TEACHING POETRY WITHOUT KILLING IT & developing explications of poems        Judy Lightfoot

Based on the argument in my article on modern poetry (see Professional Publications), it is best to start students on analyzing poetry by reminding them, first, that A POEM IS A SPEECH. This rhetorical approach keeps the poem alive, as vs. the typical desperate student gambit of jumping right into discussion, without context, of theme or imagery -- a move which tends to deaden analysis as well as to be misleading to readers of the poem.

Beginning with speaker and situation also helps students draw on their comparatively mature understanding of fiction and drama: because they are used to talking about persons and conversations in these two genres, they can apply in a living way their expertise about these matters to poems that are considered as speeches by characters.

Students need to be cautioned to use only the information they have in the words of the poem in building their conception of the character of the speaker and the features of the situation. To illustrate: the speaker of "Richard Cory" is evidently a person who is not wealthy, but to say that he is a homeless person would be going too far (in fact, there is evidence in the poem that the speaker is not). All that we can learn about the speaker and his or her situation is contained in the poem, and sometimes that is very little that could appear on a "fact sheet:" about a person's life or status. For example, we don't know much more about the speaker of Shakespeare's "My Mistress' Eyes" than that he is a man who is in love and who is familiar with the hackneyed conventions of the love poetry of his times; but we don't need to know more than this to appreciate his argument.

The best way I've found to help students achieve a living sense of the character and situation of a poetic speaker is to ask them to become the speaker and to speak the lines aloud -- just as they are familiar with doing when they act the part of a character in a play. Again, however, they must not imagine the life of the speaker beyond what is said and implied in the words on the page. A poem is more like a game of tennis than capture-the-flag, and this discipline is part of its appeal.

Once students have a lively sense of the character speaking, and of the speaker's situation, they can address THEME and TONE -- beginning with the character's ideas and feelings -- less mechanically or bloodlessly than they might otherwise. And having done that, attending to STYLE and FORM will also feel less merely academic: "Why does the speaker use this word instead of another? Why break the line here instead of there? What does the rhyme in the second line contribute to content?"

As with all scaffoldings for thinking, once the scaffold isn't needed any more, it can be taken down because the student has developed habits of mind that will enable him or her to construct complete analyses independently.

Summary for students:

  1. A POEM IS A SPEECH, so first of all pretend to be the speaker, stand and gesture as the speaker might be standing and gesturing as he speaks. Speak out the lines dramatically, as if they were a speech in a play. Then ask yourself these questions: Who am I, and why am I speaking out? Is my setting or audience stated or implied, or not? What am I talking about? How am I thinking and feeling about that?  
2. A POEM IS ALSO AN ARTFUL WEAVE OF WORDS, so now stand back from the poem and what you've learned about it so far. Ask, "How does the poem's style complement and help develop speaker, situation, theme, and tone?" "S
3. A POEM IS ALSO A MUSICAL WORK OF ART, so ask yourself: How does each feature of form complement and help develop speaker, situation, theme, tone, and style?

TO SUPPORT AND DEVELOP YOUR EXPLICATION, you don't always have to quote; you can also paraphrase, or you can refer in more general terms to details of the poem. For each item of support, cite line #s in parentheses.

Other poems; other work by the same author; cultural/historical contexts; personal response & personal experience; other authors or literature in the course; themes of the course.


We need to "meet," experience, and think about a poem
many times before we can really know it.

A speaker in a situation (sometimes including a specific setting and audience)
is expressing perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, directly as well as indirectly.
We infer theme and tone partly from what the speaker says and how he says it.

Consider every single element and feature of STYLE -- the language, the verbal expression of the poem...
syntax (loose, periodic, parallel, cumulative, etc.),
diction (formal & colloquial; denotations & connotations; abstract & concrete);
figurative language,
symbolism (if any);
sometimes punctuation and other mechanics of writing 

STYLE suits speaker, situation, theme, and tone, and contributes to their development.

Consider every single element and feature of FORM -- the sounds and the visual arrangement of the poem... .

rhythm or meter
line breaks (end-stopped or run-on)
stanza length and stanza breaks
repetition and devices of sound,
traditional forms (ballad, sestina, sonnet, blank verse, terza rima, etc.)

FORM complements everything else in the poem: speaker, situation, theme, tone, style.

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