News Break Poem Analysis Essays

Hass is so supremely learned about and so deeply immersed in poetry, he is able to comport himself not just with incredible authority but also with casual humor. Of the Pindaric ode, one of the earliest incarnations of the ode, he writes, “As a strict form, it has not had legs.” He explains, with startling clarity, Gertrude Stein and others’ forays into abstraction, which are at the roots of pretty much all experimental poetry. Stein, he says, worked to “discover by experiment … that syntax was the formal principle that organized language.” Hass concludes with a guide to understanding the workings of stress in poetry, one of the most confusing technical aspects of poetics.

Disguised as a reference book, this is actually a friendly tour of one poet’s mind. Along the way, Hass offers glancing insights like this, on the difference between visual arts and literature: “Form in the visual arts is spatial and in literature it is temporal. A poem has a beginning, a middle and an end. A work of art — whether sculpture or painting — has edges.” In this way, the book isn’t merely a master class on form. It’s a jump-starter for that most necessary of tools for the artist or lover of art, if not for everyone: the sensibility.

Few would debate Louise Glück’s stature as one of America’s most extraordinary poets. Unlike many of her peers, though (Hass among them), Glück has not made a habitual practice of prose writing. She is a writer for whom, one feels, words are always scarce, hard won and not to be wasted. Prose is most likely at least as difficult for her to write as poetry, and she has professed that poetry is very hard for her to write. “American Originality” is only her second slim volume of essays, containing 10 mostly short, starkly titled pieces — “On Realism,” “On Revenge” — as well as 10 introductions to debut volumes by other poets.

Fans of Glück’s own poems will recognize her trademark severity. In her extreme focus and clipped, uncompromising sentences, Glück recalls no one so much as Susan Sontag. Like Sontag, Glück assumes her readers know the texts under consideration — she often omits the customary quotations critics use to illustrate their points. Yet she writes with such mesmerizing authority that her claims feel unimpeachable.

Unlike Sontag, Glück has not cultivated the ability to write about any subject; she confines herself to the practice of poetry in America. Yet her thought accommodates extrapolation in many directions, toward broader aspects of American identity. When she writes that “original work, in our literature, must seem somehow to break trails, to found dynasties … be capable of replication,” it’s hard not to remember that we were, relatively recently, “the new world,” and that mass production was born here.

Glück’s 20th-century America is fallen, equipped with — and diminished by — the tools of modernism, especially psychoanalysis. “Contemporary literature,” she writes, is “a literature of the self examining its responses.” Modernity strove to explain our dreams, always the province of poetry, and so perhaps explained away their magic. Glück’s analyses seem to derive from this grief; she is wary, and sometimes darkly funny about, poetry’s temptation toward grandiosity. “We have made of the infinite a topic,” she notes. “But there isn’t, it turns out, much to say about it.” And yet, one also always feels that, for Glück, poetry is a matter of life or death, the only salvation.

So when Glück writes that “contemporary poetry affords two main types of incomplete sentences: the aborted whole and the sentence with gaps,” one senses a heavy moral choice behind her distinction. This is not just a description of how American poets write; it’s a mandate for rigorous, difficult, even painful reasoning over lazy, incomplete thinking. Specifically, she is differentiating between the fragment in poetry and the non sequitur, which she calls “a more complicated maneuver.” Non sequitur, she writes, “is lively, volatile, skirmishing, suggesting (at its best) simultaneity or multiplicity, loosing a flurry of questions.”

Of course, this could also be said of Twitter “at its best,” while, at their worst, both Twitter and fragmentary poetry can “begin to seem like swimmers competing to see how long they can stay underwater without breathing.” The frenzy of social media doesn’t explicitly enter into Glück’s essays. But, in the guise of a poetry critic, Glück shows herself to be a kind of dark contemporary conscience. “The glory of the lyric,” she claims in a review of recent books by her peers Robert Pinsky and Stephen Dobyns, “is that it does what life cannot do.” Put that way, poetry sounds like something everyone can use.

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Poetry: Close Reading

Introduction

Once somewhat ignored in scholarly circles, close reading of poetry is making something of a comeback. By learning how to close read a poem you can significantly increase both your understanding and enjoyment of the poem. You may also increase your ability to write convincingly about the poem.

The following exercise uses one of William Shakespeare’s sonnets (#116) as an example. This close read process can also be used on many different verse forms. This resource first presents the entire sonnet and then presents a close reading of the poem below. Read the sonnet a few times to get a feel for it and then move down to the close reading.

CXVI

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Performing the close read

CXVI.

The number indicates the sonnet’s place in a cycle or sequence of sonnets. Although you may examine the poem on its own terms, realize that it is connected to the other poems in the cycle.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments.

Form is one of the first things you should note about a poem. Here it is easy to see that the poem is fourteen lines long and follows some sort of rhyme scheme (which you can see by looking at how the final words in each line). The rhyme of words makes a connection between them. Our first rhyme combination is “minds/finds.” What do you make of this pairing of words?

The first phrase (in this case a full sentence) of the poem flows into the next line of the poem. This is called enjambment, and though it is often made necessary by the form of the verse, it also serves to break up the reader’s expectations. In this case, the word “impediments” is placed directly before the bleak and confusing phrase “love is not love,” itself an enjambment. How does this disconnection between phrase and line affect the reader? How does it emphasize or change the lines around it?

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

Notice all of the repetition or use of similar words in the last two and a half lines. When close reading a poem, especially a fixed verse form like the sonnet, remember the economy of the poem: there’s only so much space at the poet’s disposal. This makes repetition very important, because it places even more emphasis on the repeated word than does prose. What does the repetition in these lines suggest? Also, note that we’ve come to the end of our first quatrain (four-line stanza): usually the first stanza of a sonnet proposes the problem for the poem. What is this problem?

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Our next quatrain gives a pair of metaphors (click here to read about metaphors, or click here) for the “thesis” argued in the first stanza. Look carefully at these images as they relate to the subject of the poem. What actual objects do they describe? Do they bear any similarity to each other? Is there a connection between the use of “ever-“ in line 5 and “every” in line seven?

The image in lines 5-6 is especially complex: What is the “mark” Shakespeare is talking about and how does it “look?” Answers to some of these questions may require some research into older definitions of words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Our third and final quatrain uses all of its four lines to expand a single metaphor. Consider how this metaphor relates to the previous ones, and why so much space in the poem is devoted to it, especially as it relates to the poem’s argument. Also, look at similarity of phrasing between line 9’s “rosy lips and cheeks” and line 11’s “brief hours and weeks.” They certainly rhyme, but how does the similar construction affect the reading?

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

This is our closing couplet (two-line stanza), meant to “resolve” the problem addressed in the poem. Look carefully at the way the couplet starts. Does it provide resolution or not? Note that the first person (“me/I”) has returned (last seen in the first line of the poem). Consider also the negations in the final statement. Have we seen something similar in the poem before? Where and why are the connections made?

From reading to writing

The observations and questions in the close reading notes are by no means complete, but a look over them suggests several possibilities for a paper. Among these possibilities are:

  • The repetition of similar words and phrases in the poem
  • The use and relationship of the three main metaphors in the poem
  • The ambiguity, which begins (“let” suggests that something may or may not be allowed to happen) and ends (the weighty word “if”) the poem
  • The connection between the physical and the spiritual.

These ideas need not be exclusive, either. The observations gained from the close reading should provide you with examples and insight for anyone of the proposed essays listed above.

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