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West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002

 

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  Lit 165 Syllabus
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Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Notes on the Art of Fiction: Early Forms
  The Short Story
  Graduate Students Define the Art of Fiction
  Bartleby the Scrivener - Questions for Analysis
  Notes on Melville
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  A Vocabulary for Short Fiction and Beyond
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry
  A Catalogue of Poems
  Notes on Langston Hughes
  Lines of Continuity
  Poetry Take Home Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Oedipus
  A Doll House
  Study Guide for the Final Exam
  A Glossary of Literary Terms

Notes for Basic Writing (ENG 020)
  The Rhetorical Situation
  Essay #1 Assignment Sheet
  Workshop Assignment for Essay#1
  How to Write Descriptively
  Building a Thesis
  Overcoming Reader's Block
  Analysis and the Culture of Advertising
  Essay #2 Assignment Sheet
  Writing Effective Introductions
  Writing Effective Conclusions
  Propaganda Analysis
  Politics and the English Language
  Propaganda: A Sample Analysis
  Midterm Exam: Tips for Writing on the Spot
  Notes on Rational Argument
  Mapping the Parts of an Arugment

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~~ Reading Poetry ~~

What is a poem? Before we pursue technical definitions which will lead us to a reflection upon poetic "craft," consider these informal analogies.

I think of a poem as being like two things: a packed suitcase and a brightly wrapped present. I can't decide which analogy I like better, so I'll give you both.
The suitcase analogy goes something like this: think of how it is when you want to go on a long weekend vacation. You start to pack and you don't know how much to bring. It's only a weekend, but it's a long weekend. So you end up throwing just about everything you own into a tightly packed, barely closed little suitcase, which provides a nice neat boundary around all your stuff, holding it in place. However, now imagine someone comes along and wants to borrow your sweatshirt. You tell the person, well go ahead, open it up. You can find it, it's yours. To me, that's like a reader coming to a great poem. The poem is an impossibly-tight packed suitcase and the reader wants something from it. The minute that reader does the slightest work of opening the latch or the zipper-whoosh!!-everything that's been stuffed in comes flying out. That's like the meaning flying out in every direction when we start to analyze rich poetry. It can be that emotionally, intellectually volcanic. It's amazing.


The brightly wrapped present analogy is a little less dramatic. A poem is surprising, like a present. It's a gift, a burst of color, a priceless crystal gem sparkling in the washed out collage of meaningless verbal litter that populates our everyday lives and everyday speech. I've goosed it up a notch, but the point is simple: poetry performs an enchantment.

What's the best way to read poetry?

Only one thing is certain: reading poetry requires close reading skills, your always active participation.

You have to be willing to give close, conscious attention to the language the writer uses, ready to analyze word choices and to be receptive to the nuances of sound and connotative language. You have to think about the creative ways poets use all the varieties of structures available to them, and what meaning these structures add to the poem. You even have to be willing to perform flights of fancy, trusting your own imagination to take you someplace the poet has conjured. But above all you have to be willing to risk feeling what the text provokes you to feel. When you've danced with the text enough, a poem will emerge.

Reading poetry can be more satisfying if you become familiar with poetic convention.

A few conventions that poets make use of universally are things like using lines, stanzas, rhyme, and rhythm. The sound of poems make them physically pleasing-to our ears at least-they provide a visceral as well as intellectual, emotional, or spiritual experience. Rhyme, rhythm, and verse are all contribute to a poem's sound, its physical being. For some poets, meaning becomes secondary to sound, or at the very least, equally important.

Consider this brief little gem by Robert Frost.

Dust of Snow
By Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

One of the pleasures of reading poetry is the opportunity it provides for personal reflection. This poem presents something that seems like a simple moment, but what is its larger significance? After reading "Dust of Snow," you may find yourself asking any number of deep questions that invite a kind of private contemplation. What are the reasons for mood changes? Why is this brief encounter with a wild animal, the crow, able to lighten this speaker's mood? How would you feel if this happened to you? What kind of relationship does the speaker in the poem have with nature which "saves" him? What is your own relationship with nature? Has it ever "saved" you? Does your environment bring you into contact with nature? Does it allow you to have a similar kind of experience as this? What encounters have you had in your environment that have affected you in positive or negative ways?

In this brief poem, Frost invites you to imagine a scene, to imaginatively project yourself into his character's shoes, and see what it feels like. You can observe and appreciate what's happening on a literal level, or you can try, through reflection and contemplation, to project yourself further in and explore the scene's larger significance with the kind of questions raised above.

A close examination of the language of this poem, a deep reading of it, uncovers a richness just beneath a surface simplicity. And that's part of the pleasure here, too. Complexity wrapped in brevity is usually artful. Why a "crow"? Why a "dust of snow" instead of a big avalanche? Why a "hemlock" tree and not a maple, or an oak, or another kind of pine? Why does the speaker emphasize that it was his "heart" and not his "mind" which experienced a "change of mood"? In what way do you think he means the experience "saved" the "part of a day"? Why a "part"? Close readers ask these kinds of questions, with a kind of faith that the answers might produce a bright, hidden pearl inside the shell.

Readers also take pleasure in the kind of readings that are highly personal. You may be reminded of a personal experience after reading a poem, and the feelings evoked by the poem might remind you of that experience. If so, follow those memories down. Pursue their significance. "Dust of Snow" is just such a poem for me.... I remember when I was trying to quit smoking and I was having a terrible time of it, like most long-time smokers who try to quit. I was about a month into things, and beginning to pathetically drift back, rationalizing the whole time, and on the verge of just giving in. Then one Monday I went to work and an older friend of mine (Kaye) asked me how I was doing. I started grumbling about "Monday..." when she asked me if I was still quitting cigarettes. I told her I was drifting back. Then she gave me a serious look and turned around. Next thing I know, she whipped out these doctors' papers, and pointed to the little checked boxes--these awful boxes that read "Emphysema" and "Lung Cancer." I couldn't believe it. I knew she had a cough, but everyone has a cough in February. Well, to make that long, painful story short, she told me in no uncertain terms to "Stop drifting." And then she died three months later. But addiction is a powerful enemy, and as I left work that afternoon, I still wanted to smoke. I remember sitting in traffic on the way home, miserable and conflicted about the whole thing, searching for some way to keep smoking, and thoroughly ashamed and disgusted with myself as a result. I didn't want to die, so why did I want to kill myself? I couldn't figure it out. And then, as I was waiting in that traffic jam, I caught sight of a big black crow at the very top of a really huge tree. It immediately struck me. What did that crow see that I couldn't? It must be able to see for miles all around. It probably had a great view of a really beautiful winter sunset (it was around 4:30 in the afternoon). It was just up there, looking all around. What did it see? At that moment that crow was more majestic than an eagle. It was totally "above it all"--it was the image of freedom, transcendence. It was up there looking down from a higher perspective. Free. At that moment I wanted to BE that crow. Maybe for that moment I was. All I know is that from that moment on, ALL of my conflict was utterly dissolved. I went home and threw everything away, in the trash--all my cigarettes, ashtrays, anything that reminded me of smoking. I attributed all my actions to Kaye. I dedicated my resolve to her. But when I came across that poem, and when I remember it all now, it wasn't just her. It was seeing that crow. It wasn't until I saw that crow, saw the possibility, felt the possibility of freedom that I finally arrived at a deep resolve to quit. And the truly amazing thing about it was how easy it was after that. I never struggled again, and I'd been smoking since age 11, an 18 year veteran of full strength Marlboros. That was nine years ago. So this poem has a deep significance to me personally, beyond all of the objective, artistic qualities we can observe in it.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" is a very well known poem by Robert Frost. Even so, contemporary readers may be challenged to imagine this kind of scene today. Does that mean the poem is no longer significant? You can decide for yourself after reading it. Before you decide, though, consider how you can pursue meaning on several levels--by reading literally, analytically, and symbolically.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

FIRST STANZA
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Literal
The situation is established; a man is passing through the countryside and stops on his way home to admire the beauty of fresh fallen snow on the surrounding forest.

Analytical
The speaker is familiar with the land; he knows who owns it…he even seems to wink a bit when he mentions the one who "owns" the woods, implying that the whole idea of "ownership" may be a little absurd; after all the man doesn't even live on this land that he owns-he lives in the village. The speaker implies that he's trespassing but since the owner isn't there he can't get in trouble. He's seems to be taking advantage of his unexpected freedom and privacy to stop and admire the woods without being noticed or watched. He seems to really appreciate this gift of…a moment. After all, if the owner were there, he wouldn't be able to stop. The speaker seems a little ambivalent about the scene. It calls to him; he's vibrating and resonating to nature's message-he seems very open to the scene before him, eager to make some kind of meaning out of it, or at the very least to take a moment and appreciate its beauty.

Symbolic
The snow is suggestive of winter, an archetypal image suggestive of death; yet the pleasant image of the white snow filling up the woods gives a certain allure, a positive tinge, to what might otherwise seem bleak.

SECOND STANZA
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

Literal
The speaker empathizes with the horse, further evidence of his ability to imaginatively project himself into nature, and nature's creatures. He invests his horse with a rudimentary power of reason, which shows how brotherly he must feel towards him. How weird, he imagines his horse thinking, that we're stopping in the middle of the woods, with no shelter and no food in sight while it's so dark out. Of course, it's really himself who's doing that thinking; he's projecting it onto the horse… yet the horse certainly does notice something different going on, and horses are usually eager to get back to the barn.

Analytical
The man is at one with his surroundings, including his horse. He enjoys seeing the scene from what he imagines to be his horse's perspective. Where are his own thoughts while his horse is contemplating this stopover? He's probably wrapped up watching the snow, thinking about the peacefulness and restfulness of the woods in their snowy grave. Thinking about his horse brings him back to reality.

Symbolic
Extending the suggestion of death is the archetypal image of night-the "darkest evening of the year."

THIRD STANZA
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Literal
The horse communicates by shaking his harness; you can feel him tossing his head impatiently, trying to spur the homeward journey forward. The quiet of the surrounding countryside is further enhanced by the singleness of this little sound. The wind tossing the snowflakes is the only other movement, the only other sound.

Analytical
The man is brought back to reality, barely. He's still drawn to the scene, evidenced by the way he notes the quietness of the country after hearing the harness bells shake. The "easy" wind and "downy" flake further extend the suggestion that there's an ease, a softness, a comforting, peaceful, relaxing quality to this death-invested scene (the dark night, the winter, the snow covering the forest like dirt on a grave). He seems to be having trouble drawing himself away.

Symbolic
The quiet of the scene reminds one of the quietness of death, graveyards.

FOURTH STANZA
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Literal
He'd like to stay and admire these woods, but there are responsibilities to attend to. He's got miles to go before he rests tonight. He reminds himself of his responsibilities.

Analytical
He admits his attraction to death-maybe his life is hard and death would seem like a welcomed rest from toil. The thought of resting alone on a quiet countryside, buried deep under where no harm can befall, is quite lovely, quite tempting. The promises he refers to seem ambiguous-are they promises to himself, to his loved ones, to his horse? It seems that this moment has given him the opportunity to reaffirm life; though he's been attracted to death throughout the poem, in the end it is life-with all of its toils and troubles--which ultimately wins. And yet the speaker seems to have reconciled his hard life by recognizing the deep and lovely rest that awaits him once he does die. Instead of being morbid, death becomes a well earned rest for those who have traveled the miles.

Symbolic
The speaker rejects death in favor of meeting his earthly responsibilities. He wants to earn his sleep--he wants to reach death having lived a full life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 


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