Saturday, December 31, 2011

What makes a poem a poem?

There are certain basic characteristics shared by poetry of all ages.  As readers, we have come to expect these qualities unconsciously.  When they are missing, we may sense the lack without knowing exactly what is wrong.  As writers of poetry, we depend on them. 

For a poem to be considered one, it must have three essential elements:

1)     musicality,
2)     rhythm, and
3)     poetic language.

What is poetry?

Defining poetry seems difficult because the genre includes such an astonishing variety of forms and approaches—from lengthy Greek epics to three-line haikus, from complex metrical schemes to the apparent formlessness of some free verse.  When we analyze a poem, we do so to make the poem mean more to us, not less.  Whenever we read a poem that excites us, knowing the skill that makes the poem work can make the poem more alive and lasting.  No one better than poets can provide the best definitions of what poetry is: 

W.H. Auden: "the clear expression of mixed feelings"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "the best words in the best order"

   Percy Shelley: "the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds"

Thomas Carlyle: "musical thoughts"

Matthew Arnold: "at bottom, a criticism of life"

     Emily Dickinson: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

     Gerard Manley Hopkins: "speech framed... to be heard for its own sake and interest even over and above its interest of meaning"

Wallace Stevens: "a revelation in words by means of the words"

        T.S. Eliot: "not the assertion that something is true, but the making of that truth more fully real to us"

            William Stafford: "anything said in such a way, or put on the page in such a way, as to invite from the hearer or the reader a certain kind of attention"

Archibald MacLeish: "A poem should not mean/But be"

Paul Valery: "Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking"

      Francois Ponge: "[The function of poetry] is to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle"

       Allen Ginsberg: "Poetry is a kind of meditation that slows me down and brings me back to myself"

    Edith Sitwell: "The poet speaks to all men of that other life of theirs that they have smothered and forgotten"

Robert Wallace: "No magic, no poem"

Christopher Fry: "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement"

Janet Rice: "The interaction with a particular poem, or the performance of it, becomes a rite of passage from one stage of awareness of self to another, with the poem as the facilitator or guide during the process"

 Robert Bly: "My feeling is that poetry is also a healing process, and then when a person tries to write poetry with depth or beauty, he will find himself guided along paths which will heal him, and this is more important, actually, than any of the poetry he writes.”

Thomas Gray: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”

Edgar Allan Poe: “Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.”

   Edwin Arlington Robinson: “Poetry has two outstanding characteristics.  One is that is indefinable.  The other is that it is eventually unmistakable.”

Why should we read poetry?

The impulse to create and appreciate poetry is as basic to human experience as language itself.  Although no one can point to the precise origins of poetry, it is one of the most ancient of the arts, because it has existed ever since human beings discovered pleasure in language.  In fact, the necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race.  
We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the most beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his love, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.  Poetry and history are the textbooks to the heart of man, and poetry is at once the most intimate and the most enduring.

How to read a poem

All poems should be read for pleasure; however, here are some guidelines to keep in mind when reading a poem:

-  Assume that it will be necessary to read a poem more than once.  Give yourself a chance to become familiar with what the poem has to offer.  Like a piece of music, a poem becomes more pleasurable with each encounter.
- Pay attention to the title; it will often provide a helpful context for the poem and serve as an introduction to it.
- Read the poem straight through without stopping to analyze it (aloud, if possible).  This will help you get a sense of how it sounds, how it works, what it might be about.
- Look up words you do not know; these might include names, places, historical and mythical references, or anything else that is unfamiliar to you.
- Look for patterns. Watch for repeated, interesting, or even unfamiliar use of language, imagery, sound, color, or arrangement.  Ask, “What is the poet trying to show through this pattern?”
- Look for changes in tone, focus, narrator, structure, voice, patterns. Ask: “What has changed and what does the change mean?”
- Identify the persona. Who is speaking in the poem?  What is the setting or situation?
- Reread the poem aloud. Paraphrase the poem to determine if you understand what happens in it or what it is about.
- Find the crucial moments. The pivotal moment might be as small as the word but or yet.  Such words often act like hinges within a poem to swing the poem in a whole new direction.
- Consider form and function. Now is a good time to look at some of the poet’s more critical choices. Did the poet use a specific form, such as the sonnet?  Did the poet use specific poetic devices and figures of speech which you should identify so that you can better understand the poem?
- Check for improved understanding. Read the poem aloud through again. Return to the title and ask yourself what the poem is about and how the poem relates to the title.
- Do not expect to produce a definite reading.  Many poems do not resolve all the ideas, issues, or tensions in them.  Do not be afraid that a close reading will damage the poem.  On the contrary, poems come alive as we experience them and put into words what we discover through them.

Ars Poetica


“The poet really does see the world differently, and everything in it.  He does not deliberately go into training to sharpen his senses; he is a poet because his senses are naturally open and vitally sensitive.  But what the poet sees with his always new vision is not what is ‘imaginary’; he sees what others have forgotten how to see.  The poet is always inadvertently stripping away the veils and showing us his reality.  Many poets, as we know, go mad because they cannot bear the worlds of illusion and falsehood in which most human beings spend their lives.” (Karl Shapiro)

“You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.” (Joubert)

“Science is for those who learn; poetry, for those who know.” (Roux)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Approaches to analyzing literary works


At any given moment in mature interpretation of a piece of literature, the reader may be responding from one particular orientation—perhaps a biographical, historical, formalistic, or psychological approach.  Ideally, however, the ultimate response should be multiple and eclectic.  This is so because a work of literary art is the embodiment of a potential human experience; and because human experience is multidimensional, the reader needs a variety of ways to approach and make real that experience.


- HISTORICAL-BIOGRAPHICAL: It sees a literary work chiefly, if not exclusively, as a reflection of its author’s life and times or the life and times of the characters in the work.

- MORAL-PHILOSOPHICAL: The basic position is that the main role of literature is to teach morality and to examine philosophical issues.

THE FORMALISTIC APPROACH:  Its sole objective is the discovery and explanation of form in the literary work.  What the work says and how it says it is seen as inseparable issues.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL, PSYCHOANALYTIC or FREUDIAN APPROACH: It provides many profound clues toward solving a work’s thematic and symbolic mysteries, but can seldom account for the beautiful symmetry of a well-wrought poem or of a fictional masterpiece.  Though this approach is an excellent tool for reading beneath the lines, the reader must often use other tools, such as the traditional and formalistic, for a proper rendering of the work itself.

MYTHOLOGICAL and ARCHETYPAL APPROACHES or JUNGIAN APPROACH: It tends to emphasize mythical patterns in literature, on the assumption that myths are closer to the elemental archetype than the artful products of sophisticated writers.  Its affinities are with religion, anthropology, and cultural history.  Myths are stories, whether true or not, which human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.  The myth critic sees the work holistically as the manifestation of vitalizing, integrative forces arising from the depths of mankind’s collective psyche.

THE EXPONENTIAL APPROACH: The thematic statements made in literature are frequently more implicit than explicit, if only because they are often made by the communicative and evocative power of symbols and images rather than by expository language.  This approach recognizes such images and symbols.  In the creation of a literary work, the writer has an idea he wishes to communicate. Consciously or otherwise, he then uses a means of doing it.  He must select specific devices and must arrange them so that they can communicate or embody that experience.

ARISTOTELIAN CRITICISM (including THE CHICAGO SCHOOL): It develops the concept of form in Aristotle’s Poetics.  From the Poetics we have such basic notions as catharsis (the cleansing of the soul), the characteristics of the tragic hero (the noble figure; pride, or hubris; the error of judgment, or harmatia; the tragic flaw), the formative elements of drama, the unity of plot, and perhaps more significantly, the basic concept of mimesis, or imitation, the idea that works of literature are imitations of actions.

FEMINIST CRITICISM: It is concerned with the politics of women’s authorship and the representation of women’s condition within literature.

GENRE CRITICISM: It is a traditional way of approaching a piece of literature and assumes that if one knew into what genre a literary work fell (poetry, fiction, or drama), he would know much about the work itself.

THE LINGUISTICS APPROACH: Linguistics is the study of language.  This approach suggests that since language is the medium of literature, the more we know about the medium, the more we will know about literature.  The reader may gain insight into the writer or the work or both by discovering patterns in the linguistic choices that the writer, consciously or unconsciously, has made.

THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH: When a reader places himself in the hands of an author, surrendering his time and attention to that author’s creation, he begins to live within the world that the author has created.  Phenomenology is a method for changing our relation to the world, for becoming more acutely aware of it.  Criticism demands above all that gift of participation, that power to put oneself within the life of another person.

THE RHETORICAL APPROACH: It is a mode of internal criticism which considers the interactions between the work, the author, and the audience.  It regards the literary work as an artistically structured instrument for communication.  It is more interested in a literary work for what it does than for what it is.

THE SOCIOLOGICAL APPROACH (including MARXIST CRITICISM):  It emphasizes the importance of social themes when dealing with literature.  Writers have often expressed special interest in social reform, and literature has projected the movement of social history.

SOURCE STUDY and RELATED APPROACHES (GENETIC): A literary work is considered in terms of its “origins.”  It studies how the work came into being, and what influences were at work to give it exactly the qualities that it has. 

THE STRUCTURALIST APPROACH: It views literature as a second-order system which uses language, the first-order system, as its medium, and is itself to be analyzed primarily on the model of linguistic theory.  At a different level, structuralism might be the study of how recurrent patterns may be detected, not just within a particular work, but throughout literature, perhaps revealing something about the way the human mind works.

THE STYLISTICS APPROACH: Stylistics is the study of the way the author uses his words and grammar.  It focuses mainly on how something is said rather than what is said.  The stylistic features may be (1) phonological (patterns of speech sounds); (2) syntactic (types of sentence structure); (3) lexical (abstract vs. concrete words, the relative frequency of nouns, verbs, adjectives); or (4) rhetorical (the characteristic use of figurative language, imagery, and so on).

THE NEW CRITICISM emphasizes the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author’s psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response.  Each literary work should be regarded as an independent and self-sufficient object.

The elements of fiction

The ELEMENTS OF FICTION can be used by the readers to increase their enjoyment and understanding of different literary pieces. The more familiar they become with the different kinds of elements the better they will understand and analyze works of fiction.
PLOT or STORY LINE is the author’s arrangement of incidents in a story.  It is the organizing principle that controls the order of events.

A plot has UNITY OF ACTION if it is perceived by the reader as a complete and ordered structure of actions, directed toward the intended effect, in which none of the component parts, or incidents, is unnecessary.

A. Exposition:  The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, and the setting.
B.     Rising action: the build-up of the conflict or action.
C.    Conflict: the problem in the story.
D. Complication: the introduction of secondary related conflicts, including obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal.
E.     Climax: the point of highest dramatic tension or a major turning point in the story.
F.     Falling action: the winding down of the conflict or action.
G.     Resolution: the way in which a story is resolved or concluded:
a)     Catastrophe or outcome (in tragedies)
b)     Denouement (in comedies)
c)      Discovery, learning, or newfound insight.

SUBPLOT is a second story that is complete and interesting in its own right.  If skillfully managed, the subplot serves to broaden our perspective on the main plot and to enhance rather than diffuse the overall effect.

THEME is the central idea or meaning of a story.  It provides a unifying point around which the plot, characters, setting, point of view, symbols, and other elements of a story are organized.  The universal literary themes are usually based on conflicts.  They are: 1. Quest for “X”; 2. Liberation; 3. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Society, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Technology; 4. The tragic vision; 5. Quest for “Y”.

MOTIF is an element—a type of incident, device, reference, or formula—which recurs frequently in literature.

LEITMOTIF is applied to frequent repetition of a significant phrase, set descriptions, or complex images in a single work.

NARRATOR, PERSONA, or POINT OF VIEW: It is the perspective from which the story is told.  PERSONA is often applied to the first-person narrator, the “I” of a narrative poem or novel, or the lyric speaker whose voice we listen to in a lyric poem.
A.     The first person narrates from one character’s perspective, generally told using pronouns like “I” and “me” or first person plural, “we” and “us”.
B.    The self-conscious narrator reveals to the reader that the narration is a work of fictional art.
C.    The self-reflexive novel incorporates into its narration reference to the composition of the fictional story itself.
D.   The third person limited point of view is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows only the thoughts and feelings of a single character, while other characters are presented only externally. Third person limited grants a writer more freedom than first person, but less than third person omniscient.
E.  The free indirect style uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first person.  In other words, the narrator gets so close to the character that it seems that he mingles with it.
F.    The stream of consciousness is a narrative mod that seeks to capture the full spectrum and the continuous flow of a character’s mental processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his actions.  It is characterized by associative leaps in syntax and punctuation that can make the prose difficult to follow.
G.    The omniscient narrator or omniscient point of view knows everything that needs to be known about the agents and events, and can delve into the characters’ thoughts, emotions, and motives.  Within this mode: 
a)   The intrusive narrator not only reports but freely comments on and evaluates the actions and motives of the characters authoritatively.
b)    The unobtrusive or impersonal narrator describes or shows the action in dramatic scenes without introducing his own comments or judgments.

SETTING is the general locale, historical time, and a social circumstance in which action occurs.

ATMOSPHERE is the tonality pervading a literary work, which fosters in the reader expectations as to the course of events, whether happy or (more commonly) terrifying or disastrous.

MOOD is the emotional condition created by the piece, within the setting.  Mood refers to the general sense or feeling which the reader is supposed to get from the text.

SYMBOLISM: A symbol, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to a sign—i.e., anything which signifies something else.  In fiction, it is the art of expressing invisible or untouchable entities with visible or sensual representations.

STYLE refers to the distinctive manner in which a writer arranges words to achieve particular effects.  That arrangement includes individual word choices and matters such as length of sentences, their structure, tone, and the use of irony.

DICTION refers to the writer’s choice of words.  Because different words evoke different associations in a reader’s mind, the writer’s choice of words is crucial in controlling a reader’s response.  The diction must be appropriate for the characters and the situations in which the author places them.

TONE is the author’s implicit attitude toward the people, places, and event in a story.  Style reveals tone.

IRONY is a device that reveals a reality different from what appears to be true.
A.   Verbal irony is a statement in which the speaker’s implicit meaning differs sharply from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed. 
B.   Situational irony exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.
C.  Dramatic irony involves a situation in a play or narrative in which the audience or reader shares with the author knowledge of present or future circumstances of which a character is ignorant.
D.  Cosmic irony (or “irony of fate”) is used in reference to literary works in which God, or destiny, or the process of the universe, is represented as though deliberately manipulating events so as to lead the protagonist to false hopes, only to frustrate or mock them.
E.   Romantic irony is a mode of narrative writing in which the author builds up artistic illusion, only to break it down by revealing that the author, as artist, is the arbitrary creator and manipulator of the characters and their actions.

CHARACTERIZATION is the method by which a writer creates people in a story so that they seem actually to exist.  Characters may be presented by telling (the narrator intervenes authoritatively in order to describe and evaluate their motives and qualities) or by showing what characters say and do (also called “the Dramatic Method”).

CHARACTERS are the persons presented in a dramatic or narrative work, who are interpreted by the reader as being endowed with moral, dispositional, and emotional qualities that are expressed in what they say—the dialogue—and by what they do—the action.  Characters are developed by actions, speech, appearance, other characters’ comments, and the narrator’s comments.  Types of characters:
A.    The protagonist (or alternatively, the hero or heroine) is the main character in a work of fiction, on whom our interest centers and who engages our empathy.
B.     The antagonist is the force that opposes the protagonist.
C.     Minor or secondary characters play a supporting role rather than a central role in the story. Many secondary characters are non-essential, though they probably make the plot more interesting or more believable.
D.  A flat character, or two dimensional, is built around a single idea or quality and can be described in a single sentence.
E.    A round character is complex in temperament and motivation, and it is difficult to describe with any adequacy as a person in real life and, like most persons, is capable of surprising us.
F.      A static character does not change.
G.     A dynamic character undergoes some kind of change.
H.     A foil character helps to reveal by contrast the distinctive qualities of another character.
I.       An unseen character is a character that is never directly observed by the reader but is only described by other characters.
J.  An archetype is a character that recurs throughout literature and thought consistently enough to be considered universal.
K.     A stock character is a stereotype or a type rather than an individual.
L.      An antihero has little control over events.
M.    A villain sets up a scheme which depends for its success on the ignorance or gullibility of the person or persons against whom it is directed.

A character flaw is a limitation, imperfection, problem, phobia, or deficiency present in a character that may be otherwise very functional. The flaw can be a problem that directly affects the character’s actions and abilities.  Flaws can add depth and humanity to the characters in a narrative.

FLASHBACK is a literary device in which an earlier event is inserted into the normal chronological order of a narrative.

FORESHADOWING is a literary device in which future events in a story, or perhaps the outcome, are suggested by the author before they happen. Foreshadowing can take many forms and be accomplished in many ways, with varying degrees of subtlety.

What is the value of literature?

One of the most important values of literature is that it nourishes our emotional lives.  An effective literary work may seem to speak directly to us, especially if we are ripe for it.  The inner life that good writers reveal in their characters often gives us glimpses of some portion of ourselves.  Besides, human emotions speak a universal language regardless of when or where a work was written.

In addition to appealing to our emotions, literature broadens our perspectives of the world.  It allows to move beyond the inevitable boundaries of our own lives and introduces us to people different to ourselves, places remote from our neighborhoods, and times other than our own.  Reading makes us more aware of life’s possibilities as well as its subtleties and ambiguities.  Put simply, people who read literature experience more life and have a keener sense of a common human identity than those who do not.

To discover the insights that literature reveals requires careful reading and sensitivity.  It is true, of course, that many people go through life without reading imaginative literature, but that is a loss rather than a gain.  Reading literature encourages a suppleness of mind that is helpful in any discipline of work because it enhances and sharpens your perceptions.  —The Bedfore Introduction to Literature by Michael Meyer

Thursday, December 29, 2011

On books and reading

  • Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. —Francis Bacon

  •   A good reader is a “rereader.”  —Vladimir Nabokov

  • We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are.  —Harold Bloom

  • In fact, it is Shakespeare who gives us the map of the mind. It is Shakespeare who invents Freudian Psychology. Freud finds ways of translating it into supposedly analytical vocabulary.  —Harold Bloom

  •  Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.  —Charles W. Eliot

  • I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.  —E.M. Forster

  •  A book is a mirror:  when a monkey looks in, no apostle can look out. —Lichtenberg

  •  All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you:  the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.  —Ernest Hemingway

What is literature?

Understanding exactly what literature is has always been a challenge; pinning down a definition has proven to be quite difficult simply because the term literature is very elusive.  Literally translated, the word means “acquaintance with letters” (from Latin littera, letter), and therefore the academic study of literature is known as Letters.  The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary provides one of the simplest and best definitions: “Pieces of writing that are valued as works of art, especially novels, plays, and poems”. 

For a work of literature to be considered one, it must follow these criteria:

1)     it is a written text
2)     it has excellence of form or expression
3)     it is in a literary genre (poetry, fiction, or drama)
4)     it is read aesthetically
5)     it contains a permanent or universal interest