Poem Analysis

 This week’s poems are fixed forms: forms with tight constraints on variables like number of lines, meter, line-length, rhyme, or line ending words. First, sonnets: by three sixteenth century authors participating in the vogue of writing long sequences of sonnets devoted to (mostly) unrequited love, and then by four twentieth century authors who use the form to different ends. Second, villanelles: another poem by Bishop, and one by Martha Collins (a wonderful poet who lives hear Harvard Square). Finally, a poem that invents a new form, initially as a tribute to Brooks and now used by other writers. Hayes has a weekly column in the NYT Magazine featuring a poem by someone else that he likes with a few sentences about why; if this tickles your fancy, check it out. 

Things to mark up/questions to ask when you read a poem (a running list):

This is an expansion of the questions in the first poetry analysis.

  1. Are there repetitions, exact (“cold dark deep and absolutely clear”) or with variation (“the squat pen rests [, snug as a gun.][. I’ll dig with it]”)? Pay attention to them!
  2. Are there regularities in line length?
    1. What controls or motivates the end of a line?
    2. If the lines aren’t all the same number of syllables (aka, in a regular meter), does variation in line length correlate to anything in the poem?
  3. Ask the same question about stanzas—if there is not a regular stanza form (as in Heaney, “Digging”), where do verse paragraphs get longer or shorter?
    1. If there is (as in Moore, “The Fish,” e.g.), how do topics (and sometimes sentences) get distributed in and across stanzas?
  4. Is there an organized rhythm?
    1. If yes, are there places of important variation in pattern or emphasis?
    2. Think also about repeated patterns of syntax as contributing to rhythm (e.g., 3x “Adjective was the noun I verbed,” in Dunbar), and notice where these patterns of syntax change (as in the last line of that poem).
  5. Are units of meaning (phrases and sentences) aligned with units of meter, so lines end with punctuation—or not?
    1. Are there places that stand out as different, as in, the only end-stopped line or enjambment or caesuras?
    2. Or does the general “habit” of the poem (e.g., to end each line with punctuation) change at some point?
  6. What places and times exist in the poem?
    1. Does the verb tense or mood shift (e.g. from past to present, from declarative—”I saw”—to conditional—”I would have seen”)?
  7. Who is in it? Where and when are they?
    1. Where: “offstage”, near/far in Frost.
    2. When: remembered past, Yeats; past + ongoing present, Whitman.
  8. Who is speaking and being spoken to or about? Pronouns: I, we, they, you (who?), one (so formal and impersonal!).
  9. Are there key terms (“home”) being evaluated and/or vocabularies of words grouped under related concepts (worth and value)?

Questions to ask about a poem: if they seem boring/trivial OR too hard/confusing to answer, they might not be the most revealing questions about a given poem. But all are worth trying!

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