. The connotative meaning of a word, however, is much different. A red apple in a poem is never merely a red apple, but probably implies a lot of different things.

The red color may symbolize passion, fertility, anger–anything one can associate with the color red could be a possible meaning. The apple itself could symbolize the Tree of Life, it could symbolize knowledge, Adam and Eve and their Fall from Grace, the harvest in fall, the forbidden, Sir Isaac Newton or Johnny Apple seed–perhaps a combination of these things. In time, and so deepens our experience. Thus, in reading poetry one should look at words as having two kinds of meaning. They have dictionary meanings, but also mean other things besides.

One should look at individual words and at phrases in the poem and brainstorm; that is, one should think about the literal meanings, but then try to think of every possible idea that the word or phrase could imply. Importantly, words do not mean anything and everything in a poem. Thus the reader should look at the poem as a whole and try to fgure out which implications make the ost sense within that poem. Imagery Images are very concrete “word pictures” having to do with the five senses–touch, smell, taste, sound, movement, and especially sight. As Perrine points out, images make readers experience things vividly.

To figure out the imagery in a poem, the reader should first make a list of every single mental picture, or visual image, that comes to mind as he reads the poem. He can then go back and find other kinds of ideas that have to do with physical sensations–sounds, tastes, smells and so on. Finally, he can go back and think about all the ideas these different images could mply–figure out their connotations, in other words. For example, if a poet compares something to a ship, the reader might think about what ships look like, and then think about what it feels like to be on a ship.

How do ships move? Where do they go? What sights, sounds, smells and sensations can we associate with ships and being on ships? After thinking about these questions, the reader can go back and attach these ideas that a ship implies to the thing to which the ship is compared, and finally try to fit these ideas into the overall meaning of the poem. See Emily Dickinson’s poem “There is No Frigate Like a Book” on page 575 fStructure, Sound, and Sense. Importantly, poets often place images in opposition to each other. This creates what is known as “tension.

Tension is often an important clue to the meaning of a poem; it also creates drama and interest and is a key to paradox (see below). One should look out for strange contrasts in images in the process of analyzing poems, and think about the responses they arouse in a reader. Images can be part of similes and metaphors, though they are not always (see below). Figurative Language Figurative language involves a comparison between two things–a literal term, or the hing being compared, and a figurative term, or the thing to which the literal term is being compared.

As Perrine states, fgurative language is a way of describing an ordinary thing in an un-ordinary way. Simile A simile is an explicit, or clear and direct, comparison between two things that are basically unalike using dead-giveaway words such as “like”, “as though”, “seems”, “similar to”, “than”, or “as”. For example, “The woman moved like a fish–she moved as graceful and fluid as those of a sea creature. Sheseemed ready to swim away at any moment, like a startled school of fish.

Here, the woman is theliteral term, while the fish, sea creatures, and school of fish are all figurative terms. Metaphor A metaphor is a comparison that is not made explicitly–that is, it is not made clearly and directly and is not made with clues such as “like” or “as”. It is, instead, an indirect comparison between two things that are basically unalike. In metaphor, the fgurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term, the thing being compared. This is done to make the meaning of a poem more forceful.

For example, the expression “The apple never falls far from the tree” contains a etaphor in which parents or family (literal term) is compared a tree (figurative term), while children (literal term) is compared to an apple (fgurative term). The metaphor expresses that children are never very different from the parents or family from which they come. For further example, “The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods” (Wallace Stevens) also uses metaphor. Here, the sun is compared to an eye– one that has seemingly eternal life, and thus can watch the full course of human events.

Here, one figurative term is “fire eye in the clouds” while the literal term is the sun”. The term “eye” may give the reader the idea that the sun is kind of like a conscious being, since conscious beings have eyes for purposes of perceiving the world; what a thing “sees” it can presumable think about in a conscious way. Also, the idea that the sun “survives” reinforces the idea that it is like a living thing, though it is not, in fact living. See also, “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” both by Robert Frost and appearing in Structure, Sound and Sense.

These are good examples of easy-to-understand uses of metaphor. Personification Personification is a kind of metaphor, and it means to speak of an impersonal thing, such as a season, a natural element, any object, a country, etc. , as though it were a person. For example, look at the line from the popular Seals and Crofts song, “Summer Breeze”: “July is dressed up and playing her tune. ” Here the month of July is spoken of as though it were a woman. July is “dressed up”, that is, July is in full swing-flowers are blooming and butterflies are flying, resembling the pattern of a summer dress.

Also, to say that July is “playing her tune” is a metaphorical way of aying that birds are singing and nighttime insects and frogs are voicing their mating calls. Thus the figurative term, a woman in a dress playing a tune, is identified with the literal term, a summer month in which nature is at its peak of activity. Synecdoche Synecdoche is a way of naming a thing: the word for a part of a thing is substituted for the whole. For example, in the sentence “l bought a new set of wheels this morning,” the word “wheels” is substituted for the word “car. ” Wheels are part of any car; here the part is substituted for the whole.

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