Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Chapter 3: Closing in on poetry

Our word ‘poetry’ comes originally from the Greek word meaning ‘to make’. This chapter will explore a number of poetic genres and forms. In doing so, however, we are going to have to accept that the field is very large indeed. The best we can hope to do is to establish a few landmarks in a very big landscape and provide some pointers for reading.

Poetry: Place and function
Narrative poetry: The ballad
Expressing feelings: The lyric
Didactic poetry: Satire

3.1.Poetry: place and function

If you peruse the greeting card section of a large bookstore, you will notice that cards are categorised according to occasion, be it birthday, friendship or sympathy. You may also notice another category: ‘Non-verse’. The presence of such a category reminds us that greeting cards often choose to couch their messages in poetic form.

The following text comes from a greeting card printed in the United Kingdom. The card is headed: ‘a poem about MY FANTASY’.

When I close my eyes and dream
My dreams go just like this,
I’m giving you the most delicious
Slowest, scrumptious kiss.

Carded messages (group)

  1. Why do you think greeting cards use poems for their messages?
  2. Why might someone buy and send the card whose text is reproduced above?
  3. Would you call the above text a ‘poem’? Give reasons for your answser.
  4. As a group, draft some ‘poems’ that might be used in greeting cards serving a range of functions, e.g. sympathy, birthday, Valentine’s Day, bon voyage. (You might decide to have a class competition for the corniest greeting card message.)
  5. List other social situations where poems have a role to play in your culture? How does poetry function in these situations?

Individual writing
Read the following passage where Greek scholar Maurice Bowra describes the place of poetry in Greek society.

The Greeks did not confine poetry to ceremonial occasions or esoteric mysteries; it was part of common life, honoured and enjoyed by a large number of people. It was needed for hymns and supplications to the gods and enjoyed the respect due to anything connected with them. It was a repository of stories for a people deeply interested in the superb achievements of its ancestors. It was needed at public festivals to celebrate the glory of a city when it rejoiced over a victory in war or the games. It gave its sanction to domestic occasions like weddings and funerals, and if individuals wished to unburden themselves of their loves or hates, a natural release was to transform them into songs, which would have a more vigorous circulation than any book or pamphlet. Above all, it was for a long period the chief means by which the Greeks sought to express their convictions and perplexities.

C.M.Bowra, The Greek Experience

Bowra is describing (or imaginatively constructing) a society of 2500 years ago. Write a description of your own society, describing the role poetry plays.

As the table below indicates, poetic genres are often related to the function the poem serves. However, as column two indicates, poems call also be categorised according to their form.

Ballad: A story-telling poem (narrative function)
Lyric: A poem that expresses an emotion or records a thought process.
Didactic poem: A poem whose main function is to instruct.
Language poem: A poem which draws attention to the nature of language itself.
Blank Verse
Non-Metrical Verse
Concrete Poetry

Some of these genres and forms will be explored in the remainder of this chapter.

3.2. Narrative poetry: the ballad

a) ‘The Race’ by Sharon Olds
In simple terms, the function of a narrative poem is to tell a story. Download ‘The Race‘ by Sharon Olds.

Elements of narrative (group)
In your group:

  • Identify the point of view the story in this poem is being told from;
  • List the sequence of events this poem relates;
  • Decide what you know about the characters this poem mentions;
  • Identify the settings this poem moves through;
  • List the emotional states the narrator moves through.

Prepare and present a retelling of this story, where the narrator recounts what she has been through to a group of friends or family.

Close Reading:  Elements of style (individual or group)

  1. List some of the verbs in this poem. Why should the choice of verbs be important in a poem like this.
  2. List words and phrases that have something to do with time? Why is time important in the situation being described?
  3. Most of the diction in this poem is literal. Find examples of literal diction.
  4. Lines 14-16 contain a figure of speech. What kind of figure of speech is it. Why do you think the writer used it?
  5. Lines 40-42 contain an allusion. Find out the text that is being to? What do we find out about the speaker through this use of allusion.
  6. Between Lines 42 and 48, the diction changes. Find a way of describing this change. How does this change affect your experience as a reader?Language Tool Kit
    Allusion: A reference in a literary text to a person, event, place or to another well known text.
    Tone group: The basic unit of spoken language, separated by other tone groups by a pause for breath, and containing one syllable containing a major stress (the nuclear syllable).

Close Reading: Elements of layout (individual or group)

  1. Why do you think there is a linebreak after the word ‘then’ in line 24? What does this tell us about the way pauses function in oral language?
  2. In general, the line breaks in this poem don’t coincide with conventional syntactical markers (commas and full stops). Why do you think this is?

b) A word on pausing
The American poet, Denise Levertov defined poetry as ‘…a way of constructing autonomous existences out of words and silences.’ Pauses are crucial sense markers in spoken language. (Hence the expression, ‘Pregnant pause’.) When we speak, we need pauses to draw breath, to plan and to let our message sink in.

Spoken utterances can be broken up into groups of words separated by breath pauses. These basic groups can be called tone groups (or intonation groups or sense groups). In spoken English, each tone group contains a stressed syllable which will be stronger than the other stressed syllables. This is called the nuclear syllable.

Listening to the poem (individual)

  1. Look again at ‘The Race’. To what extent would you agree that each line appears to fit this definition of a tone group?
  2. Take a section of the poem and see if you can find a nuclear syllable in each line.

Denise Levertov has this to say about pauses:

      What is the nature of the alogical pauses the linebreak records? If readers will think of their own speech, or their silent inner monologue, when describing thoughts, feelings, perceptions, scenes or events, they will, I think, recognise that they frequently hesitate – albeit very briefly – as if with an unspoken question, – a ‘what?’ or a ‘who?’ or a ‘how?’ – before nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, none of which require to be preceded by a comma or other regular punctuation in the course of syntactic logic. To incorporate these pauses in the rhythmic structure of the poem can do several things: for example, it allows the reader to share more intimately the experience that is being articulated; and by introducing an alogical counter-rhythm into the logical rhythm of syntax it causes, as they interact, an effect closer to song than to statement, closer to dance than to walking.

Reflecting on pauses in speech (group)

  1. Why do you think Denise Levertov describes syntax as logical?
  2. The word ‘alogical’ suggests the meaning: ‘not concerned with logic. How then do these alogical pauses function in speech?
  3. Levertov suggests a connection between the poetic rhythm and dance. How might such a connection be justified?

Extension task (group)

Eitherrecord a short segment from a radio talk-back programme. Make a transcript. Break your transcript into tone-groups and underline the nuclear syllables.
Or: convert one of extracts Aor D from the end of Chapter 2 into poetic form by inserting linebreaks.

c) A traditional ballad
Story-telling has been couched in poetic form since ancienttimes. After all, rhythm and rhyme were useful mnemonic devices to help the old bards remember their texts. The word ballad comes from the French word baller to dance, yet another reminder of the age-old connection between poetry, music and dance. Traditional ballads in English became prominent in the Fifteenth Century but certainly date from an earlier time. Some traditional ballads are short. But others are of epic length and, indeed, are termed epics. 

The famous ballad, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, is one of many collected into five volumes by F.J. Child in his monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I have left it in its original form as a reminder of the changes that have taken place in the English language over the centuries. (The word ‘richt’ in line 29 would nowadays be spelt ‘right’. The consonant ‘gh’ is no longer found in English but it exists in Scottish in such words as ‘loch‘. This consonant would have been sounded when this poem was first composed.)

Sir Patrick Spens

The king sits in Dumferling town,
                  Drinking the blude-reid wine:
“O whar will I get guid sailor,
                  To sail this ship of mine?”

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
                  Sat at the king’s richt knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
                  That sails upon the sea.”

The king has written a braid letter
                  And signed it wi’ his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
                  Was walking on the sand.

The first line that Sir Patrick read,
                  A loud lauch lauched he;
The next line that Sir Patrick read,
                  The tear blinded his ee.”

“O wha is this has done this deed,
                  This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’ the year,
                  To sail upon the sea?

“Mak haste, mak haste, my mirry men all,
                  Our guid ship sails the morn.”
“O say na sae, my master dear,
                  For I fear a deadly storm.

“Late, late yestre’en I saw the new moon
                  Wi’ the auld moon in hir arm,
And I fear, I fear, my dear master,
                  That we will come to harm.”

O our Scots nobles were richt laith
                  To weet their cork-heeled shoon,
But lang or a’ the play were played
                  Their hats they swam aboon.

O lang, lang may their ladies sit,
                  Wi’ their fans into their hand,
Or ere they see Sir Patrick Spens
                  Come sailing to the land.

O lang, lang may the ladies stand
                  Wi’ their gold kems in their hair,
Waiting for their ain dear lords,
                  For they’ll see them na mair.

Half o’er, half o’er to Aberdour
                  It’s fifty fadom deep,
And their lies guid St Patrick Spens
                  Wi’ the Scots lords at his feet.

Close reading (group)
After reading the poem a few times to get used to the language, consider the following questions:

  1. We don’t know who wrote this ballad. Nor do we know how many times it was changed in the retelling before it was written down. How does the poem’s use of pronouns serve to ‘eliminate’ the identity of the narrator.
  2. Plot, characterisation, and scene-setting are features of narrative. Find examples of the way this ballad reduces each of these to the bare essentials?
  3. There are gaps in this poem, i.e. places where a reader might wish to have more information that the poem provides. Where are some of these? What information is missing?
  4. Is there any indication in this poem that the story-teller is critical of one of the events or characters in the story? Provide evidence for your answer.
  5. Find evidence in the poem that this ballad is the product of the ‘common folk’.

d) Metre: the ballad stanza
English is a very rhythmical language. Just say the words, The clatter of shoes upon the stairs, and you’ll hear a rhythm which could easily be clapped out. Rhythm in English is produced through the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables. This makes English a stress-timed language. In this book, we will be using the following symbols to notate rhythm: stressed syllable (´), unstressed syllable (u).

Listening to rhythm (individual)

  1. Write out the following words, marking the stressed and unstressed syllables: articulate, articulation, tangible, fantastic, laboratory, pretense.
  2. For the last two, you may be aware of a difference between British and American stress patterns. What is the difference?

Metre is an artificial pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. In metrical verse, a metre is imposed on the natural rhythm of speech. Metres use ‘measures’ of rhythmic patterning called feet. The most common pattern in English poetry is the iambic foot (u´). Other patterns in English are the trochaic foot (´u), anapestic foot (uu´) and the dactyllic foot (´uu).

Metrical verse is generally described by stating the basic metre and the number of feet which occur in one line. A trimeter is a line with three feet, a tetrameter has four, a pentameter five and a hexameter six. Blank verse is a common meter in English which uses unrhythmed iambic pentameter lines.

Language Tool Kit
Rhythm: In language, the product of a combintion of stress and unstressed syllables.
Metre: An artificial pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Metrical foot: The basic unit of a metre, described in terms of a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Iambic foot (iamb): A foot with the pattern [u´].
Trochaic foot (trochee):
A foot with the pattern [´u].
Anapestic foot (anapest): A foot with the pattern [uu´].
Dactyllic foot (dactyl): A foot with the pattern [‘uu].
Blank verse: Unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Stanza: A verse paragraph with a regular metre and rhyme pattern.
Scansion: The process of marking the stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem

The word stanza refers to a verse paragraph which has a regular metre and rhyme pattern. We now have the terminology to describe the traditional ballad stanza. The ballad stanza has four lines: the first and third are unrhymed iambic tetrameter; the second and fourth are rhymed iambic trimeter. 

We are now going to scan a stanza from ‘Sir Patrick Spens’. Scansion refers to the process of marking the stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem in order to identify its underlying rhythm.

              u      ´       u      ´       u    ´          u    ´
            The first / line that / Sir Pat- / rick read,
               u     ´         u        ´        u     ´
               A loud / lauch lauch- / ed he;
              u       ´      u      ´       u   ´         u      ´
            The next / line that / Sir Pat- / rick read,
                 u     ´         ´    u      u   ´ 
              The tear / blinded / his ee.

Some important points arise from this scansion:

  • Although metre is a rhytmic pattern imposed on natural speech rhythm, it does not replace the latter. There is always a tension set up between metre and natural rhythm.
  • That is why the word blinded retains its normal stress pattern. Even though the metre tends to push the stress towards the second syllable, natural speech rhythm simply doesn’t allow you to say blind-díd ).
  • Without this ‘counterpoint’  or balancing of natural and metrical rhythm, the verse would be rather monotonous.
  • Don’t be surprised when you find irregularities in metrical verse.
Language Tool Kit:
Metrical Irregularities: These refer to any deviations from the metrical norm. Irregularities can result from:
• More or less syllables than one might expect in a foot;
• An unexpected pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a foot.

A scansion exercise (group)
Choose two stanzas from ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and scan them:

  1. Mark the stressed and unstressed syllables.
  2. Use a vertical slash to mark the foot divisions.
  3. Describe the nature of the irregularities you identify.

e) The literary ballad
Literary ballads are the product of self-conscious artistry, by known writers, who wrote them as much to be read as to be spoken aloud. One of the great watersheds in the development of English poetry was the publication, in 1798, of the Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Extension task (individual research)
Find a copy of the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads written by Wordsworth himself. (Don’t be put off by the fact that it is 200 years old!) Find answers to the following questions:

  1. What was Wordsworth’s view of poetry?
  2. How did he describe the poetry he was reacting against?
  3. What was Wordsworth’s view of the purpose of poetry?
  4. According to Wordsworth, what sort of language should poet’s use?
  5. How did Wordsworth modify the ballad in English?

f) Emily Dickinson: stretching the ballad
Although virtually unpublished in her lifetime (1830-1886), this New England poet left behind when she died little bundles of over 1400 poems. Most of her poems use the traditional ballad stanza but, as you’ll see from the poem below written around 1862 , there has been a huge shift in subject matter, tone and formal structure.

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – upon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Bodice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle – Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

Close reading (individual))
The following steps are one way into this poem. However, it’s not the only way.  A poem has many entrances.

  1. Read the poem a couple of times. In particular, try to hear the poem’s rhythm as you read.
  2. Ensure that you have checked out unfamiliar vocabulary. (Are the Frigates birds or military vessels?)
  3. Construct a paraphrase. In your learning log, write the story that this poem might be telling. You might even begin, ‘Once upon a time there was this woman who…’
  4. Attend to the rhythm: What do we make of the dashes in this poem? I want to suggest to you that Dickinson is using the dashes to mark of a tone group. Try reading the poem again, either aloud or hearing it in your head, making a slight (non-syntactical) pause at each dash. What feeling do you get, particularly in stanzas 3-5.
  5. Repetition is another rhythmic feature. What is the effect of the repeated ‘ands’ in stanzas 3-5.
  6. Did you notice the alliteration in stanza 5? What letter is repeated? What effect does this have on you as your read.
  7. Write out and scan the last stanza. What is the effect of the reversal of the expected stress pattern in the first foot of line 2.
  8. Rethink the story you wrote. What is this poem describing?
  9. Personification: This poem appears to personify the sea by giving it a male gender. How might you explain or justify this equation?
  10. Or maybe….the sea is a metaphor for something else. Like what?
  11. Patterns of imagery. Images of value (Silver, Pearl) recur in stanza 5. Why might this be?
  12. The town is described as Solid. What are some expressions you know of that use the word ‘solid’? What connotations does this word have?
  13. Structure: Look at the story you constructed as a reading of this poem? Can you identify an underlying pattern in your story?
  14. Reflect: I’m going to suggest that the theme of a poem like this depends pretty much on the kind of reading you construct out of it. It will have a lot to do with the answer you come up with to the question, ‘How does this woman feel about the experience she is describing.’
  15. Finally. Think about this. How might a woman writing in mid-Nineteenth Century New England go about exploring issues of sexuality in poetry, given the attitudes of her own society?
Language Tool Kit:
Metrical Irregularities: These refer to any deviations from the metrical norm. Irregularities can result from:
• More or less syllables than one might expect in a foot;
• An unexpected pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables within a foot.

g) Symbolism
In simple terms, a symbol is a concrete image or emblem which signifies something else. A metaphor spells out a fairly explicit connection between a literal object and a figurative object. When Sharon Olds uses in ‘The Race’ the metaphor, a fish / slipping upstream deftly against / the flow of the river,’ readers connect the figurative object (fish) with the narrator struggling to catch a flight.

A symbol, however, leaves the literal object implicit while the figurative object is foregrounded. Let’s imagine for a moment a student arriving at school wearing black leather, a heavy metal T-shirt and sporting a mohawk haircut, two nose-rings and the words ‘Up Yours’ tattooed on their forehead. What sort of impact would such a student make in your school?

Let’s imagine a school head confronting such a student with the question: ‘What does all this mean?’ Well, the student may choose to answer the question or they may not. But we can be sure that most people will be responding to that student according to the reading they construct out of their appearance. For some the student’s dress may symbolise outrageous rebellion, for others it may symbolise a refreshing commitment to self-expression.

Traditionally, symbols have been divided into two types. With conventional (or public) symbols, the meaning of the symbol is determined by its associations within the culture. The ‘rose’, the ‘cross’ and certain colours have conventional symbolic meanings within Western culture. In the case of private (or personal) symbols, however, an individual writer attaches their own particular significance to a symbol, even though it can be argued that cultural factors always impact on the way symbols are read by readers.

Language Tool Kit:
Symbol:  A concrete image or emblem which signifies a literal object which remains implicit.
Conventional (public) symbol: A symbol whose meaning is fixed by the conventional usages within a culture.
Private (personal) symbol: A symbol which has had a particular meaning attached to it by an individual user or writer.

h) Exploring symbolism (individual)

  1. In ‘I started Early — Took my Dog –‘, it might be argued that the ‘solid’ town is a symbol of social respectability. What might the sea symbolise?
  2. In the following well-known poem by William Blake (from his Songs of Experience written in 1794), the ‘rose’ is a symbol, as is the ‘worm’. Write a discussion of the poem which explains the meaning of the symbols Blake uses. Then compare your reading of the poem with those of other students.The Sick RoseO Rose, thou art sick.
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night
    In the howling stormHas found out thy bed
    Of Crimson joy:
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy

i) A longish narrative poem
‘Home Burial’ comes from Robert Frost‘s North of Boston collection, first published in 1914. The name of the collection suggests a geographical region and, indeed, the poems do suggest a breed of people and a way of life (and talking!). 

Writing to preread (individual)
The title suggests a death, burial, funerals.

  1. Write a paragraph which reflects on the sort of talk that occurs between people after a funeral.
  2. Write a second paragraph which reflects on the way or ways in which people handle grief in the culture you identify with.
  3. Write a third paragraph which asks the question: ‘In your culture, how do men and women differ in the way they handle grief?’

Home Burial’ by Robert Frost

Elements of narrative: close reading (group)
Read the poem and address these tasks:

  1. Describe setting where the action of the poem occurs. Besides talk, not much happens does it? What physical movements do the husband and wife make? What can you read into these physical movements?
  2. We learn something of the prehistory of the story from the talk. What has occurred prior to this conversation?
  3. Find evidence in the poem to suggest what both husband and wife are feeling.
  4. Why has a rift developed between these two people?
  5. Prepare a role-play in which two members of your group prepare to play the roles of the husband and wife in this poem and be interviewed by others in that role.

j) More on iambic metre
Frost has written ‘Home Burial’ in blank verse. Two lines of the poem can be scanned as follows:

            u    u        ´         ´      u   ´      u       ´          u    ´
            But the /  world’s e- / vil. I / won’t have / grief so
             u ´     u       ´          u    ´     u    ´        u    ´     
            If I / can change / it. Oh, / I won’t, / I won’t!

The iambic pattern is clear, despite the presence of irregular feet, a pyrrhic foot and a spondee. You’ll notice how the presence of the spondee puts real emphasis on the words world’s evil. These are key words and tell us much about the way Amy thinks about the world. As a rule of thumb, keep an ear out for metrical irregularities. They are often important tone indicators.

Language Tool Kit:
Prehistory: In narrative, events which have occurred prior to the point at which the narration proper begins.
Spondee: a foot with two stressed syllables.
Pyrrhic foot: a foot with two unstressed syllables.
Hypermeter is the addition of an unstressed syllable either at the beginning or at the end of a line.

Students often ask, ‘How do you know that a line should scan that way?’ One’s honest answer has to be: ‘Well, that’s how I hear it.’ But scanning decisions can be a matter of interpretation. The first of the above lines could be scanned quite defensibly as:

             u     u         ´       ´       u   u      ´       ´           ´     ´     
            But the / world/s e- / vil. I / won’t have / grief so

Exploring rhythm (individual close listening)

  1. Select a short section of ‘Home Burial’ and scan it.
  2. Circle and name the irregularities.
  3. Discuss the effect these rhythmic irregularities have on your reading of the poem..

k) Considerations of theme (group)

  1. ‘Home Burial’ can be described as thematically rich because it invites readers to explore a range of themes and issues. Discuss your responses as a group to the following lines from the poem:

    • ‘The little graveyard where my people are!
      So small the window frames the whole of it.
      No so much larger than a bedroom, is it?’
    • ‘I don’t know how to speak of anything
      So as to please you.’
    • ‘A man must partly give up being a man
      With women-folk.’
    • ‘Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
      But two that do can’t live together with them.’
    • ‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.’
    • ‘I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.’
    • ‘What had how long it takes a birch to rot
      To do with what was in the darkened parlour.’
    • ‘…from the time when one is sick to death,
      One is alone, and he dies more alone.’

This poem is mostly in the form of dialogue.

  1. Would you say that the poem offers a view of human behaviour?
  2. If so, what in your view, does the poem appear to be saying about:
  • relationships between men and women?
  • estrangement?
  • grief?
  • language?
  • your choice(s)?

l) Making a critique (individual)
No one is obliged to like or to approve of all they read, even by established writers. Criticism can fall into two broad categories. Put simply, positional criticism criticises a work for a position it appear to take on some issue; formal criticism criticises a work on account of some perceived failing in some aspect of form. Here are some questions you might address to ‘Home Burial’. By all means, add your own. It is suggested that you write you responses to these questions in a series of clear paragraphs which illustrate your points with clear references to the text of the poem.

Language Tool Kit:
Dialogue: The representation of speech between characters in a literary work.
Positional criticism: criticism which takes issue with a text because of the messages it contains.
Formal criticism:  criticism which evaluates a text on the basis of its formal qualities.

A positional critique:

  1. Does ‘Home Burial’ present an unfair picture of men?
  2. Does it present an unfair picture of women?

A formal critique:

  1. Would ‘Home Burial’ better have been written as a short story.
  2. Is the ending of ‘Home Burial’ too abrupt?
  3. Is blank verse suited to the writing of convincing dialogue?

3.3. Expressing feelings: The lyric
In Greek times, a lyric was a song accompanied by a stringed instrument called a lyre. (Hence, we still refer to the lyrics of a song.) Nowadays, it refers to a (usually short) poem where a single speaker explores an emotional state or process of thought and feeling.

a) Feelings into words: an experiment (individual)

  1. In your learning log, write a short piece (one or two paragraphs) expressing your feelings about a person, or place or event that has happened to you.
  2. Circle abstract words and expressions.
  3. Underline concrete words and expressions.
  4. Would you describe your diction as mostly abstract or mostly concrete?
  5. Consider: Why is it that when we think about feelings our instinct is to use abstract words?

b) The imagist solution
The Imagists were a group of poets writing early in the Twentieth Century. In the March, 1913 issue of the magazine, Poetry, the American poet, Ezra Pound defined an image as ‘…that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’ The imagists worked on the theory that the image was the best way of presenting directly and accurately a state of mind and/or feeling.

It’s hardly surprising that Pound, like other imagists, was attracted by the Japanese haikua lyric form concerned with seasonal aspects of the natural world which encapsulates a clear emotion or insight in three lines of five, seven and five syllables.

Here is a translation of a haiku by the Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho:

The sea dark,
The call of the teal
Dimly white.

Close reading (individual)

  1. In this poem, the call of the bird (an aural sensation) is being described in terms of what other kind of sensation? (This device is called synesthesia.) Why do you think the poet has done this?
  2. In what way is contrast exploited in this little poem?
  3. What is it about the teal that is communicated through the imagery in this little poem. [A teal is a small duck.]
Language Tool Kit:
Synesthesia: An image where one sensory experience is described in terms of another sense, He let out a red roar.
Juxtaposition: A structural device where one object is placed next to another one without their connection being spelled out.

Ezra Pound himself published the following poem in Lustra in 1913:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

In this poem, two images are juxtaposed (see Language Tool Kit).

  1. On what basis might you justify connecting these two images?
  2. Which of your senses does this little poem appeal to?
  3. What kind of feeling does this little poem convey to you?
Ezra Pound’s advice to writersPay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.

Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim land of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete.

Go in fear of abstractions.

Be influenced by as many great artists as you can….

Use either no ornament or good ornament.

Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language, so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement.

Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.

A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure.

                                                                       From ‘A Few Don’ts By An Imagiste’ (1913)

c) Experimenting with connections (group)
As a group, you have decided to form your own little Imagiste circle. Below are possible first lines for some imagist poems. Write out each line and juxtapose your own addition.

  1. The sweat of rugby players in a ruck
  2. The swaying of a guitarist on stage
  3. The mincing of a model on a catwalk.
  4. The son, gorging on a plate of cornflakes
  5. The runner, collapsed at the finish line
  6. The cat watches through slit eyes
  7. The idling of a racing car engine
  8. The posturing of politicians
  9. The father cradles his child           

d) ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’
In 1915, Ezra Pound published a book of poems entitled Cathay. The book contains versions of Chinese poems, reworked by Pound from the notes of Chinese scholars. The following poem is based on the work of Rihaku, an Eighth Century Chinese poet.

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired by dust to be mingled with yours
For ever and for ever and for ever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
            As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

[By Rihaku, translated by Ezra Pound, from PERSONAE, copyright ©1926 by Ezra Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. We are grateful for their permission to publish this poem here.]

Close reading (group)

  1. This poem is called, ‘The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.’ What does this poem have in common with personal letters?
  2. The wife is taking this opportunity to tell a story. What story is she telling? What function does her story-telling serve?
  3. What images does the writer use to convey childhood innocence?
  4. The Imagists believed that emotional states could be presented most directly through the employment of images.
  5. What kind of emotional state is being presented in the following images:
    • Lowering my head, I looked at the wall
    • I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
    • The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
    • You dragged your feet when you went out
    • The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
  6. What is the group’s view of the Imagists’ belief about images.

Extension task (individual writing)
Imagine that you are the eighteen-year-old Chinese husband of this woman. Write a response to this letter in the Imagist manner.

e) The sonnet
The sonnet originated in Italy in the Thirteenth Century and is probably the most popular lyric form. (Its Italian meaning is ‘little sound’.) The sonnet consists of a single stanza in iambic pentameter with an elaborate rhyme scheme. The original Italian form, made popular by Petrarch, consisted of an octave (abba abba) followed by a sestet(cdecde).

The form was introduced into England in the early Sixteenth Century where the form was modified into its English (sometimes called Shakespearean) form of three quatrains (ababcdcdefef) and a concluding couplet (gg).

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Here is one of them.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day                                                      5
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,                                                        10
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,                                   
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Close reading (individual or group)

  1. How old do you think the speaker is? Give reasons.
  2. Whom do you think the speaker is addressing?
  3. Each quatrain in this sonnet contains a single image. Describe each one in your own words.
  4. What do each of these images have in common?
  5. Identify the figures of speech in the underlined expressions? Explain the effect of each of these expressions.
  6. Explain the paradox in line 11.           
  7. Lines 4, 8, 11 and 13 have metrical irregularities. Scan each of these lines, identify the irregularities and explain their effect.
  8. What is the function of the word ‘This’ in line 13.
  9. Explain the logical relationship between the final couplet of this sonnet and the preceding three quatrains.
  10. In what sense can this sonnet be described as an argument?
Language Tool Kit:
Octave: An eight-line stanza.
Quatrain: A four-line stanza.
Couplet: A two-line stanza (usually rhyming)
Paradox: A paradox is a statement which at first sight seems to be self-contradictory but which makes sense on deeper examination.
Pun: A pun is a word or expression that suggests more than one meaning at the same time.

f) And now to the late Twentieth Century
The New Zealand poet, Cilla McQueen published her collection Homing In in 1982. I am grateful to her for permission to publish online the poem below which is from that book.


Outside white sky, trees
with small leaves, sea-light
last sun            outside
yes evening is a nice time full of promises.

The house is a tent of memories
stretched down to the ground
on all sides            in the places
where the walls dissolve, you can see

vistas: for example the graveyard
above on the horizon, white stone
crosses in the slanting light
the harbour tipping across its sandbars

suppliant to outgoing            leaving
leaving water.  And gulls lie on
the air, judging the currents for their use
I would choose            bird-balance

continuous flight-fall            and glide
in the wind’s delicate syntax.  Time
stranded taut as a string            frays
and you’re left untethered, till like a spider

you swing across space to the nearest
landfall            hoping the silk will hold
and splice back in again.  Evening dusk,
dusty roses, small gold sheen, hello my

hand my finger my small whorls of skin
hello white and pink jasmine and dew drops
or rain pebbles            and white scent hello
rosemary sturdy and dark with all the

remembrances, all the know and unknown
wishes all the pies in the skies and all
the little traps in the sweet long grass.
Garden, this evening I’m in awe

of the huge springs of growing that hold
you up as we are held            like vessels
by the prayers of nuns, they say
and there seems no reason for disbelief

love’s oratory full of whisperings, always
wanting and needing            but there are
moments too like these in gardens,
or on beaches, when the sand stretches

out at low tide            and you spread silently
with it, and its tongue tickles your feet
first, and all you want to do is run
or fly with the birds in all the ways

they do from slow glide            to pirrip
blip            pirrip blip            pirrip
blip            pirrip            blip            yes evening
is a nice time full of promises.

Cilla McQueen

Close reading (group)

  1. Reflect for a moment on the title Homing In.Most poets enjoy the play of language. How many meanings can you get out of this punning title? What clues might the title give you to the sorts of poems included in this volume?
  2. Lots of specific locations are referred to in this poem. What are they? What words helped you identify these places?
  3. What words are strange to you? Check their meanings.
  4. There are a number of figurative images in this poem. Discuss the following expressions. (i.e. identify the type of figure of speech used, describe its effect and in particular say how the use of a figurative object [like ‘tent’ for ‘house’] changes the way we might view a literal object.)
    • ‘The house is a tend of memories’
    • ‘suppliant to outgoing’
    • ‘judging the current for their use
    • ‘the wind’s delicate syntax’
    • ’till like a spider….’
    • ‘like vessels…..’
  5. How do these images contribute to the tone of well-being which pervades this poem?
  6. How does the syntax in this poem differ from normal syntax? (You might like to take the section beginning ‘The house is…’ and explain why each group of words becomes added to the group that precedes it.) Would you say that the syntax in this poem is closer to spoken language or written language?
  7. How does McQueen’s use of gaps and line-breaks affect the way you respond to the poem as a rhythmical experience? Can you make some connections between the rhythm(s) of this poem and the feelings that the poem communicates?
  8. How do you respond to the onomatopoeia of the last quatrain?
  9. Write additional questions of your own and set them for another group to answer.

Over to you (individual writing)
Use the words ‘There are moments too like these’ as the title of a poem in which you experiment with syntax, diction and rhythm as a way of conveying a moment where you also experienced a feeling of well-being.

g) Extension activity: individual research
This section has scratched the surface of lyric poetry. Select one of the following topics as a basis for an in-depth investigation:

  • Elegiac verse. The elegy as a category of lyric.
  • The odes of John Keats. (The ode is a type of lyric.)
  • The history of the sonnet.
  • The villanelle as a lyrical form.
  • Haiku on the World Wide Web.
  • The complaint as a category of lyric.
  • Imagist poetry
Language Tool Kit:
Octave: An eight-line stanza.
Quatrain: A four-line stanza.
Couplet: A two-line stanza (usually rhyming)
Paradox: A paradox is a statement which at first sight seems to be self-contradictory but which makes sense on deeper examination.
Pun: A pun is a word or expression that suggests more than one meaning at the same time.

3.4. Didactic Poetry: Satire
Didactic literature, which is concerned to convey knowledge or a moral viewpoint,  has a long tradition. If you think of the ballad as concerned with narrative and the lyric with self-expression, then didactic poetry might be thought of as concerned with persuasion, but persuasion rendered enjoyable by virtue of the writer’s style.

However, having made these distinctions we really need to collapse them again, for the simple reason that most literary texts don’t function in one simple way. Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I started  Early – Took my Dog – is a good example of a poem that expresses feeling, tells a story and, one could argue, has something to say about Nineteenth-Century sexual morality.

Satire is a general term that we can apply to that large group of texts which in some way point to a person or institution or behaviour and say: ‘Isn’t that silly!’ or ‘Isn’t that deplorable!’ Because satire is often designed to make people laugh, it can be a very powerful critical weapon.

Language Tool Kit:
Satire: A literary work which comments disparagingly on some aspect of human behaviour.
Target: The aspect of human behaviour chosen for comment by a satirical work.

a) Metaphor and attitude
You’ll recall that when we use metaphor we are making a connection between a literal object and a figurative object. Our choice of figurative object often reveals our attitude towards a literal object. If you apply the metaphor of ‘dump’ to your home town, then you are clearly indicating your attitude towards it.

Exploratory writing (individual)
Come up with a metaphor (figurative object) for each of the following literal objects. When you have finished this task, say what attitude your choice of metaphor reveals towards the literal object:

  • your room at home
  • one of your parent’s private spaces at home
  • one of your relatives
  • your school
  • the family car
  • an athlete you know of

b) Nobodies and somebodies

Writing to pre-read (individual)
Before reading the following poem, write down in your learning log what you associate with the terms ‘nobody’ and ‘somebody’. For example, you might think of the expression, ‘He’s a nobody.’  Or, ‘She’s really somebody.’ Which of the terms would you prefer to have applied to you? Why?

Now read Emily Dickinson’s poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!                                  5
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Close reading (individual)

  1. What does Dickinson do in the first stanza to make it actually sound quite exciting to be a ‘nobody’?
  2. How does the question-mark change the way you say line 3? What difference does this question-mark make to the tone?
  3. How does the presence of two pauses in line 2 affect the tone of the line.
  4. Why do you think Dickinson has reversed the usual pattern of the ballad stanza’ lines in lines 3 and 4 (i.e. trimeter/tetrameter instead of tetrameter/trimeter)?
  5. In the second stanza, question-marks have been replaced by exclamation marks. How do these function?
  6. What tone is Dickinson attaching to the word ‘public’?
  7. Discuss the effect of Dickinson’s use of figurative language in lines 6 to 8.
  8. What aspect of human behaviour is being targetted in this poem? What case does this poem appear to make against being a somebody?
  9. Write a two quatrain poem, beginning with the line, ‘I’m Somebody! Who are you?’ which challenges Emily Dickinson’s position.

c) Made by language (group)
As a group, respond to the following statements:

  1. Our view of the world cannot be separated from the language we use to think with.
  2. The language we use is a product of our culture.
  3. We are products of our culture.
  4. There’s no such thing as originality.
  5. If our culture becomes cheap, we become cheap.

Have different group members prepare to be spokespersons for your group’s position on each of these statements. Conduct a class forum where your group argues its position with other groups.

d) Made in America
E.E. Cummings included the poem below in a volume entitled is 5, published in 1926. The poem can be found in Complete poems: 1904-1962 by E. E. Cummings (ISBN 0-87140-152-5) or Selected poems of E. E. Cummings (ISBN 0-87140-154-1), published by WW Norton & Company and easily available from

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful that these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

[Copyright (c) 1926, 1954, 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust.
Copyright (c) 1985 by George James Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.]

Close reading (group)

  1. The word pastiche refers to the piecing together of fragments to form a text or picture. What different styles of language have been pieced together to form this poem
  2. Can you identify any allusions in this poem. What is being alluded to? Why?
  3. Can you suggest a reason for the lack of punctuation in the first 13 lines of this poem?
  4. Why do you think the first 13 lines are in speech marks?
  5. Would you call this a patriotic poem? Give reasons.
  6. This poem is actually a sonnet. Identify as many  formal differences as you can between this sonnet and the Shakespearean sonnet published in this chapter.           
  7. Put forward an argument for one or more of the following as being satirical targets for this poem:
    • war
    • impressionable young men
    • patriotic jingoism
    • the sonnet form itself
Pastiche: An approach to writing which incorporates or juxtaposes fragments from other sorts of texts, often for ironical effect.
Irony: A term which has a number of distinct meanings. Commonly, however, irony is a device which enables a reader or viewer to see an object, event or person in an alternative light by inviting them to see things from a different point of view. Irony relies on the notion that there are more ways than one of viewing things…and that some ways of viewing things are somewhat more naive than others. [We will be revisiting this term.

e) Stating a case
The title of the final poem we will be exploring in this chapter is ‘About Marriage’. It comes from a 1962 book of poems called O Taste and See, by Denise Levertov. The title itself actually suggests someone setting forth their views on something, in this case marriage.

Pre-reading role play (pairs)
Before reading the poem and doing the tasks that follow it, prepare in pairs a role-play in which two people discuss the topic:, ‘The kind of relationship I would like with my future partner’.

[‘About Marriage’ can be accessed in a number of ways, including online.]

Close reading (group)

  1. This poem’s layout draws attention to itself. Firstly, it’s set out in verse paragraphs ranging in length from two to four lines. Secondly, it’s got a long indented section contained in parentheses (brackets). How does the diction of this section differ from the diction in the rest of the poem?
  2. Why do you think the birds are not named?
  3. What language function is suggested by the words ‘I told you…’?
  4. In your own words, what kind of demand is being made by the speaker in the first three lines of the poem? (I’m using the word speaker here because we can’t be certain that this is Denise Levertov speaking in her own voice. She may be speaking in the voice of a persona.)
  5. The word ‘encounter’ is a key word in this poem. What other words in the poem relate to the word encounter? Why do you think this idea of ‘encounter’ is being repeated?
  6. Find other noticeable repetitions in this poem.
  7. What is lost if the linebreaks are removed from the following sections of the poem:
    • ‘the birds saw me and let me be near them’
    • ‘I would be met and meet you so’?
      [You might refer back to what Denise Levertov had to say about linebreaks earlier in this chapter.]
  8. How does the central section of this poem connect with the case the speaker is arguing for the sort of relationship she wants?

Chapter Summary:

This chapter has made the following key points:

  • Poetry has functioned in different ways for different societies.
  • Poetry can fulfil diverse functions.
  • A single poem can fulfil multiple functions.
  • A ballad denotes a poem whose primary function is to tell a story.
  • Pauses are crucial sense markers in poetry, just as they are crucial sense markers in ordinary speech.
  • English is a stress-timed language. Non-metrical verse exploits the rhythmic potential of English language.
  • Metrical verse overlays an artificial rhythm pattern on the rhythms of spoken language.
  • Irregularity in metre is as important as regularity.
  • Symbols are concrete images or emblems which signify a non-tangible or spiritual reality.
  • Criticism can be formal or positional. The latter critiques a text on the basis of the messages it contains or implies.
  • Lyrics are shortish poems which explore emotional states or process of thought and feeling.
  • Tone in poetry is often conveyed by its rhythms and imagery.
  • A didactic poem conveys a lesson in some way.
  • Metaphor is an important indicator of tone.

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