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Robyn Burkholder Composition and Literature Ron Borkert Final Essay

How to Read a Story, Poem, or Play

There is power in words. Words can describe with great detail and precision anything you desire. Without going across the sea I can be accurately informed about the exact locations and descriptions of the oldest castles known to man. Paired with the imagination words can bring you anywhere you wish to go. Though they aren’t necessary to sustain human life, they are necessary to sustain the human brain. Our education was built on words, teaching us everything from science, to history, to math. We have learned from a very young age how to interpret these strange symbols into letters, words, and paragraphs containing boundless meaning. Understanding every aspect of writing and reading is not pertinent to understanding what any text means, though it can help the reader gain large amounts of insight into the work. There are three main forms of literature that are familiar to any reading person. The short story is the most common form of literature, it is read by many, and is usually very easy for anyone to understand. The poem is a bit more difficult for an inexperienced reader to grasp. It uses handfuls of imagery and symbolism to convey a big idea in a few small words and lines. A drama is like a combination between poetry and short stories. Drama maintains



most of the elements found in short stories, and sometimes its dialogue is exclusively in poetic form. When one learns to read and understand these forms of literature they are given a key to wisdom and understanding. Literature is a product of millions of thoughtful people who decided to let others know how they felt. This is so powerful because many others identify with the feelings portrayed in their chosen favorite form of literature. Words have an amazing capability to convey the deepest feelings and emotions, making a huge impact on the reading world. The most common and recognizable form of literature is the short story. It is a combination of a plot and characters, with various other elements. One does not need to know a lot about all of the elements to understand the short story, but a general understanding of them is helpful. A short story follows along a specific plot line. That being the exposition followed by the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the catastrophe. Although not all stories follow this line of plot, most do and in considering the plot we find out many other important things about a short story. The exposition is the general introduction of the story where several things can be learned about the story. In the introduction we learn the setting of the story which is the time and place in which the story occurs. William Faulkner’s “Young Goodman Brown” is set in colonial Salem. The author may choose the setting very intently because it will further the plot or the point of the short story. In this example the setting furthers the plot because Salem is the home of the witch trials, and the plot of the story revolves around Satan and witch craft. A setting such as this helps you to understand more about the story.



The author can create a setting in many different ways. It can be realistic, or unrealistic. They may create it out of their imagination or use an actual time and place. However the author decides to create his setting, it is important to question his use of it to see if it contributes more to the story than what meets the eye. The author introduces the characters in the exposition, these are the actors in a piece of fiction. Characters are given characterization; this is describing their personality. The character’s characterization may be round or flat. A round character is more like a real person, they change and develop over time, and they don’t always make the right choices. A flat character is one that never changes and we can expect or predict what they are going to do based on their past behavior. Some familiar examples of characters are the hero, the villain, and the heroine. The hero is the male “good guy”, who always saves the day. The villain is his enemy, and the heroine is the female version of the hero. When referencing literature it is more common that we use the terms protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist is the main character of the story, though he or she may not be a hero, the author generally focuses plot around them. The protagonist may be an antihero, an average person who ends up doing extraordinary things. Or the protagonist may be an existential hero, a person who is determined to change his or her own life. Though the protagonist may not always be the good guy, he is always directly opposed to the antagonist. The protagonist in the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Peirce is Peyton Farguhar, and the antagonist is the northern army that is hanging him. The author can create a narrator, the person who tells the story. The author may decide to create a narrator, who will not be trusted by the reader, this may contribute to



the plot or the point of a short story. A narrator may have omniscient, limited, or unlimited point of view. An omniscient point of view means that the narrator is all knowing, the story shows you all of the characters, and the reader is shown what they are all doing and thinking. If the narrator has a limited point of view, they only focus on one character and his actions of thoughts. On the other hand if the narrator has an unlimited point of view they focus on several main characters on which we focus. And the reader is made to see all of their actions and thoughts. This is all up to the author and what how he decides to create the story. We also learn from what point of view the author or narrator is speaking. They could be speaking in 1st person, which would mean they are talking about themselves using words such as “I” or “my”. First person narration usually gives the reader a limited focus, all of the information about other characters is filtered through only one. They could be speaking in 3rd person, meaning the main character is someone other than himself or herself, using words such as “he” or “she” in reference to them. A short story might begin in medius res, in the middle of the actual plot. Sometimes the author chooses to use this rffect and will later go back to the beginning and give you all the background information that leads up to where the story began. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar is first seen about to be hanged by soldiers on a bridge. Directly after the soldier steps off the plank that is keeping Peyton from falling, and he drops, the story shifts back to the past and then explains why Peyton is on the bridge that day. All throughout the short story any character may have a flashback, a memory of something that happened in the past. In John Cheevers “The Country Husband” the



protagonist character, Francis Weed, has a flashback while at a neighborhood party. He notices a maid employed by his friends and remembers seeing her in Normandy when he was stationed there. The next part of the story is called the rising action. We have already been introduced to several elements of a short story that begin to create the plot, but it is now furthered by adding some sort of conflict. The plot of a story hinges on conflict, characters actions and reactions, and the final resolving of conflict. In the rising action the conflict is introduced, and several other elements along with it. The conflict of the story is a problem created by any number of factors, it is the main element of the story. The story cannot end until some part of the conflict is resolved. The conflict usually revolves around the protagonist and can either be external or internal. If the conflict is external it concerns the protagonist but it is happening outside of him, it is not his own personal struggle but one in which he is part of. Different types of external struggle are man versus man, man versus the environment, and man versus the community. Others may be the protagonist against society, a general idea, or anything which the author may choose. If the conflict is internal it is the protagonist’s own personal struggle, something only he can overcome. Through the conflict and the rest of the story we learn more and more about the protagonist’s, and other character’s, characterization. We can see how they handle situations and how they react to things and people around them, this lets us learn more about the personality of the characters. The rising action in the story also shows us whether the story is allegorical, and whether it contains symbols or a motif. If the story is allegorical then everything in it, including the characters, are symbols, everything in the story represents something else.



And in an allegory the characters themselves represent something bigger than they are. In William Faulkner’s “Young Goodman Brown” every character represents something making it an allegory. Faith, Brown’s husband, represents faith and the testing of it. The story could contain only one thing that is a symbol, in “Odour of Chrysanthemums” by D. H. Lawrence, chrysanthemums are a symbol of everything the protagonist Emily Bates has experienced. However in this story the chrysanthemums are a motif, meaning they are symbols used repeatedly throughout the story. The chrysanthemums were present during every important thing in her life, her marriage, the birth of her children, and the death of her husband. A motif can be ended, as in this story when they fall to the ground in their vase and it shatters, this symbolizes the ending of the motif. Concerning symbolism, the author may also intentionally use figures of speech to create a connection between ideas and our senses. These figures of speech are sometimes difficult to understand, but have an amazing capacity to explain parts of the short story that might otherwise be hard to understand. Some examples of figures of speech include similes, and metaphors. A simile can be pinpointed when you see the word “like” or “as”. The author to compare two things that aren’t truly alike uses this figure of speech such as saying someone who is nauseous is “white as a sheet”. Another figure of speech, the metaphor, sets two things equal to each other instead of comparing them. An example of this would be saying, the wind on the field of grass was a sea tossing and turning with waves. The third part of the plot is the climax. The climax brings the rising action to an end. In the climax the protagonist and the antagonist are going head to head, and some resolution follows. The climax is marked by a specific moment, in which the protagonist



comes to some conclusion, or turns the story around with some sort of action, which is why the climax is also referred to as the turning point. A very decisive climax occurs in William Faulkner’s “Young Goodman Brown”, in which the protagonist is about to be anointed by the devil, and he looks to the sky to save himself. He doesn’t know whether he has been saved or not but in that moment he tries his hardest to do what is right. The climax is followed by the falling action, which is the subsequent events following the climax. The falling action leads into the conclusion. The conflict between two things has occurred and the story must come to some sort of a close to wrap it up and make its point. Though the climax may not always find a complete solution to the conflict, the author makes his point in some way. A short story rarely ends without a resolution. Short stories have the power to be poignant, insightful, or just plain interesting. When studying short stories it is important to separate the elements and see what meaning they have individually. Poetry is unlike any other form of literature. It has the unique capacity to convey huge messages in just a few short lines. Many poems are famous for speaking volumes about human dynamics in the slightest way possible. For example a poem called “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams refers to a red wheelbarrow, with blue raindrops on it, surrounded by chickens. It is composed of eight lines and 16 words altogether, but when one notices the symbolism that the colors hold the poem clearly makes a valid point. Red, white, and blue represent our country and the setting of a farm represents our countries dependence on this business. As a whole the poem represents a nations dependence on something small such as agriculture, without it our nation would



crumble. This poem is a perfect example of the nature of poetry and the power it holds. The purpose of a poem is to convey these large ideas that have already been discussed in a new way. “The Red Wheelbarrow” does just that, and very well. To read and understand poetry one must be able to figure out the tone of the poem, the speaker, the setting and other basic aspects of it. One must be able to understand metaphors, similes, and symbols. Poems are structured in many different ways, it is not crucial to know these structures, but it may help generously. Lastly to better understand the point of a poem it is important to put it into different contexts. Poetry can be very emotional. When one begins to understand the meaning behind the words and symbols it becomes apparent that a lot of emotion is captured in a few short lines. When reading poetry it is important to be responsive, to let yourself grasp the poem fully you must get your gears in motion. Poetry is so packed with feelings, and it is almost never easy to find the meaning of the poem without digging deeper into it to understand exactly what the author is trying to convey. Poetry is not passive reading material, unlike long fiction you can’t let your mind slip into a certain numbness that comes with reading chapter after chapter. When we learned to read long fiction our brains learned to process it quickly so we can keep up with the happenings of the plot. However poetry differs greatly, the plot of the poem is not the most important part and many other things contribute to its meaning. So when you read poetry you must read it very actively, paying keen attention to all the details, sometimes stopping to mull over what you have read to try to better understand it. There is so much that is said in poems that it is to the reader’s advantage to be reading as actively as possible.



Poems take familiar ideas and reiterate them in an unfamiliar way, therefore one can never expect just how the author will express an idea such as love or death. What the poem is about is called its theme. The theme of the poem “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” is about those without hope and the despair of the way outgoing characters such as Hard Rock are treated in society. The tone of a poem is the way it responds to the theme. If the theme of “Hard Rock” is about the way certain characters are treated unjustly, then the theme is a very negative one. Making the reader feel as though Hard Rock has been unjustly treated with, the poem gives the impression that his character has been defeated. Poetry can be labeled very broadly, these labels are called the subject or topic of the poem. Examples of these labels are poems we would call “love poems”, or “death poems”. The subject refers to the theme but puts it in a broader context. There are several main components of poetry. These are similar to that of other forms of literature. The speaker of the poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning is an actual character from history, Alfonso II a duke of Ferrara in Italy. Discovering who the speaker in this poem is speaks volumes about the point of the poem. We know that he was a duke with suspicions held against him when his fourteen-year-old wife died under abnormal circumstances. This wife is whom he is talking about throughout the entire poem. The themes and subjects of poetry are very personal and all belong to the author, or someone we may not know. Just as in the short story the author may create an alternative speaker, so does an author may create a character in their poem that speaks for them indirectly. The speaker may present thoughts or feelings that are the authors, or they may differ from the authors.



The speaker of the poem expresses the thoughts or feelings that the poem is meant to convey. The author may choose to be the speakers themselves, without creating a character to do it for them. And the author may create more than one character to be the speaker. Whatever one finds in the poem is entirely up to its creator, and usually is created very meticulously to better create the intended point. Questions one may want to ask to discover things about the poem are whose voice do I hear? Whom is the speaker addressing? What is the speaker trying to say? What significance does the speaker hold? Discovering whom the speaker is and the significance they hold will help to further the point of the poem. Just as important as understand the speaker of the poem is understand the situation and setting. In the poem “Cherrylog Road” by James Dickey is specifically set in a junkyard, however the exact place where the junkyard is found is unknown. In this poem understanding the setting is important because it represents forbidden love. The characters in the poem have met secretly to make love, and their place of choice is in a car in the junkyard. This setting lets the reader know that they aren’t supposed to be together. Much is spoken about their relationship when one realizes where the poem is set. The spatial setting of a poem is the place in which the event occurs, the temporal setting is the time in which they occur. Understanding both settings of poetry can unlock volumes of meaning. In the poem “Welcome to Hiroshima” by Mary Jo Salter, the spatial setting is Hiroshima itself she is apparently there visiting. The temporal setting is some time after the bombing, Salter refers to visiting a museum documenting the event. It is important to recognize the plot of a poem, however it is not a key component to most poems because they usually refer to specific time within a story or someone’s



life. Unlike short stories which deal with a long a drawn out plot, poems are much more specific in the time and places they are describing. Poems sometimes are meant to be stories themselves and serve only the purpose of telling one. But others serve a larger purpose and that is to dig into the meaning and feelings of life, these usually don’t have much of a plot to speak of (at least not one similar to Freytags’ pyramid). Though if a poem does have a plot it will be important to understand it to further grasp the point the author is trying to make. Poetry differs greatly from short stories and plays in that its main focus is not on the plot or characters. When reading short stories and plays we focus on these things to understand the meaning of them. However in poetry the meaning of it lies mainly in individual words and symbols. When reading poetry one must pay keen attention to these things to grasp the meaning of it. The way the poet expresses his idea or his word choice is called diction. The diction of a poem determines multitudes of things about the poem, such as its meaning and the effect the poem has. Within diction there are a few things to understand about the poet’s word choice. Words denote a meaning, that is the denotation of a word is it’s dictionary meaning. Denotation doesn’t speak of the emotion behind a word, but simply what it is defined as. Mirroring denotation is connotation, which is the emotion and feelings that a work evokes from a person. Connotation doesn’t exclude the meaning of the word but includes meaning and the emotion the meaning brings about. A major component of poetry is description and representation. Poetry is very purposeful about the words that are used and what they mean. Poets often rely on representation to clearly explain their thoughts. Quite often symbols speak louder than



long descriptions. Poem differ from other forms of literature in that they have much smaller space to get their point across, they tend to depend on the use of symbols to fully describe their point. This use of words is called figurative language. The first example of words representing different meanings is the metaphor and the simile. Both figures of speech equate one thing with another, this brings about a desired meaning. Similes tend to be short and not used over an extended period of the poem. Metaphors on the other hand are used longer throughout the poem, these are called extended metaphors. If a metaphor is used throughout the entire poem it is called a controlled metaphor. An analogy is another example of a figure of speech similar to the metaphor and simile because it makes a specific comparison. The second major example of a representation is the symbol. A symbol quite simply is one thing standing for something else. It is very common in poetry because it helps people understand more fully the meaning of the poem. Although it may be hard for the reader to find the symbols in a poem, once found they communicate very effectively the point of the poem. Sometimes poets use traditional symbols, which are symbols that already represent something to the common reader. When poets use them they rely on the fact that most people will understand the meaning behind the symbol. Another example of a symbol is a symbolic poem that is a poem that in its entirety represents something else. An example of this type of poetry is “The Sick Rose” by William Blake. The poem in its entirety is not about a rose, but about the pain that comes with misunderstanding in relationships. Though there are many other meanings one can get within that one, but the poem itself is a prime example of symbolic poetry.



Poetry is unique because it doesn’t depend only on the words in it, but on the sounds the words make when said together. Poetry uses many words that have sounds that get its point across. In the poem “The Word Plum” by Helen Chasin is about the actual word plum. It uses many words that have sounds that exemplify the taste and feel of a plum. The words don’t sound exactly like someone biting into a rip juicy plum, but they have certain sounds such as luxury and murmur that remind one of that feeling. A word similar to this type of description is an onomatopoeia. An onomatopoeia is a word that sounds like its meaning such as “squish”. Using words like this help the poet to further the point of their poem. Poems that are longer than a few lines are divided into stanzas, groups of lines. Stanzas usually form some sort of rhyme scheme. There are different patterns of poetry. A common one is a sonnet. There are two different types of sonnets one is the English or Shakespearean sonnet. It has a 4-4-4-2 pattern, which is three stanzas of four lines and one final stanza of two lines. The second type of sonnet is the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, which is divided into two parts, the octave and the sestet. The octave is a group of eight lines and the sestet is a group of six lines. When reading poetry is it also very important to put it into context. Many different poetic works will have new meaning when put into the appropriate context. Studying poetry in this different way might make it easier to read and understand. And example of putting poetry into context would be putting the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Peircy into a historical context, and realizing it as a product the 70’s. More can be learned about this poem when discovering the feminist viewpoint in the 70’s and how that is conveyed in the poem.



Reading poetry is difficult and tedious at times. It doesn’t not come as easily as reading a short story. One has to dig for details and meaning hidden beneath the symbolism and use of imagery. However when one is finally able to easily read poetry and take meaning from it, it is the most gratifying experience involved with reading. It is also rewarding to think very deeply about issues you might have casually ignored. Poetry is a wonderful form of literature with new and different uses for words and the power they have. Drama is the most interactive of the three main forms of literature. It is unique in that it is created to be acted out on a stage in front of an audience. There are many elements in drama that are not found in either short stories or poems, however there are many elements in these form of literature that can be found in drama. Drama includes stage directions, which are not found in any other forms of drama. Stage directions are usually italicized and clearly separate from the proceedings of the plot. This part of drama tells the director how the stage should be set up and the actors where they should be at any given moment during the performance of the play. People involved with performing a play spend many hours and days practicing and memorizing their stage directions. Stage directions are an integral part of drama, without them performance would be mass confusion. One may not notice when watching a play, but stage directions are also important to further the point of the play. Actors are very intentional about what happens on the stage, without any organization the point of the play would be very difficult to figure out. The exposition in drama is unique because it is not realized through long descriptive paragraphs. Sometime playwrights create narrators that explain to the



audience what is going one; however they still don’t replace the narratives one reads in stories. The exposition happens mainly through dialogue between different characters. Many elements of the short story remain true for drama, such as character, plot, setting, tone, and theme. However drama puts a different spin on most of these elements. The elements are quite unique to drama. The characters in drama are mostly like those one finds in short stories, just as a drama is really only a story being acted out. We find the same protagonist, antagonist, hero, and heroine in drama as we do in other forms of fiction. However in theatre we find a different character called a foil. A foil is a character designed to bring out certain qualities in another. The use of such a character is left totally to the creative genius of the playwright. The plot of a play follows the same guidelines as a short story. We see that conflict is central tot he plot, and is between one thing and another. Some time it is person vs. person, or person vs. society, these are just examples of the types of conflict found in drama. As a rule the plot of a play revolves around the conflict. In drama we find the same plot structure as in the short story. The exposition introduces the setting and the characters, the rising action, is followed by the climax, which is the peak of the conflict. The falling action follows, and then the conclusion which raps up the entire story. As in the other forms of literature it is important to put plays into the appropriate context. Usually a play makes its point without studying it much further, since it is created to be performed in front of an audience that presumable doesn’t have a vast knowledge of all the contexts into which it could be put. However, one can learn a great



deal more about almost anything when considering it as a product of something outside of itself. The context into which a drama is put is purely dependent on what drama is chosen. Reading a play is only slightly different from reading a short story or a poem. When reading a short story one pays attention to details such as characters, plot, and setting. The plot and characters are central when reading a short story. To fully understand a short story one can miss a few minor details. This is similar to a play. The plot and characters are central to an interesting drama. And though it is not recommended one can get the general idea of the happenings within a play without tedious study. In some plays, mainly Shakespearean, poetry actually makes up the entire dialogue. This can be extremely confusing to understand without a previous study in reading poetry. A drama is very similar to poetry in these cases and it is important to know how to understand all the metaphors and symbolism that individual words hold. Reading is not tedious and hard, even though reading this paper may make you feel otherwise. A vast knowledge of all these details is in no way required to understanding any form of literature, although it can be a generous aid when one wants to understand exactly what the author is trying to convey. Reading is and individualized art. Some people fully understand short stories after the fist time they read them, some don’t. Some people can spot the exact meaning of poems before carefully studying them, some can’t. Some people don’t find it difficult to wade past stage directions and various other seemingly unimportant details when reading a play, some do. It is important to develop these skills, because words hold so much meaning, emotion, and life that one could be called foolish to ignore them.



Works Cited

Booth, Alison, Hunter, J. Paul, Mays, Kelly J. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005