poetry analysis

2 posts

The Only Tool Needed To “Get” Poetry

why poetry

When I read it, Matthew Zapruder’s book, Why Poetry proved memorable. For instance, I give you Chapter 2, titled after the Marianne Moore quote about poets: “Literalists of the Imagination.”

The chapter title itself is poetic. It should be, as it’s taken from Moore’s famous poem, “Poetry,” which features “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Using Marianne as his inspiration, Moore or less, Zapruder begins to riff on layreaders and how so many of them shun poetry because they find it difficult or mysterious. In short, they throw up their hands because the meaning is hidden and wonder aloud why poets have to play hide-and-go-seek with their purpose, anyway.

The damage is done in school, chiefly (schools, after all, are the scapegoats for most all of our woes… remember Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos?). Darn those English teachers who constantly ask students to divine the meaning, the theme, the purpose, the symbolism, thus ruining a perfectly good poem. In Zapruder’s view, poems should be read for (brace yourselves) fun.

Of course, poems can’t be fun unless we know what the heck’s going on, so Zapruder recommends one essential tool to understand poetry: a dictionary. (You were expecting Siri or the dreaded Google search bar, maybe?)

“The portal to the strange is the literal,” he writes. Thus, as a teacher (most poets need full-time jobs, after all), he has students choose a word in the poem to investigate big-time, as in right down to its multiple meanings and history, or even, maybe, down to what it might have meant at the time that the poem was written.

Zapruder adds, “…the exercise of getting as deeply into the words as possible has the effect of showing them that this is the way into a poem, and that meaning and possibility come from that act, and not from some search for an interpretation someone else already made of the poem, that they have to figure out to get a good grade… It turns out that close attention to definitions and etymologies can be a portal to the power of poetry.”

From this paean to the literal’s eminence in an unexpected place — the genre of poetry — Zapruder goes on to say that many beginning writers of poetry get snared by the same misconceptions as layreaders. They purposely write in abstractions, mysteries, double meanings. They forsake the literal for the “deliberately obscure and esoteric.” It is, in short, a recipe for failure, just as reading poems strictly to interpret their coded language is a recipe for alienation.

Three cheers, then, for the literal and for taking poems at their word, both as readers and writers.


Student-Friendly Poems: The Super Heroes of the Classroom

English teachers’ usual approach into literature is inductive. They read a poem aloud — usually two or three times — perhaps ask students to mark it up or analyze it in pairs or a group, and then wonder if they might write a thesis statement that includes the theme. Thus, to determine the author’s purpose, students must first consider the details within the work before thinking their way up the ladder of abstraction to a thematic balcony.

For a switch, teachers could create a sense of balance by occasionally taking deductive forays into literature. That is, either give the students a theme in advance, or provide the purpose of the work as given by the author himself. In this scenario, the heavy lifting would be done before anyone mutters ready, set, or go. With the “gift” of a thoughtful, abstract statement already in hand, students could begin an Easter egg hunt for literary evidence that will directly line up with the author’s own reflection on the work (or the provided-rom-the-get-go thesis statement).

To test drive this theory, I give you one of my favorite, student-friendly poems: “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” by James W. Hall. On his blog, Hall provides not only the poem (at the end of his entry) but some insight into the work. Taking his direct words, teachers can fashion a thesis statement that looks something like so:

In his poem, “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too,” James W. Hall uses humor and some harsh truths to show that “it’s a hard thing to… recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with [this] in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones,” but this is not as simple as it sounds.

With this statement, much of it from the poet’s lips, students in groups could determine importance by marking up the poem’s key textual evidence — words and lines that will support the claim in the provided thesis statement. This deductive angle might be considered a type of scaffold, but it is simply an equally-legitimate approach with the same learning goals — getting students to connect abstract to concrete as they analyze literature for author’s purpose (in this case, with author’s purpose).

Highlighting important lines and writing comments and inferences in the margins during small group discussion or paired academic conversations, students will be better suited (if you’ll forgive) for the perils of such venues as a Socratic Seminar. Why? Because they will not have to “find the grail” (in poetry, so often a “hopeless cause” in their minds), but instead will have to explain how the provided grail has any bearing in the first place.

Will this bestow confidence in young literary speakers? I would wager yes, much more so than with the inductive approach. Should teachers abandon inductive analysis altogether, then? Hardly. Students should see deductive as Castor to inductive’s Pollux, Scylla to its Charybdis, and (to bring it down a notch) pepperoni to its pizza. They need practice at both.

In short, teachers should see if providing themes upfront now and then leads student discussions to more interesting (and vertigo-inducing) places where they can build on each others’ ideas (or challenge them) until they wind up confronting one of the pieces of evidence they are sure to dredge up head on: the burning suit.

Note that, in his blog, Hall claims “‘buining’ one’s suit is the punchline of the poem.” This, according to the poet, is paramount among other important lines. Will students see it that way, emboldened as they’ll be by having “the answer” up front and “for free”? Will they compare the “fwame-wesistent” suit to jobs, to personalities, to economic classes, to themselves? Will they make metaphoric leaps and bounds that have their teachers swooning with deductive joy?

Time (and Elmer Fudd-like dramatic readings) will tell how this approach might work. Still, students’ “spidey sense” should be tingling, as they say. In my teaching days, mixing deductive with inductive approaches brought strong results.


Nota bene: For other poetry ideas for the classroom, simply search “teaching poetry” on this website.

Nota bene #2: To help to keep ideas and posts about writing and poetry coming, consider pitching in by visiting the BOOKS page and purchasing whichever collection appeals to you. Many of my poems work in the classroom as deductive v. inductive exercises, too.