Origins of Verse
Poetry comes from an oral tradition dating back to the songs of minstrels. The verse form may be lyrical or narrative. Narrative poetry (telling a story in rhythmic language) was probably the earliest form of one of humanity's earliest arts. Verse containing rhyme and rhythm made it easier for both performer and audience to remember the songs/poems. Minstrels sang of historical and contemporary events, and were expected to deliver elevated narratives in inspiring language. The term lyrical refers broadly to a poem, sentence, or phrase that is a rhythmic and reflective way of stating something. Lyric Greek poetry is found in the work of Sappho, who lived in the early 6th century B.C.E. and who may have been the first poet on record to write about her personal feelings (the joys of love were her main subjects).
Why is poetry so hard to understand? The figurative language (metaphor, symbolism, analogy) of poetry allows for the expression of deeper meanings. Shakespeare and Donne mastered the technique of conceit, an elaborate way of talking about something in terms of other things, suggesting to the reader more than one interpretation (the literal/concrete/physical vs. the hidden/abstract/symbolic/figurative).
Metaphor is a literary technique used to describe one object, situation or idea through an implicit (direct) comparison with another. In the below example, pay close attention to what is being compared:
- Little boys lie still, awake,
Delicate little boxes of dust.
In order to create a visual picture of these little boys, the poet chose an image that the audience could easily visualize, in this case the delicate little boxes of dust. Imagine what a "delicate little box of dust" looks like. Then place that image onto the boys. Now visualize the boys. What is their life like? What do they look like? By comparing the boys to the boxes, the poet has placed a known subject (a box of dust) onto an unknown subject (these particular boys), making the unknown knowable to the audience.
A poet could also write a simile, a direct comparison using the words like or as. The simile is an explicit, stated comparison:
- The child's cry opens like a knife blade.
- I wandered lonely as a cloud.
Since poetry comes from an oral tradition, the sound of poetry influences tone, mood, and meaning. As you read poetry out loud, pay attention to the sounds of the letters and words. Soft-sounding letters (such as "o" sounds) will create a smooth, pleasant tone. Hard sounding letters (such as "c" or "k") will create a harsh, tense mood. Alliteration is the repetition of the initial sound of words in a line of verse:
- Blackbirds whistled and chirped near the barren church.
Sometimes alliteration includes both initial sounds and interior sounds as in blueberry. The repetition of the "b" sound is also an example of consonance. The repetition of vowel sounds within words or lines is called assonance, which creates a rhyme or a near-rhyme:
- ...and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
In personification, an inanimate object is described as it it were human:
- Driving past the fields, I could hear the soybeans breathing.
- I bowed my head, and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.
Poets may use universal symbols to reveal a deeper meaning. For instance, the sun is a symbol of warmth/light/God, the return of spring as resurrection/rebirth, the bird as a symbol of spirit/freedom, the lion as an emblem of courage, the rose as an example of beauty/love. The use of color can also be symbolic. In Western culture, a poet may use dark, bleak images and colors to create a depressing or horrifying mood. Lighter, more "bright" colors and images may inspire or "brighten" a mood, or show a sense of enlightenment or wisdom. In other cultures, the opposite may hold true: bright/white may indicate a sterile, colorless environment, or a funeral procession! Darker images may indicate a sophisticated/created style or depth of character.
Basic Questions for Rhetorical Analysis
These following questions will help you, the reader, to pinpoint the poet's intent and the possible meanings:
- What is the rhetorical situation (the situation/problem/conflict for the poem's speaker)?
- Who is the speaker of the poem? (Don't assume the poet is the speaker! You may choose to view the speaker as you would a character in fiction.)
- What occasion or event (historical or personal) may have compelled the poet to write this poem? (Research the poet's life and times.)
- What is the speaker's intention? How does the speaker come across? Define the emotion or reason in the tone and word choices.
- Who is the intended audience? What values does the audience hold that the author or speaker appeals to?
- What is the relationship between the poem's form and content? (Closely examine the stanza structure, line breaks, formatting, etc.)
- What does the style of the writing reveal about the culture that produced it? (Again, educate yourself on the poet's life and times!)
Free Verse Poetry
At the turn of the 20th Century, artists demanded more freedom of expression; in a poetic sense, Modern and Contemporary Poets began to structure language as it suited their own needs. Free Verse poetry lacks a traditional system of measure; however, it is not without a certain sense of form and strategy. Poets began to choose line beginnings and endings to create specific meaning and feeling. Stanza breaks could serve as a device to create tension or to create a natural pause. Poets began to build toward the last line -- to move us, startle us, give us sudden insight. Subjectivity increased, and by the 1950s and 60s, Beat and Confessionalist Poets turned to a style of emotional autobiography, shifting the role of audience from objective observer to personal confidant.
Consider how style and form creates meaning in the following free-verse poem by Charles Bukowski. Note how the line lengths and breaks reinforce the poem's title, and carefully examine how the poet's deliberate use of the lower case helps to convey tone and meaning:
waiting for death
like a cat
that will jump on the
I am so very sorry for
she will see this
shake it once, then
it's not my death that
worries me, it's my wife
left with this
I want to
let her know
that all the nights
even the useless
and the hard
I ever feared to
can now be
In the following poem by James Wright, please consider the poet's choice of line and stanza breaks. Note the shift in tone from stanza one to stanza two, and how the poet uses descriptive and symbolic imagery to convey a sense of transformation and inspiration.
Small Frogs Killed on the Highway
I would leap too
Into the light,
If I had the chance.
It is everything, the wet green stalk of the field
On the other side of the road.
They crouch there, too, faltering in terror
And take strange wing. Many
Of the dead never moved, but many
Of the dead are alive forever in the split second
Auto headlights more sudden
Than their drivers know.
The drivers burrow backward into dank pools
Where nothing begets
Across the road, the tadpoles are dancing
On the quarter thumbnail
Of the moon. They can’t see,