THE ELEMENTS OF POETRY KINDS OF POEMS The three major types of poems are lyric, narrative, and dramatic. Lyric is a short and subjective, expressing the speaker’s thoughts. Most critics would agree that the kinds of lyric are aubade, dramatic monologue, elegy, epigram, haiku, hymn, meditation, occasional poem, ode, pastoral, song, sonnet, and villanelle. A narrative poem tells a story (although it may be short). The kinds of narratives are ballads, epic, and often prose poems. Famous epics include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Old English Beowulf, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Not to be confused with poetic drama (plays in verse), dramatic poetry nonetheless borrows such techniques from plays as dramatic monologue, for example “Prufrock.” Dramatic poems often have more characters than just the speaker. SPEAKER The speaker of the poem is analogous to the narrator of a short story or novel. Like a novel’s narrator, a poem’s speaker is usually not the same as the poem’s author. Sometimes the speaker presents the author’s thoughts. Sometimes not. Sometimes the author creates a speaker who is rather identifiable like a person. That kind of narrator is a persona, and is comparable to fiction’s first-person narrator. A persona may be the author, or a made-up character, or even a real person. In Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” the persona is communal or corporate—several people speaking the same thing at once, like a tragic Greek chorus, which fits a poem about tragic characters. The speaker of most dramatic poems is involved in the action. More often the speaker is disembodied, resembling a novel’s third-person narrator. This speaker is outside the action. The speaker in most narrative poems is outside the action. Usually, the speaker in a lyric is a persona—involved in the action related. The speaker usually addresses an audience. The speaker might be addressing the reader, a real person, a character from literature, another character in the poem, an idea, or an object. The speaker may also address a person, character, or object that is absent. In Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the persona seems to address not only the memory of his father, but also the father himself, because the
memory is so strong it is almost palpable. The speaker often occupies a tangible place, like London in "Prufrock," or at least is in a particular situation, such as mourning in Robert Lowell's "For John Berryman." The speaker’s tone results from all of the poem’s other elements. It is more or less implicit it everything about the poem, but is not readily identifiable in any one thing. Tone can be mixed. The speaker in Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” depicts his father as unrefined, but the speaker still cherishes the memory of the father, for good and ill—not either/or. So tone may be one or more attitudes, even a mix of opposites, such as happiness and sadness, comedy and tragedy, or secretive and revealing. DICTION Diction means wording. Words have two kinds of meaning, denotative (the literal meaning) and connotation (what it implies). To call somebody a “drinker” or a “boozer” is to use words whose denotations are synonymous but who connotations are different. The connotations vary by context. “Island” is honorific if it applies to a vacation in Hawaii, but not if it applies to being shipwrecked in the Aleutians in December. Before the nineteenth century, diction was stilted. (“Elevated” has the same denotation as stilted,” but not the same connotation.) Samuel Johnson said that poetic diction should be “refined from the grossness of domestic use.” But poets such as Wordsworth and Whitman emphasized everyday diction. As in nonfiction, there are three levels of diction. High style is polysyllabic and Latinate. It is elevated, formal, dignified, and complex. Middle style or plain style is a mix of Latinate and Germanic. It is everyday language, but literate and urbane. Low is the vulgate: monosyllabic and simplistic with a lot of slang. When Alexander “Scarface” Pope claimed that monosyllabic diction is tedious, he used it to demonstrate his point: And ten low words oft creep in one dull line. FIGURES OF SPEECH Figuration occurs when a word or words mean something other than their literal meaning. The following is a common account of figuration, but critics don’t agree exactly on what terms are examples of figuration or how to define each term. For example, most critics do not consider all forms of comparison as figures of speech. For example, not
all include “analogy” on the list, and not all consider synechdoche a form of metonymy. COMPARATIVES Metaphor is a form of comparison that makes similar things that usually are not similar. Aristotle (not the one who married Jackie) defined metaphor as “a yoking of opposites.” The speaker in Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors” says, I’m a riddle in nine syllables, An elephant, a ponderous house, A melon strolling on two tendrils…. Plath is being comical about being pregnant. Of course, all writing uses metaphor. To express her fragility, Janie’s mother in Their Eyes Were Watching God says, “I’m a cracked plate.” Non-fiction also uses metaphor. Listen to political speeches and see how much life-and-death policies rest on metaphors. (A great book on this topic is Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.) Simile is a species of metaphor. Whereas metaphor speaks of one thing as if it’s another thing, a simile uses “as” or “like” to compare things that usually are not similar. “My love is a rose” is a metaphor; “my love is like a rose” is a simile. This famous simile is from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherised upon a table; Pun is a species of metaphor because it brings together words that normally don’t go together, often by substituting one for the other. The words are usually of similar sound or meaning, but are otherwise different. James Weldon Johnson wrote of a minister who said, ”I intend to explain the unexplainable, define the indefinable, ponder the imponderable, and screw the inscrutable.” So puns force similarities between dissimilarities to create hilarities. Personification, for our purposes, is synonymous with anthropomorphism and is a species of metaphor. It imposes human
qualities on animals, plants, inanimate objects, or ideas. Animation: Inanimate objects or ideas with lifelike (but not human) qualities. In “Prufrock,” the fog has catlike qualities. The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the windowpanes Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, * * * * * * * * Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. Thus animation, like personification, often makes the setting or situation clearer. Apostrophe occurs when the speaker addresses 1) an absent character, or 2) an absent or present non-human thing with human qualities, or 3) an absent or present non-human thing without human characteristics but nonetheless lifelike. In examples one and two, apostrophe is a kind of personification. In example three, apostrophe is a kind of animation. Conceit is one form of extended metaphor. Its two terms are far-fetched, but brilliantly so. Samuel Johnson described the two parts as “yoked by violence.” It applies to the analogy that informs the whole text. A conceit is like a musical motif, and the whole poem grows out of the many variations that the poet can squeeze out of the basic analogy. It’s usually lyric or dramatic. It starts with an analogy between A and B, and then proceeds by finding an analogy between A and C, then A and D, etc. Allegory is another kind of extended metaphor. It is usually narrative. It posits a series of events and characters and objects as comparable to another such series. It is more like an extended metaphor than an extended symbol because there is always one meaning with little ambiguity. A classic example is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial City” reprises John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Allusion is comparative insofar as it is an implicit, suggestive, and subtle hint at literary works, events, people, places or things. An explicit, blatant reference loses its figural quality. Symbolism, for our purposes, must have two traits. It must refer to at least two possible meanings. And it must be ambiguous. A classic example would be Melville’s whale. So would Melville’s ocean. If we use “symbol” for something that has only one meaning, then “symbol” can be used for anything that means something. Often “symbolize” is not as precise as “suggest,” “imply,” or signify.” Like the wall from Bartleby to Pink Floyd, the wall in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is symbolic because it means more than one thing and the things it might mean are ambiguous. A peace sign had one set of meanings for doves and another for hawks. Most critics hold that because a symbol’s signified is largely ambiguous and multi-valent while a metaphor’s signified is not, symbolism is not an extended metaphor. In addition, a symbol’s vehicle or signifier must be concrete. Something can symbolize freedom, but freedom can’t symbolize. A public or conventional symbol has a rather agreed upon though multivalent referent, such as the flag or the cross. It’s easy for a door to be symbolic, even when it’s ajar. A contextual or literary symbol arises out of the poem in relation to the rest of the poem. Poe’s raven symbolizes meanings not ordinarily associated with ravens. CONTRASTIVE Metonymy in the narrowest sense is the use of a whole entity to stand for part of that entity. For example, we say "Washington" when we mean the federal government. To say that England invaded America is to let “England” stand for its army. When Notre Dame beats Army, it’s not two entire institutions involved. When we say Faulkner is difficult, we usually mean only that part of him that is his writing. In the New York theatre, "on Broadway" and "off Broadway" don't mean productions taking place in buildings on or off that street. "On Broadway" means major productions, and "off Broadway" means minor ones. Metonymy in the broadest sense is a little like metaphor in that it uses words associated with other words. But unlike metaphor, in metonymy the association already exists. Metonymy is contrastive insofar as it starts with a whole and breaks it apart. Thus metonymy in the broadest sense includes not only
metonymy in the strictest sense (the whole for the part) but also synechdoche in the strictest sense (the part for the whole). This is especially true of psychoanalytic critics who, following Jacques Lacan, speak of metonymy as the linguistic equivalent of Freud’s concept of displacement, which means hiding A by putting B in its place, especially when B was originally associated with A. Synechdoche in the narrowest sense is the use of part of something to stand for all of it. For example, Dylan Thomas writes of a ruler’s decree, “A goose’s quill has put an end to murder.” A classic example is “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The pen is associated with writing because the pen is part of writing; the sword is associated with war because the sword is part of war. In “beating swords into ploughshares,” we mean converting from tools of war to tools of agriculture. “The stage” is part of theatre, but can mean all of it. “All hands” means all sailors. In “Give us this day our daily bread,” you’re really hoping for more than just bread. Synechdoche in the broad sense is a kind of "metonymy." When Lacanians speak of "metonymy" in the broad sense, they include synechdoche. (The pronunciation of “synechdoche is “sin EK dough key,” not “SIN ik doak.” Cynicism has nothing to do with it. And by the way, the pronunciation of “pronunciation” is “pro NUN see A shun,” not “pro NOUN see A shun.” There’s no “noun” in “pronunciation” and no “nun” in “pronounce.” Irony appears often in poetry. Verbal irony involves words whose normal meanings have been reversed. Dramatic and circumstantial irony are more common in epic than in lyric. Situational or cosmic is common in tragedy. Hyperbole, a species of verbal irony, obtains when overstatement or exaggeration means its opposite. (The pronunciation of “Hyperbole” is “high PURR beau lee,” not “HIGH per bowl.” This term has nothing to do with how many highs are in a bowl, or with manic football games.) Litotes, the opposite of hyperbole, is understatement that means its opposite. For example, one might say after a huge meal, “Is that all?” or after a great performance, “Not bad.” (The pronunciation for
“litotes” is “lie TOE tease,” not “LYE totes.” This term has nothing to do with toting lye. Dramatic Irony occurs when a character is unaware of the truth but other characters and the reader are. The speaker in e. e. cumming’s “next to of course god America I” is either unaware of his or her stupidity, or is parodying someone who is unaware of his or her stupidity. Situational irony occurs when the situation turns out to be quite different from what it appears to be, or unexpected things happen. For example, the princess turns out to be Cinderella, and Richard Cory kills himself. Paradox, a species of irony, obtains when a statement posits two things, each of which are true, but neither of which can be true if the other is true. Oxymoron is a kind of paradox, for example terrible mercy, sweet sorrow, or frightening talent. IMAGERY (sometimes considered figuration) In poetry, images are all sensory impressions—not just sight but also sound, touch, smell, and taste. Synesthesia uses one kind of sense impression to modify another kind of sense impression. A common expression is that a bright color is loud, or somebody’s speech is cold. Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” focuses on visual and tactile images of ghostly faces resembling petals on a dark, wet branch. Also implicit are the sounds and smells of the subway. SYNTAX Syntax means word order. Syntax in poetry is rather like syntax in fiction and non-fiction in some ways. Words that start or end a sentence are in emphatic positions. So are words in subject and verb’s position. Subordinated words are less emphatic, such as dependent clauses, infinitive phrases, participial phrases, prepositional phrases, parenthetical expressions, and appositives. The poem has more possibilities for emphasis because it has the beginning and ending position of every line. Compare these two lines:
I lived with you for twenty years. or For twenty years, I lived with you. In the second version, “I” receives less emphasis than in the first. Word order that departs from norms creates emphasis. Parallelism creates comparison. MUSIC Walt Whitman said, “But for the opera I couldn’t have written Leaves of Grass.” T. S. Eliot patterned The Four Quartets after quartets in classical music. Common meter is the stanza of hymns and is much like the stanza of ballads, which were originally sung. John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” reworks folk ballads into a literary ballad. In music, a chord conveys different emotions according to whether or not it is a major, a minor, a seventh, a ninth, etc. Likewise, certain vowels and consonants convey different meaning. As Pope noted, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Liquid sounds (L and R) flow. Sibilant sounds (S, X, sometimes C, sometimes, Z) hiss. Nasal sounds (M, N, NG) are slower than plosives, which end with a quick puff of air (B, D K, P, T). Fricatives (F, V) create friction. Onomatopoeia is a word whose sound imitates that word’s referent (hiss, buzz, meow, arf arf, moo, pop, quack, zoom, bang, ding-a-ling). Consonance in the broadest sense is the repetition of consonant sounds anywhere in a word or line. In the narrowest sense, it is the repetition of consonant sounds at the end of words. In a radically strict sense, it is the final consonant sound with a change in the preceding vowel such as "live, dove" or “paste, beast” or "pat, bit." In such cases, it is considered a form of off rhyme. Alliteration in the loosest sense is synonymous with consonance. In the strictest sense, alliteration applies only to the repetition of consonant sounds at the start of words (Keep catching those colds). Assonance in the broadest sense is the repetition of vowel sounds close to each other (Gee, cheese for free; tap dance; time and tide). In its strictest sense, the internal vowel sounds of final syllables are alike but
the consonants aren’t, such as "cane" and "fate," or “keep green beans.” Such examples are often considered a form of off rhyme.
RHYME All forms of rhyme emphasize the words that rhyme. Exact rhyme is the repetition of the last stressed vowel sound and any sounds thereafter (plaster, caster; butter, clutter; shoe, too). Internal rhyme occurs when two or more words in the same line rhyme. Masculine or rising rhyme is rhyme in the final syllable when it’s stressed (portend, defend) Feminine or falling rhyme is rhyme in a stressed syllable followed by rhyme in one or more unstressed syllables (hatchet, ratchet; utter, shutter; hammering, clamoring). Slant rhyme (or off rhyme, half rhyme, near rhyme) repeats part of the sound, often through assonance or consonance. Eye rhyme, a form of slant rhyme, occurs when two words look alike but don’t sound alike (through, trough). Rhyme scheme is the preconceived order of rhyme to which the poem must adhere. A blues rhyme scheme is aab. A ballad rhyme scheme is abcb. (See also sestina, sonnet, terza rima, and villanelle.) METER (RHYTHM) In music, the tempo has meaning. In poetry, long vowels slow down the pace and are often suitable for somber poems. As with music, variations create emphasis, especially when the tempo slows. Short vowels take less time to say, thereby speeding up the pace. But also like music, the beat is very important for the rhythm. In poetry, the beat means the syllables that are emphasized (stressed, accented). Combinations of beats comprise feet. Here is each kind of foot in English: Pyrrhic foot (two unstressed syllables (in the)
A Spondee, or spondaic foot, has two accented syllables (point blank; arf arf). An iamb, or iambic foot, consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (before, today). A trochee, or trochaic foot, consists of an accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable (pattern, movement). An anapest, or anapestic foot, consists of two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable. (In the following line, all four feet are anapestic: “So if an || ything does || it, then I’ll || call the cops.”) See also Budapest. A dactyl, or dactylic foot, consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables (syllable, monologue). See also pterodactyl. Sometimes it’s ambiguous as to how many syllables a word has (hours) Lines are defined according to their number of feet: one foot monometer two feet dimeter three feet trimeter four feet tetrameter five feet pentameter six feet hexameter seven feet heptameter eight feet octometer Many poems will occasionally depart from what is otherwise its regular meter. The most common meter in English is iambic pentameter. Each meter has its own effects. The anapest gallops. It drives. It's perfect for a national anthem: O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave. The above tetrameter has syntactic balance. It consists of two pairs of two: O'er the land of the free And the home of the brave. Notice how the metrics accent the important words:
Land free home brave Those four words are nouns. The most important words in any genre are nouns and verbs. Similarly, monosyllabic words draw more emphasis. The music and accents fit. The accented monosyllabic nouns receive longer notes. "Free" receives more emphasis by receiving the highest note. "Brave" receives further emphasis because it is the conclusion. In poetry, the syntactic power positions are these positions: opener, main noun (s) of the subject, and main verb(s) of the predicate, and the closer. The most important words usually occupy the subject and verbs position in an independent clause. Accordingly, the syntax below, whether in poetry or prose, emphasizes "Joe died": While you slept in the morning, Joe died of a stroke. Here the emphasis shifts to "stroke killed": In the morning while you slept, a stroke killed Joe. Good writers wouldn't use those two sentences interchangeably. Good writers would use one or the other depending on context and purpose. Blank verse conforms to a regular meter but doesn’t rhyme. Open or free verse has neither regular meter nor rhyme. For establishing rhythm in free verse, line breaks (including enjambment and end stops) assume more importance, as does punctuation, for they show how to read the poem. End stops work with the punctuation, reinforcing it. Enjambment undermines punctuation, emphasizing words that otherwise wouldn’t be emphasized. Free verse line endings subvert the prosaic norm, slowing it. Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” makes single words out of wheelbarrow and rainwater by ending the line with the first word in each compound. Enjambment is the continuation of sentence or clause into the next line. This form is common in free verse.
Like meter, punctuation, line breaks, and stanzas (or the lack thereof) help translate writing into sound—show how to read the poem. "Scarface" Al Pope bears repeating: "the sound must seem an echo to the sense." EXPLICATION: TEN STEPS 1. Who is the speaker? Analyze the speaker as a character or disembodied presence. If there are any other characters or presences, analyze them. Often a character as speaker, for example, Prufrock, is somewhat comparable to a first-person narrator, for example, Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield. Sometimes the speaker is the author, which is not as common in fiction, but is very common in non-fiction. The disembodied presence is somewhat analogous to a third-person narrator in fiction. 2. Who is the audience? What emerges about him, her, them, or it? To some extent, Huck and Holden are talking to a person or persons and perhaps a presence. 3. Explain the importance of the setting, situation, or occasion. How does the speaker relate to it? This situation is similar to the struggle in fiction and drama. 4. What is the action? Often the action is the playing out of the struggle, as in fiction and drama. Sometimes the action is ideational, as in The Universal Baseball Association, where the action of the last chapter occurs entirely in the protagonist's mind. 5. List the images. Does a pattern emerge? For example, the biblical imagery in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” pertains to his innocent, edenic childhood. 6. List and analyze the figures of speech.
7. Analyze the prosody: rhyme, sound, and stanza. Rhyme scheme helps disclose form, such as sonnet and villanelle. Emphasis attends rhymed words. Establish its metrics. Note the exceptions to the regular
patterns—they emphasize. Then establish its assonance, consonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia. Analyze the stanzaic structure. Note how line breaks and punctuation (or the lack thereof) emphasize and de-emphasize, indicating how you should read the poem. (Each line is not necessarily like a separate sentence unto itself.) Is it a closed form, such as limerick, terza rima, sestina, sonnet, or villanelle? Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” has the structure of an argument. 8. What is the tone or mood? K sounds are hard and quick. L, m, and n sounds are soft and slow. S sounds hiss. 9. What is the significance of the title and any headnote or footnote? The headnote introducing “Prufrock” comes from a tortured soul in Dante’s Inferno, thus implying that that “Prufrock” will be about entrapment and torment. 10. What is the theme? (The theme is not the topic.) Don’t jump to conclusions about theme. Although you may entertain hypotheses about the theme, analyze everything else first or else you’ll force everything else to fit an invalid interpretation. You have to know how it means before you can know what it means.