(Thanks, Ms. Fischer!)
|Roads Not Taken|
|Outer and Inner Structural
Exploring a Poem--Chapter 4, Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology
Dr. Vendler suggests a series of questions that students might ask about a poem as they read. The following is either quoted from the text or a summary of it from fellow AP reader Danny Lawrence.
1. Meaning---This is the usual sort of information-retrieval reading that we do with any passage of prose or verse. We come up with a summary of greater or lesser length giving the import of the passage as we make sense of it.
2. Antecedent Scenario---What has been happening before the poem starts? What has disturbed the status quo and set the poem in motion?
3. A Division into Structural Parts---Because small units are more easily handled than big ones, and because of the process of a poem, even one as short as sonnet, can't be addressed all at once with a single global question like "What's going on here?" we divide the poem into pieces.
4. The Climax---In lyric poems, the various parts tend to cluster around a moment of special significance---which its attendant parts lead up to, lead away from, help to clarify, and so on. The climax usually manifests itself by such things as greater intensity of tone, an especially significant metaphor, a change in rhythm, or a change in person.
5. The Other Parts---About each part, it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts. What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem? Does something shift gears? Does the tense change? Does the predominant grammatical form change? (For example, does the poem stop emphasizing nouns and start emphasizing participles?) Is a new person addressed? Have we left a general overlook for certain particulars?
6. Find the Skeleton---What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged? This asks students to discover the changes in tone as the poem progresses.
7. Games the Poet Plays with the Content Genre---Think about the content genres of poetry and determine which genres the poem would fit. Most poems are more than one kind. Once you have determined the genres that the poem might fit, then decide whether you think the poet has "changed the rules" for this particular poem---is he/she playing games with the genre. In most cases, a poet writing with a known content will want to do something new and interesting with that content. (The following list is by no means complete.)
The love poem The hero poem
The aubade The autobiography
The nocturne The flower poem
The pastoral The sea poem
The elegy The travel poem
The epithalamion The birthday poem
The prayer The nature poem
The solitude poem
8. Tone---Read the poem aloud now as if it were your own utterance. This activity will help you distinguish the various tones of voice it exhibits an to name them. You might need to reference #6---even though you know the changes in tone---READ IT ALOUD!
9. Agency--Who is the main agent in the poem, and does the main agent change as the poem as the poem progresses? Dr. Vendler defines agent/agency as subjects of the verb.
10. Roads Not Taken---Can you imagine the poem written in a different person, or a different tense, or with the parts rearranged, or with an additional stanza, or with one stanza left out, conjecturing why the poem might have wanted these pieces in this order? It is useful to think of plausible roads not taken by a poem, because they help to identify the roads that were taken. This will help you understand the function of each piece of the poem within the whole, and of the dynamic curve of emotion governing the order in which the pieces appear.
11. Speech Act--When we classify poems by their speech acts, we draw attention to their manner of expression more than to their content. I can apologize for any number of things---my tardiness, or my mistakes, or my clothing---but in each of these cases my speech act (whatever its content) is an apology. Similarly, I can protest about time, or death, or love--but in every case, my speech act is a protest. Since the language of the poem can be thought of as a series of utterances by a speaker, the poem expects you to track the person's successive speech acts, just as you might do in life when you might say, "First, she criticized me, then she apologized, then she explained why she was upset, and finally she asked if we could still be friends." A poem's speech act need to be followed and identified in the same way.
12. Outer and Structural Forms---A poem can also be classified according to various aspects of its outer and inner form. The outer form has to do with meter, rhyme, and stanza-form. In investigating the internal structure of a poem, one should try to divide it into parts along its "fault lines." Where does the logic of the argument seem to break? Where does the major change in tense or speech act take place? Here are some ingredients of internal structural form that will help you to explore a poem:
- Sentences---The poet means for us to notice how many sentences there are in a poem, and how they relate to one another. Look closely at length and type of sentences used.
- Person---determine the person--first, second, third and whether that person is singular or plural. A change of person as poem goes along is a significant structuring device.
- Agency---Every sentence has a subject; the subject is the agent of the verb. It is important to know who "owns," by agency, every part of every poem.
- Tense---Sentences are written in tense, and tenses are also an important internal structuring aspect of the poem, making it move in time from past to present to future. Tense changes ask to be noticed.
- Images or Sensual Words---linked words (referring especially to the senses of sight and hearing) help to structure many poems. These words can be all of one sort (a collection of names of different flowers, for instance in Milton's "Lycidas") of they can be of different sorts; that is, a series of specific nouns like "flood," "earthquake," "fire," and "shipwreck" can all help to construct the single abstract category "catastrophe." There are systematic ways in which the concrete words that some refer to as "images" may be assembled, too: they may be arranged in parallel, or in contrast, or in a ranked hierarchy.