Some Questions You Might Ask

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This week we will turn our attention to a fabulously interesting moment in the history of American poetry when the dike breaks, as it were, and a flood of poetic forms begin to circulate in the culture. Longfellow’s uses and adaptations of poetic forms, Whitman’s barbaric yawps, the formal and conceptual dynamics of Dickinson––these selected poetic projects have engaged poets and shaped the context for subsequent innovations in poetic form.

Notebook LC #85 | The Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842–1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Below I have included some questions to ask a poem––a selection of queries that may serve to open up a poem in particular ways, and complement what Robert Pinsky calls the “hearing knowledge” we all have as speakers of language. The questions are points of entry that can guide us to ways of seeing, and thinking, gaining a deeper enjoyment and understanding of poems. You will also find some poems that you can use to try out some of these questions and see where they take you.

Finally, to get warmed up on Thursday, we will return to a distinction that many of you already have in hand––the differences in approach to a text that fall under the terms “poetics” and “hermeneutics.”

Some Questions You Might Ask

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me.
The face of the moose is as sad
as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness.
One question leads to another.
Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg?
Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater
who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about maple trees?
What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

-Mary Oliver

Some Questions You Might Ask (a Poem)

“Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations.” (61)

– Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction

Frames and Development: Title: is there an allusion? An occasion? Epigraph? Opening line(s)? How does the poem begin? What are the turns? Where are the turning points? How does the poem end? Does the poem seek or resist closure?

Speech acts: Address? Apology? Command? Conjecture? Exclamation? Exhortation? Invitation? Invocation? Lament? Narration? Plea? Question? Retraction? Supposition? Vow? Etc.

Prosody and Versification: counted lines (regular number of beats), free verse (irregular number of beats), prose. Is the poem long or short? Narrow or wide or irregular? What do you observe about the physical appearance of the poem on the page? Is it in stanzas?  verse paragraphs? Are they regular, or do they change? Are there patterns of repetition?  End rhymes?  What is the rhyme scheme? Does it vary? Rhythm?  What is the meter and where do variations occur?  Alliteration, assonance, internal rhymes? Are the lines end-stopped or enjambed? How many sentences are there?  Do the sentences coincide with or differ from the lines? Where do you get to breathe? Can you find pauses (caesuras) within the lines? Do these pauses always fall in the same place in each line? Are there parallel structures or repetition of phrases? Do you find instances of anaphora? Can you see patterns of contrast, cause and effect, or other organizational principles? Are there items in a series?  Where would further elaboration of the series lead? Why does the poem stop where it stops?

Order, Argument, Plot, Closure: Does the poem move forward in steps that suggest an argument? Is it logical? Is it persuasive? Does the poem pose questions and provide replies? Does the poem tell a story? Is there a pattern, such as a sequence? Repetition and variation? Refrain? Do subsequent lines transform the way we understand earlier lines? Describe the pace of the poem, after reading it aloud several times. Does the poem have strong or weak closure?

Grammar: words, parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verb, adverbs), phrase, syntax. Formal or informal? High or low? Abstract or concrete? Monosyllabic or multisyllabic? Does the work participate in a discourse? (i.e. psychology, theology, patriotism, dissent) Does the work have an implicit politics? Is the work inflected by gender? Does power operate in the work ? What is the most interesting word in the poem? Why? Are the lines of the poem full of nouns? verbs? What tense(s) does the poet employ? Does the poem employ adjectives and/or adverbs? Do the parts of speech employed suggest metaphors? (Many clichés work this way: “It was a heavenly day!”). Does the poem contain words in another language?  Which language? (Does a poem that quotes Latin differ from a poem that quotes Yiddish?) Does the poem employ different kinds of diction in different places? What is the register of the diction? abstract, Latinate, proverbial, lowly, etc.? Does the language include absolutes? comparisons? contrasts? tautologies? Describe the tone of the poem: Does it change as diction changes? What is the relation between line and sentence? How does punctuation work to control the pace of a poem?

Rhetoric: analogy, antithesis, apposition, metaphor, metonymy, paradox, personification, quotation, etc. What sorts of rhetorical devices are at work? Does the poem employ antithesis,  bringing together contrasting ideas? Does the poem explore a paradox? Does the poem use the figure of chiasmus, or a criss-crossing inversion of words or phrases? Does the poem rely on a riddle? Does the poem deny what it is doing (litotes)? Does the poem employ oxymoron, or condensed paradox? Does the poem contain a proverb or a fable? Does the poem illustrate its point with exempla (brief exemplary anecdotes)?

Movement or Change: Evaluate the changes or shifts in the poem: changes in diction, syntax, form (meter, rhyme scheme, stanzas), speaker, mood, tone, metaphorical register, image patterns. How do changes or alterations in pattern work: by inversion, by contrast emphasized by parallel structures, as a response to an event, or an image, or as part of a dialogue? Are the changes a part of an implied plot? Does tension build up?  If so, how is it released? Does the poem place change between equilibrium and restored order? Is there a sudden reversal, change of direction (peripety), or a drop in level (bathos)? Does the ending make a significant change?

Person, Speaker, Persona: Who is speaking, and to whom? Are names provided? Do you have a sense of age, gender, rank, relationship? What is the person of the address (first, second, third, plural and singular)? Is something/one absent being addressed?  or something/one present? Does the poem employ apostrophe? What questions does the speech invite? What questions does it discourage or prevent? Is there more than one voice? What motivates the speech? Does the utterance erupt out of a situation? What is the purpose of the utterance? What other purposes does the speech serve? Is there a gap between the speaker’s intention and the implied intention of the writer?

Imagery: What objects or images are named by the poem? Are the objects or images related or unrelated to one another? Are art objects described? (exphrasis). What attitude does the speaker have towards the objects or images? Are the objects defamiliarized? What kind of imagery is employed and how completely is it elaborated? Is there a need to speak about a subject covertly, in code, elliptically? Does the comparison celebrate, elevate, or otherwise transform its subject?

Metaphor, Simile, Metonymy, Synecdoche: Does the poem use similes in an explicit comparison, with the words “like” or “as”? Are the objects carrying a metaphorical burden? Where does this relationship break down or become hard to untangle? What kind of metaphors do you find in the poem? Do the metaphors encourage an allegorical reading? Does the metaphor go so far that it becomes farfetched? (catachresis) Is the metaphor worked out in elaborate detail? (conceit) Do the objects or images stand for related concepts, of part and whole? (Look up metonymy and synecdoche). Does the poem employ both metaphor (or simile) and metonymy? How are the  metaphors/metonymies related to one another? What motivates them?

Other Questions: What does the work foreground? What does the work let slip? What does the work attempt to bury? Is anything conspicuously absent? Does the work, or a part of the work, resist interpretation? Where? How? Why? Of what kinds of discourse is the work comprised? Certain discourses imply conceptual structures (“Our sublunary love” suggests the Ptolemaic universe, for instance). Does the work employ different kinds of discourse suggesting more than one conceptual structure? What is their relationship? Do they clash? Mesh? Suggest a development? (Conceptual structures may limit the extent of possible knowledge, making some phenomena  unrecognizable.) Does the work pose an epistemological problem? Does the work present alternatives? Does the work ask questions? Does it use small questions to ask a serious, unstated question? Where are the breaks? Breaks may appear at the level of the form, the sentence, the imagery, the metaphor, the scene, the speaker, etc. and they may work with or against one another. Where are the knots? When does the language make the reader work, and to what end? Where does the work become unintelligible? Why? What word or phrase marks the work’s stress point(s)? Does the work interpret itself? Does the work make a statement about language, reading, or writing? What aesthetic values does the work embody or propose? Does the work have a moral stance?  Can you describe its attitude?


The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:


thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth


We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each


It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it


two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.


-Denise Levertov, Poems 1960-1967 (1968)


No Sex for Priests

The horse in harness suffers;
he’s not feeling up to snuff.
The feeler’s sensate but the cook
pronounces lobsters tough.
The chain’s too short: The dog’s at pains
to reach a sheaf of shade. One half a squirrel’s whirling there
upon the interstate. That rough around
the monkey’s eye is cancer. Only God’s
impervious—he’s deaf and blind. But he’s
not dumb: to answer for it all, his spokesmen
aren’t allowed to come.

-Heather McHugh, The American Scholar (2006)


Are you the new person drawn toward me?

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-92)


To the Light of September

When you are already here
you appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not


and for now it seems as though
you are still summer
still the high familiar
endless summer
yet with a glint
of bronze in the chill mornings
and the late yellow petals
of the mullein fluttering
on the stalks that lean
over their broken
shadows across the cracked ground


but they all know
that you have come

the seed heads of the sage
the whispering birds
with nowhere to hide you
to keep you for later


who fly with them


you who are neither
before nor after
you who arrive
with blue plums
that have fallen through the night


perfect in the dew


-W.S. Merwin, Poetry (September 2003).


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

-E.E. Cummings, ViVa (1931)

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