Writing about Poetry

"Be gone J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D!" says John Keating (played by Robin Williams) in the movie Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating is having his students read the introduction to poetry in the textbook. For the purpose of the movie, the passage is dull and the analysis of poetry sounds, as Mr. Keating put it, as if one was "laying pipe." Mr. Keating makes a good point, in that poetry is from the soul and should be tasted and experienced. And I agree, yet the craft of poetry should not be dismissed. To write an analysis of poetry, one must look at the components of the science and the art of poetry.

The science of poetry is the technique and tools of the author to create the poem and the voice of the poem. This is where the literary terms taught in classes come in: simile, metaphor, musical devices, rhyme patterns, imagery and structure. These are characteristics that set forms of poetry apart from other forms. Yet in this paradox of rules, poetry can break the rules. E. E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson are prime examples.

Because there are many great works that in no way resemble each other in structure of technique, defining poetry is difficult. However, the tie that binds poetry together is the essence that speaks to the reader or listener. That essence is “voice.” A voice communicates the literal and underlying messages of the speaker; it contains the relevance, the theme, and the soul of the poem. Thus, voice is the art of poetry.

Therefore, in writing an essay on poetry, the writer needs to build a thesis statement that reflects the art and/or science of poetry: Communication, Relevance, Voice, Imagery, Technique and Structure. The focus of the essay may depend on what the writer wants to write about or what has been assigned by an instructor. It can be just about the theme of the poem, it can be about the speaker and voice, or it can be about the literary devices the author uses. Whatever the case or combination, the writer needs to look at the component(s) and pull examples from the poem that illustrate it. To do this, I ask my students questions.

Communication. Does the poem communicate a subject? Does the poem communicate a theme? Jean Toomer wrote "Reaper". The subject of the poem is a reaper cutting grass that cuts a rat. The theme of the poem, upon looking into the tools of imagery suggests that death is mechanical and continual. These subject and theme can comprise the whole essay depending how detailed the analysis breaks down the words and phrases.

Relevance. Is the subject or theme relevant or important to the reader? Can the reader relate to it? Most high school students say that the subject of "Reaper" is not relevant to them because they do not cut grass or work on a farm, yet the theme can be identifiable to them because they have dealt with death in some form.

Voice. Who is the speaker? Based on the words, what can you tell me about the speaker? What is the speaker’s tone? What is the speaker’s attitude or emotions? As with communication and relevance, voice is a major component that makes up the art of poetry. The voice gives us insight into the character of the speaker and the message and motivation of the character.

Imagery. What pictures are drawn? What senses are given pictures? How does imagery illustrate and communicate the speaker's voice and message? What
colors are used? How does the alliteration add to the sound of the poem? Imagery is the construction of “pictures” for any of the five senses These questions lead to metaphor, symbolism, concrete nouns, musical devices and word choice.

Technique and Structure. Does the chosen structure assist the poet in communicating the theme? How does the repetition of a line add to the voice of the speaker? In other words, what does the writer do to enhance the poem and make the above components work together? Technique and structure choice overlap. From this component comes the author’s preferred style. It can take us from Dickinson’s poetry of phrases to the metered rhyme pattern that adds a lyrical effect to Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus" and its tragic tale.

These six components work together in a good poem no matter the poet and the poem. So, when writing an essay on poetry, look at Communication, Relevance, Voice, Imagery, Technique and Structure to guide the construction of the thesis statement. This understanding of the art and science of poetry leads to infinite number of good essays where the essay can delve into the intricacies of what gave life to the body of work, what made the blood flow in the veins and what gave breath to the voice. In other words, what made it real. And one can write an essay that respects the soul of the poem and the mind of the poet.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Once again, I'm taught by the teacher. Funny you should mention Keating here.


Oh, Captain, My Captain.