Critical Thinking about Poetry and Genre

You may be wondering why, at the beginning of an introductory poetry course for which I promised I had no expectations of any expertise on your part as you enter, I’m starting off by having you tell me about what you don’t know about. I look at it this way: 1.) You probably know much more than you think, and 2.) if the choice is between reading a poetry handbook and memorizing the rulez of poemz, or trying to think critically about a set of poems (and introduce yourselves to each other as you puzzle out what makes them poems), I think the second option will be more fun and more worthwhile.

Here’s an analogy to this process: my daughter is really into birds (she’s about to turn 6). She’s also just watched The Rescuers Down Under on Netflix, which features a golden eagle large enough to carry a small boy about the Australian Outback. Now, this is technically impossible, although I grant you that it’s a Disney cartoon featuring Eva Gabor as the voice of a mouse, so what do I expect? But this is what a real golden eagle looks like:


Not at all as large as a pony.


You may be wondering why it’s called a golden eagle (instead of “brownish” or “Judy” or something), whether or not it lives in Australia, and how likely it would be to gobble up Bernard (regardless of Bob Newhart playing the voice in the cartoon) rather than accept his help. You could easily find out these questions on wikipedia. And I’m not trying to suggest that those are unimportant questions; they might be exactly the kind of thing that would get me to start googling about them, which is what happened a few weeks ago when my daughter watched the movie.

But let’s say you’re in a Biology class, and you finally get to your “Birds of Prey and Peregrination” unit, and instead of merely describing its features, your professor instead asks you why it looks like that. What could possibly be the advantage of being (and looking like) a golden eagle? It turns out we can answer that one without help, depending on which questions we want to ask.

Underneath all those feathers...

Underneath all those feathers…

I’m not just talking about the color, which I assume must be for camouflage. I mean the whole thing. It flies, so it has to be light. Which means that even though it’s really really big, there need to be economies made. You can’t be a golden eagle and have a massive jaw like a bulldog (which is actually pretty heavy for a small squat dog because of those teeth), but on the other hand look at the beak — it’s sharp, it’s pointy, it’s designed for spearing and tearing rather than for chewing: all in all, pretty light for doing what it needs to do. And it has huge eyes in proportion to the rest of its skull — this is plain from both pictures, and I assume it’s because like most eagles it circles overhead and needs to spot prey on the ground before it’s noticed (while flying the camouflage can’t be that great against a blue sky). Also, although those wings have large long bones, there’s little else there on the skeleton: it’s mostly feathers which are pretty light for doing what they do to keep the bird aloft and alive. This is why, if you’ve ever seen a bird the size of a dog on the end of a falconer’s arm, that person can still stand normally.

What I’m asking you to do in the Defining the Genre assignment is analogous to looking at a lot of birds and telling me what makes them birds. Except in the list of poems for this week, it would be like including not only eagles and ospreys and falcons and hawks (which would all be akin to a common genre of bird), but also vultures, and hummingbirds, and birds of paradise, and owls, and whippoorwills, and pigeons, and ostriches, and penguins. You’ll have to figure out how best to speak of what’s in common across all the examples and what to reject as a way of talking about the larger set. But you can do this just by reading ten poems and making a list! By the way, when you write up your definitions, I’ll be looking not just for positive statements, but for negative statements too, especially if you found them surprising or unexpected — in the same way I might have said for this other, hypothetical “Defining the Fowl” assignment:

Although all birds seem to have wings and to be built lightly and compactly, I was surprised that the penguin is completely flightless, and the ostrich doesn’t even seem to be aerodynamic.

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