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Poetry Lecture Transcript

When we analyze poetry, what we’re going to do is take a look at the structure of poems and try to figure out their meanings. Poems are very compact. They have a lot of information in a really small space. So, you’re going to have to analyze each line in a poem and really take a look at all those words and try to figure out what they mean. I always tell my students there are lots of correct answers as well as a lot of wrong answers when analyzing poetry. Your job is to try to figure out meaning in a poem and then you have to use lines from that poem to support your ideas. So go ahead and click on that green button and check out the lecture on poetry, you’ll do much better if you have already read My Papa’s Waltz from the book, because I’ll be using that poem for some of my examples.

When we analyze the structure of a poem, we usually try to find out if it is a rhyming poem where lines rhyme perhaps at the end of the lines or sometimes in the middle. We even have sight rhymes where the words look like they would rhyme on the page even though if we pronounce them, the words don’t rhyme, and then we have prose and what prose essentially means is non-rhyming.

If we take a look at My Papa’s Waltz [which is on page 102 of your textbook] we can see that this is a rhyming poem. For example, in the first stanza “the whiskey on you breath could make a small boy dizzy but I hung on like death such waltzing was not easy.” We can see that the second and forth lines rhyme. Now when we analyze a poem, we like to take a look at how it is organized and in fact poems are organized in stanzas, which are like paragraphs. If you take a look at My Papa’s Waltz, you can see that it is organized into four stanzas. {Then every stanza we to take a look, is it a couplet of two lines, a tersest of three lines, or a quatrain of four lines.} My Papa’s Waltz is in quatrains, they’re all four lines.

Now there are other poems like Sonnets that have a lot more lines than quatrains, but we often then break them down into smaller pieces. There are many poem types, for example Epithalamium a poem about a wedding, Elegies a poem to the dead, and pastoral poems are about nature. I’ve not worried about you memorizing different poem types - what I really want you to do is focus on the structure of the poem, because sometimes the structure leads to a better understanding of the meaning. For example, from My Papa’s Waltz we can see that every stanza kind of moves a little bit, the first part talks about the whiskey on his breath and hanging on, the next stanza talks about being in the kitchen, the next stanza talks about the dance itself, and finally the last stanza it’s taking him off to bed, so you can see those stanzas are there to break up time and show us movement in the poem.

#3—Analyzing Poetry
When we analyze a poem, we need to remember that the person speaking in the poem may not be the poet. It may be that the poet’s created a persona, or a person in the poem. In addition to the speaker not being the poet, there’s often an audience that’s in the poem. For example, the poem may be written to someone specific [not us] and then there is the audience reading the poem. We are the audience reading the poem. So for example in My Papa’s Waltz the speaker is the small boy, because it says in the last stanza “you beat time on my head,” my head telling us it’s the speaker who’s the boy. The audience in the poem who is he speaking to is the father because he says “the whiskey on your breath, on your breath father”. When we take a look at the poem, we need take a look at who is speaking, are they speaking to someone, and then who are we the reader in this poem, here we’re kind of listening to the son talk to his father.

Now, the tone of voice and the rhythm of the poem can give us clues about the mood and the message. Again in My Papa’s Waltz, if you listen to the poem, “the whiskey on your breath … could make a small boy dizzy … but I hung on like death … such waltzing was not easy.” If you listen to the poem, read out loud and most poems should be read out loud so you can hear them, there’s a rhythm there and in fact if you know what a waltz is a waltz goes 1,2,3,-1,2,3,-1,2,3,-1,2,3 and the way the rhythm in the poem is “the whiskey on your breath”, it’s 1,2,3 the same rhythm. It’s very clever, and so we kind of have this rhythm all the way through.

Diction is a choice of words, for example if you describe a car crash and you call it an accident that’s a very different image then if I said two cars smashed into one another. So the choice of words can make a big difference in how we perceive the poem. The Syntax is the order of words. For example if someone says hi how are you doing, that’s a regular kind of order of words we’re used to, but if the person says doing how are you - that would kind of surprise us because the order of words were reversed and so we want to pay attention when word orders are different than what we assume.

Denotation and Connotation are also very important. Denotation means the literal meaning of the words for example if I said Mary had a cow that’s a literal meaning. Mary is probably a farmer and she owns a cow. However, connotation the implied meaning, if I said Mary had a cow I might mean that she’s really upset - not that she actually owned a cow, and so we have to take a look at the words and decide is it the literal meaning that we want to take or do we want to take a connotated meaning.

#5—Figure of Speech
Now you’ve probably studied figures of speech before Simile means like, she has eyes like blue pools. In a Metaphor we use is, her eyes are blue pools. For Personification and for Anthropomorphism this is where we give inanimate objects kind of human emotions, so your can say the car purred happily. Well, cars aren’t actually people or animals, so that can’t really purr like a cat and they can’t actually be happy, but we do that a lot when we’re using figures of speech.

We also have Allusions often in our references. An Allusion means the title of the poem or something in the poem will refer to another work maybe, a piece of art, or a person to add depth of meaning. It doesn’t mean the poem is about that actual thing, it means it’s similar.

One of the poems you’re going to be reading is called Daedalus and Daedalus is the name of the father of Icarus. So when you read the poem, we know there is an allusion there that Daedalus means a father and he’s probably talking about a son. Now it doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same story about the wings and the boy dying, but it does mean that there’s some kind of connection, and you want to pay attention to that connection as it will help reveal meaning.

#6—Figures of Speech Cont.
More figures of speech in dealing with poetry include metonymy [these are words based on association for example the crown can equal the monarchy, so when we say he took the crown we don’t mean just took the crown like a thief we probably mean that he’s taking over the monarchy that he’s become king]. Synecdoche means part equals the whole [so when he takes her hand in marriage he doesn’t just marry her hand, he marries all of her, so the hand equals the whole person].

Hyperbole is exaggeration [so for example if I said wow I just ate five million calories in chocolate, I probably didn’t eat that much, over stated.] So you can also have litotes. Litotes is an understatement, it just opposite of hyperbole [so let’s say I ate 10 candy bars, and someone would say, so did you eat a lot of chocolate today, ah, just a tad, so now I’m understating how much chocolate I had].

Paradox and oxymoron are also used in poetry; a paradox is two situations that couldn’t possibly occur at the same time[ for example a man could be alive and dead in a poem at the same time.] An oxymoron combines two contradictory terms one of my favorites is jumbo shrimp. Shrimp means small, and so how you can have jumbo smalls?? - I’m not quite sure, but that would be an example of an oxymoron.

As I said before, it’s important that you read poems out loud, because the sound can really convey information. For example, the sound of a poem can be flowing or choppy - we can really get the mood from the way things sound. I remember a line from the Raven, “and the silk and sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me, as I’ve never been thrilled before.” The sound of that can really give us a mood or an idea. We also sometimes talk about onomatopoeia [these are the words that sound things they represent, so buzz sounds like what a bee makes, or hiss is the sound like a cat would make and so it’s similar].

Alliteration means using the same consonant at the beginning of each word [so we can say little lover lacy went down the lane and so we get that same kind of sound over and over again]. If a poet uses alliteration, it’s usually because he or she wants to attract some attention to that line. Assonance means the same vowel sounds close together [so the crook took the book from the nook so we take a look at that] and again if a poet uses assonance, then we know that he or she is trying to get our attention.

Now rhyme schemes can be really important. Often what will happen in a poem is we’ll have very similar rhyme schemes. So for example if we take a look at My Papa’s Waltz, if you take a look at the first stanza, you would say it ends on the sounds from breath – “sound A”, the next line dizzy “sound A”, now death rhymes with breath so that would be “sound A” again and such waltzing was not easy, easy rhymes with dizzy that would be “Sound B” again so our rhyme scheme would be a, b, a, b.

Rhyme schemes can change - in fact they can be very complicated - you can have abc, abc, you could have a b c b d b, so only every other line rhymes. Rhyme schemes can be really complicated. Take a look at the rhyme scheme, often there will be a change in the poem - somewhere the poem will change its rhyme scheme and that will give us a clue that’s an important line we should take a look at.

#8—A Little on Rhyme Scheme
Just to review a little bit on what I talked about with rhyme scheme, here we have the poem Mary Had a Little Lamb, and so we can see “Mary had a little lamb … whose fleece was white as snow … and everywhere that Mary went … the lamb was sure to go.” So lamb doesn’t rhyme with anything so it starts off with “sound A” snow has an o that’s “sound B”, went is a different sound that’s “sound C”, but go rhymes with snow, so we go back to that “sound B” again. As we go to the new stanza, we start off with a new sound which is “Sound D”, day then we have rule which is rule sound that’s “E”, we have play now play rhymes with day so that’s another “D” sound and then school rhymes with rule. So you can see that we changed d e, d e which is different rhyme scheme from the very first stanza which was ab cb.

Mary had a little lamb-[a]
Whose fleece was white as snow-[b]
And everywhere that Mary went-[c]
The lamb was sure to go-[b]

It followed her to school one day-[d]
That was against the rule-[e]
It made the children laugh and play-[d]
To see a lamb at school-[e]

When we read poetry, we want to take look at the imagery [sensory impressions that we get in a poem]. For example in My Papa’s Waltz, the first stanza “the whisky on your breath could make a small boy dizzy”, we could almost smell that strong sense of alcohol. There’s also sound “we romped until the pans slipped from the kitchen shelf”, so there’s that clattering of the pans coming down, we can see the mother’s frowning, “my mother’s countenance could not unfrown itself.” We can even feel in the poem for example “for every step you missed my right ear scraped a buckle”, so we kind of feel the little boy is kind of getting hurt in all of this dancing, so we want to take a look at those sensory impressions because they’re trying to make an impact on us and make us feel something.

There’s also symbolism in poetry just like there is in drama and in fiction. For example, a red rose often equals love. If we take a look at My Papa’s Waltz, the waltz itself is kind of a symbol. It’s a dance. Now a waltz is a very formulated dance, and we can kind of see that this symbol for two people moving around together. Perhaps that symbol is supposed to be well regulated dance, we’re kind of seeing that it’s almost ironic - an ironic symbol. So getting on to irony, verbal irony is where one thing is said and another meaning is intended for example you could have a man tell a woman, I love you and we can’t be sure sometimes, does he really mean I love you, or is he being ironic, is he saying, yeah I love you, but because we don’t hear tone of voice in poems we have to really look for other clues to let us know what the author means.

Last Updated: 02/05/2015
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