recap

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.

First #popcornpoems Recap for #vizpoem

Here is our first aesthetic production! Congratulations on your corporate authorship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week 1 recap #vizpoem

I think this is a good start. So far this week we have collectively tweeted 312 times and created or edited 85 blog posts. I’m sure you’ve noticed that these first-week activities have been designed to provide an easy access into online coursework; I happen to know (because you’ve told me!) that some of you are not that familiar with the twitter or with blogging — though I hope your familiarity and comfort level is growing and will continue to grow with each new interaction. This semester we are lucky to have been joined by a number of open participants, who are not taking the course for credit but who will prove to be highly motivated assists to our collective learning in this course. For a useful frame of reference, last semester’s summer Visual Poetry course had only tweeted 131 times by this point in the first week, so kudos, megatweeters! Having said that, I’m looking forward to seeing some of you who are lurking but not participating, or favoriting the tweets of others while not contributing your own, emerge from the shadows and get on the board in your own right.

I’m using this post to recap some elements of our twitter conversations and to provide a model for the last required blog post for this week: using at least three tweets that you and your classmates have posted throughout the week to arrive at a definition for (lyric) poetry that satisfies you. I’d like you not to rely on only your own! Part of this is an exercise in constraints: I’d like your blog posts and the twitter convos to be mutually reinforcing, so I want you to limit yourself only to elaborating on a tweet, not using it as a pretext for saying something alien to the original tweet. If you now find that there’s a hole in your definition because you neglected to post an idea of yours — remember that for next time: we need to contribute our ideas in the moment so that they are useful for all of us.

So I’m going to use this post to do two things: 1.) to show how a proper definition doesn’t exclude contrary examples, but rather makes room for both typical and atypical examples, and 2.) to help you distinguish between poetry and the slightly smaller category of lyric poetry. Ok, scratch that number — 3.) I also want to link to an earlier post I wrote (elsewhere) about how to embed tweets in blog posts, and which you can find again in the FAQ at a later date.

So I think the first thing we should do is to disambiguate poetry from lyric poetry, which is just a subgenre. The “Lyric” is a type of poem whose name actually comes from ancient Greek: poets would strum a lyre and speak at the same time — this is the same reason we call them song lyrics when we hear them on the radio and want to refer to the word parts of the songs (as distinct from, but intimately related to, the music we heard). Lyric poems are generally thought to be musical in nature, and like the songs you hear on the radio they are usually short, passionate, and dedicated to the relation of momentary timespan. That is not to say that lyric poems can’t be long sometimes (just as, although most pop songs are around three minutes, every now and then you hear a “Bohemian Rhapsody” or worse), but when they do you know the lyrics are operating against convention.

This is one of many tweets that emphasized emotion, or sympathy, or a momentary strong feeling. It’s a great metaphor for lyric poetry. But not all poetry is lyric poetry. As I attempted to show with my interventions this week, not all poems want you to feel along with the speaker. Dramatic poetry (such as Frost’s “Home Burial,” Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, or anything by Shakespeare) are all about action rather than psychology. And epic or narrative poems (like Shelley’s “Alastor,” Yeats’s “Wanderings of Oisin,” or Virgil’s Aeneid) are about chronology and causality, the summative act of placing moments within a set of adjacent other moments.

So, in attempting to distinguish lyrics from dramas and narratives, we cast about for whatever seemed essential to novels or plays in order to find out what was essential about poems. I think this tweet by Melissa Johnson gets closest to the point, although I emphatically disagree that meaning is infinite:

Because poetry bothers to frame itself in lots of blank space, every line can be scrutinized and read either with or against the grain. In that sense, the poet is holding a mirror up to another mirror and rejoicing in all of the reflections, however distorted, that result. The interplay between the content of the poem and the “look” of the poem accounts for this multiplicity: as the Russian phonologist Roman Jakobson would have inserted at this moment, poetry is language inherently aware of itself. But as I say, that awareness also lends itself to a set of plausible interpretations, so I don’t think it’s infinite. Instead, as I tried to show by bringing up the example of Marcel DuChamp’s Fountain, sometimes the main effect of a poem is to take something humdrum and everyday and, by offering it a new poetic frame, provide it with a new set of possible meanings which are related to, but not confined by, the original meaning (in this case, of a urinal).

So to be clear, I do not mean the intent of the poet, which we can’t know; this was a bit of regrettable misprision. A poem will produce a set of stable meanings (let’s call that the poem’s intent) that is semideterminable by the equation intent ~ content + context + provocation. There’s the content, the “aboutness” of the poem, which can be deduced via a simple paraphrase; there’s the context, which can include a host of factors: the rhyme scheme or lack thereof, the regular meter and its absence or deviations, the stanza/metrical form and subgenre of poem it seems to be (elegy, sonnet, ballad, villanelle, terza rima, ottava rima, etc.). This is the part I have to teach you in the next few weeks, since you will get better and better at parsing the context of the poem’s content the more you are able to recognize the conversations the poem is entering into because of its assigned form. And really, only be knowing about those conversations can you get a grasp on its provocation, its way of placing itself alongside its generic peers and troubling either the audience’s conception of what a poem can or should do, or of using generic form to trouble the audience’s understanding of the world they live in by offering an image of how that world can or should be changed, hopefully for the better.

I would argue that all poems can be analyzed along these three characteristics. The lyric does this by creating a psychology for a speaking voice (just one), by giving that voice’s utterance a frame to radiate within — being enhanced or diminished or called into question by the cadence, uncanny resemblances, or visual structures of the context. And do keep in mind that although the lyric has a long history of attempting to establish a close rapport with its reader (a conventional intimacy), this is yet another context, and it too can be used or spurned in order to create a provocation.