A Literary Analysis of the Poem Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less by Rita Dove

I chose the poem, “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less” by Rita Dove to read and complete my explication and analysis essay on. This poem stood out to me because of the use of language that the speaker uses it was unique and different. I also loved the way that the speaker uses symbolism to get the main point across.

Part 1: Scansion and Analysis

In the poem “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less,” the speaker uses stanzas to separate the thoughts and ideas presented.

There are three separate stanzas, which I find ironic because instead of the speaker describing herself in three words, as the title suggests, she uses three stanzas. The speaker uses a mixture of end-stop, enjambment, and end-pause line breaks to form the shape of the poem. The space between each stanza allows time for the reader to pause and organize what the central idea of each stanza is. More-so, the various types of breaks and the placement of the punctuation within each stanza helps to accentuate the main ideas that the speaker is trying to portray.

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One example of a pause can be seen when the speaker says, “I’m not a kind at all, -in fact:” (Rita 4-5)the type of break that is used is meant to grab the attention of the reader. The use of the semi-colon emphasizes a pause and allows the speaker to spotlight how she is different, and why she cannot be described as one type of person in the remaining lines of the stanza.

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This poem is written in free verse, there is no consistent meter and no rhyming scheme. The speaker structures the poem to introduce the main idea in the first stanza and then goes on to support her idea in the second and third stanza. The last line of the third stanza is meant, in my opinion, to be a conclusion to the poem. While this poem is written in free verse, the poem itself is a combination of symbolic and thematic mode. The speaker has an overall theme, anti conformity, for the poem and also incorporates symbolism to express the theme.

Part 2: Explication

The main idea of “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less” is that the speaker cannot, and will not, be defined in just three words. Society often wants us to label ourselves, or categorize who we are. This poem is addressing society as a whole and was written in defiance to the way that society thinks. The speaker wanted to make clear that she cannot be placed in a box and does not conform to the norms of society, she explains this when she states that she has “a wild, thatched soul” (Rita 8). The speaker explains the overall main idea with the use of different, smallerideas within each stanza. The first stanza is meant to establish the idea that the speaker does not fit into society’s categories, or “boxes,” that it places people in—she introduces the idea that, not only is she not a certain kind of person, she is a unique individual and describes her individualism. The second stanza has a more sexual theme to it as the speaker talks about her “bawdy business” (Rita 10), or thoughts, while using the imagery of a boat. The third stanza is used to portray the fact that the speaker does not care about, or put any thought into, the fact that she is unique.

Symbolism and figurative language are two main ways that poets can deliver their messages to the reader. In this poem, the speaker relies on symbolic language to represent her ideas throughout the poem. In the second stanza, the speaker uses boats to represent her thoughts, specifically her sexual thoughts. The language throughout the second stanza explains how the boats, much like her thoughts, cannot be controlled. Boats are often times controlled by outside forces, such as the wind and sea, and the speaker states “may drift off maddened, moon-rinsed, or dock in the morning scuffed and chastened” (Rita 12-13) to illustrate that her thoughts are hard to control. In stanza three, the speaker uses figurative language to describe how the bird and spider look. She describes them as, “bright-beaked birds” and “manicured spiders.” The use of these unique descriptive words are symbolic to the main idea of the poem because, while birds and spiders are normal creatures, the speaker does not use ordinary terms to describe them; much like the speaker does not use ordinary words to describe herself because she does not fit into stereotypes. Stanza three also uses symbolism to represent that she has already moved past the fact that she is different and it is unimportant to her when she states, “I will stop, and forget the singing. (See? I have already forgotten you.)” (Rita 21-22). Overall, the structure of this poem is symbolic to the main theme because it shows an open defiance against society—the speaker uses three stanzas to describe herself instead of three words.

While I could not find any patterns in the poem and there are no specific allusions, the poem as a whole is an allusion if you know who the speaker is and the political movements that took place while she was growing up. The speaker is an African American woman who was born in 1952(“Rita Dove” 1). It is important to understand the social surroundings of this time period because it creates a stronger argument within the poem—women and African Americans were oppressed and stereotyped harshly during this time. I feel as if the speaker used this poem to announce that she will be seen as an individaul, and not just thrown into a chlice category.

The speaker uses an informal tone and cacophtony language to deliver her message. The speaker uses very harsh terms to describe who she is, such as; itchy, pug-willed, gnarled, wrong headed, and thatched. When we look at the meaning of each of those words we can better understand how the speaker views herself. The reader could interpret the word itchy to mean that the speaker is often restless. Pug-willed could illude to the stubborn streak, yet unagressive nature of the pug, Ganarled can be defined as “being twisted, rugged, or full of knots” (“Gnarled”). Wrong-headed is defined as “having or showing opinions or ideas that are wrong” (“wrong-headed”), and thatched is typically a word that refers to “the structure of a roof that is made with rough materials [and often times look messy]”(“thatch”). The use of these unique words to describe the speaker conveys the main point of this message—there is nothing ordniary about the speaker at all.

The theme of this poem would be conformity vs. rebellion, more specifically non conformity to society. The speaker shows defiance against society in both the structure and langugae used within the poem. As stated before, the speaker uses language like, “I’m itchy and pug-willed, gnarled and wrong-headed…” (Rita 5-6) to illustrate that she cannot be defined as any type of person—she is unique and does not conform to society’s norms. I believe that the central message of the poem is just that, that the speaker does not fit the norms of society and refuses to describe herself in just three words.

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A Literary Analysis of the Poem Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less by Rita Dove. (2022, Feb 04). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-literary-analysis-of-the-poem-describe-yourself-in-three-words-or-less-by-rita-dove-essay

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