From Analysis to Argument #vizpoem

This week has been mostly about the many different things to notice within poems. The three major concepts we played around with during Tuesday’s twitter conversations had a tendency to overlap, as many of you noticed: one student’s example of metaphor could easily bleed into another student’s example of ambiguity, or irony. This is because there are smaller and larger uses for each of these figurative strategies (I will call them “local” vs. “global” effects, here in this post and elsewhere). For example, the personification of  the worm as a “fellow” in Dickinson’s “[A Bird, came down the Walk]” is a local metaphor: we need to decipher what the metaphor is substituting for, but it has little bearing on our reading except for that one line. But the metaphor of the flea for the speaker’s relationship with his beloved in Donne’s “The Flea” is a global effect: it seems to be what the poem is tasking the reader with figuring out, and it has ramifications for every part of the text. In fact, by convention we call this sort of global metaphor a conceit, and Donne’s poem is an oft-cited example of metaphysical conceits. But as time passes for the reader within the complex comparison of the speaker’s love to a flea, we might have good cause to wonder whether he is serious about the parasitic nature of the flea, or being ironic, and of course there might be times within the poem when the comparison seems one or the other, or even both (hence, ambiguity).

For this Friday’s blog post, I’d like you to pick a poem that is on the list for this week but not one of the three example posts that will follow this one, and perform a reading on it. Instead of being really prescriptive with my instructions, I’d like to leave the instructions minimal for what a reading is, beyond saying that a a close reading of a poem ought to include an argument about its meaning and to draw upon your recent acquaintance with textual analysis. Instead of assigning you to hunt for ambiguity, I’d like you to read my instructional pages carefully, pick a poem, determine for yourselves what you think the poem means, and then write up your reading in such a way that you support your claim with evidence from the text. This is a practice exercise for the types of writing you will compose on the exams, so although it won’t be graded I’ll offer direct feedback. It’s a low-pressure assignment to help you practice new skills, chief among which are precise use of defined terms, and robust explanations for your analysis (your glosses).

I think the first thing we need to be clear about is that arguments in English aren’t a free for all: not every claim is correct. Although I would agree that there are an infinite number of reasonable claims about a given poem, that’s like saying there are an infinite number of numbers between 1 and 2 in the set of real numbers. A number like “1.5” or “√2” are both reasonable members of that set; but 5 is wrong. So is i, because that’s an imaginary number. So you can’t, for example, argue that Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is about the Apollo Space Program. That’s impossible! But other readings are readily available for a poem like this one, and will have the advantage of being supportable with evidence too.

Throughout Tuesday’s twitter discussion, I have been trying to get students to be more precise with their comments, and the reason is that you need to be precise about an observation before you can use it to prove a larger point. Consider: whether you’re saying something like “I think the Jabberwocky refers to some child’s nightmare confabulation of many scary things” or ““I think the Jabberwocky refers to snails,” even though the first statement is probably more correct and interesting, neither statement is persuasive yet as an argument because no evidence has been given. In order to argue persuasively about texts, you need to cite words (specific moments, events, character details, speech), and then demonstrate how you can manipulate those words (by showing how they are ironic, ambiguous, or metaphorical, or by linking them to other words through rhyme, or by proving the text emphasizes them through meter, or via enjambment, etc) by linking your evidence to your claim through reasons. Keep in mind that we all read the same text, but we all come up with different interpretations when left to our own devices. So you will have to be able to demonstrate the persuasive appeal of your claim precisely because poems trigger subtly different responses in all of us — we need to explain ourselves fully because there’s no guarantee we’re all thinking the same thing.

So as you think about how you might prove a case to somebody about what a poem means, consider that a claim (thesis) usually is of a higher order of ambition than any of the body paragraphs. So the claim of a short analysis would tell the reader what (or why) the poem means, and the body paragraphs would generally set out to explain how you see the poem accomplishing that meaning, through the various methods we’ve talked about this week.  I’ll be looking to see that every piece of evidence you use is linked to the claim in some way (so that there are no mentions of rhyme scheme or meter that don’t support anything in particular, beyond a student proving that they can identify rhyme scheme or meter). I’ll also be searching for signs that you can be thorough with your reading and organized with your presentation. You might consider simply constructing one paragraph per technique or poetic element I suggest, and sticking to that element as you prove the claim. Or, you might think of two or three holistic ways in which the elements we’ve discussed might be made to support that claim, and then take me through those reasons talking about all the suggested elements in each paragraph (this path is suaver, and I like it better, and I will prize the effort you expend more highly, but I admit it’s a harder path for beginners).

What follows are three (four with the mystery poem) example readings of poetry, each of which will start with an introductory paragraph that poses a problem of interpretation and resolves it with a claim at the end of the paragraph, and then analyzes the poem to support that claim. Note: I’m not suggesting my examples will be exhaustive! Not every reading will require analysis of every bit of evidence from the text to be persuasive. I invite you to add comments to these posts (or to tweet me your feedback, if you prefer that) to let me know if I’ve forgotten to mention data that could support my claim, or to argue against my reading altogether.

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