Vendler’s Explication of Poetry Essay
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Additional Step-by-Step Method of Thoroughly Explicating a Poem In addition to the sections, which are mentioned in the basic explication de texte, please review these divisions to further assist you in the complex work of analysis. Meaning: can you paraphrase in prose the general outline of the poem? Do not simply answer yes or no; attempt a brief paraphrase. Antecedent scenario: What has been happening before the poem begins? What has provoked the speaker? “Poets make certain stanza-forms their own. Dante wrote the whole of the Divine Comedy in three-line pentameter stanzas with interlaced rhyme, and ever since, anyone writing in this form or one of its modern adaptations—from Percy Bysshe Shelley in the nineteenth century through Wallace Stevens and Seamus Heaney in the twentieth century—evokes Dante” (Vendler 74).
1. How does the information contained in this statement aid us in our interpretation of poetry? What does it tell us into utterance? How has a previous equilibrium been unsettled? What is the speaker upset6 about?
2. Division into parts: How many? Where do the breaks come? 3. The climax: How do the other parts fall into place around it? 4. The other parts: What makes you divide the poem into these parts? Are there changes in person? In agency? In tense? In parts of speech? Look for any and all dynamic changes within the poem, rather than consider that the poem is a static structure. 5. Find the skeleton: What is the emotional curve on which the whole poem is strung? (It even helps to draw a shape—a crescendo, perhaps, or an hourglass-shape, or a sharp ascent followed by a steep decline—so you will know how the poem looks to you as a whole.)
6. Games with the skeleton: How is this emotional curve made new? 7. Language: What are the contexts of diction; chains of significant relation; parts of speech emphasized; tenses; and so on? 8. Tone: Can you name the pieces of the emotional curve—the changes in tone you can hear in the speaker’s voice as the poem goes along? 9. Agency and its speech acts: Who is the main agent in the poem, and does the main agent change as the poem progresses? See what the main speech act of the agent is, and whether that changes. Notice oddities about agency and speech acts. 10. Roads not taken: Can you imagine the poem written in a different person, or a different tense, or with the parts rearranged, or with an additional stanza, or with one stanza left out, conjecturing by such means why the poet might have wanted these pieces in this order?
11. Genres: What are they by content, by speech act, by outer form? 12. The imagination: What has it invented that is new, striking, and memorable—in content, in genre, in analogies, in rhythm, in a speaker? Sound Units:The sound units of a poem are its syllables. The word “enemy” has three successive sounds, en-eh-mee. Readers are conscious of a sound effect when they hear two end-words rhyme; but poets are conscious of all the sounds in their lines, just as they are of the rhythms of a line. Word Roots: These are the pieces of words that come from words in earlier languages, often Greek, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon. Poets usually are aware of the roots of the words they use. When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth naught but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the selfsame sky,
. . . .
then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight . . . In Sonnet 15, Shakespeare makes poetic use of words such as con-sider (from the root stars) a word he later uses in the same poem. He also expects them to notice that the word “consider” is composed of two parts, con- and -sider, and that the next I verb (perceive) is followed by a noun (conceit) which combines the con- of consider with the -ceive of “perceive.” Perhaps he also expected at least some of his readers to see how the con—of “consider” and “conceit” is repeated in “inconstant” (and that the word “you” is contained in “youth). Words: The meaning of a word in a poem is determined less by its dictionary (a single word like “stage” can have many definitions in a comprehensive dictionary) than by the words around it. Every word in a poem enters into relation with the other words in that poem. These relations can be of several kinds: –Thematic relation—as we would connect stars and sky in the quotation above. –Phonemic relation—as we would connect “stage,” “stars,” “secret,” “selfsame,” “sky,” and “stay” in the quotation above by their initial s’s and st’s. –Grammatical relation: as “cheered” and “checked” are both verbal adjectives modifying “men” –Syntactic relation—as “When I consider” and “When I perceive” introduce dependent clauses in “I” both modifying the main clause “Then the conceit . . . sets you.”
Each word exists in several constellations of relation, all of which the reader needs to notice in order to see the overlapping structures of language in the poem. Sentences: Note predicate and subject. Tenses. Track who is saying what to whom. Implication: Poets often expect you to think concretely as he speaks abstractly, since his words are to be yours. Because a poem can only suggest, not expatiate, it requires you to supply the concrete instances for each of its suggestions. Remember that implication can be present in rhythm as well as in words. The Ordering of Language: Language gives you the manner of the poem, as well as its matter. History and Regionality: In thinking about history poems, there is always a tension between the copiousness of history and the brevity of lyric. Often the generalized space of lyric gives way to a particular climate, geography, and/or scenery of a particular poem. Identity of the speaker: for the writer, the answer to this is never simple.
Examine the various facets of identity in the poem and how these change and offer varying views of the world. Attitudes, Judgments, Values: You are under no obligation to like or freely accept all the remarks or attitudes you come across in art. Closely examine the stylized language to make sure that you understand the values suggested by the poem. Can you separate the persona from the author? Rhythm: The first and most elementary pleasure of poetry is its rhythm. Distinguish between the various formal types of rhythm that you find in the poem. Knowing the musical weight of every possible syllable in the language is the gift of great poets. Rhythm: Look for sounds that match.
Keats thought of a kiss as a rhyme. Structure: The structures of a poem are the intellectual or logical shapes into which its thoughts are dynamically organized. Any overarching structure can have many substructures. We sometimes express this by saying that the structure of the poem enacts by way of dynamic evolution of form what the poem says by way of assertion. Images: A word is not the same thing as a picture. Words refer; images represent. Arguments: Arguments in poems are miniature imitations of “real” arguments. Wisdom, A New Language, Poignancy, Poems as Pleasure: no single poem offers all the pleasures of poetry.
Exploring a Poem: What follows are a series of things to note when you run through a poem to see what its parts are and how they fit together. Let us use this list on a sonnet by John Keats, called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The anthology will tell us, in footnotes, a few things we have to know to understand the references in the poem: Keats did not know Greek, and so he first read Homer’s Odyssey in the Renaissance translation by George Chapman; Apollo is the Greek god of poetry; Keats believed (mistakenly) t hat it was the Spanish conquistador Cortex who, in exploring Panama (“Darien”), discovered the Pacific Ocean (in reality it was Balboa, but the historical error doesn’t matter for the imaginative purposes of the poem). Keats tells us what it is like, even for a reader as experienced in poetry as he, to come across Homer’s Odyssean epic (from which he draws his opening travel imagery) for the first time:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. [allegiance]
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;[domain]
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene;[atmosphere]
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;[view]
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
–John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”
How do we go about exploring such a poem? Let us try a series of steps. 1. Meaning: This is the usual sort of information retrieval reading that we do with any passage of prose or verse. We come up with a summary of greater or lesser length giving the import of the passage as we make sense of it. Here, we might arrive at something like “The speaker says that he had traveled through a lot of golden terrain—had read a lot of poems—and people had told him about the Homeric domain, but he had never breathed its air till he heard Chapman speak out. Then he felt like an astronomer discovering a new plant; or like the explorer who discovered the Pacific, whose men, astonished by his gaze, guessed at his discovery.” This sort of meaning-paraphrase is necessary, but less useful in poetry than in prose. In many poems there is rather little in the way of plot or character or message or “information” in the ordinary sense, and that little can be quickly sketched (perhaps initially, especially in the case of a complex poem, by the teacher to the class).
Hoping to learn things about the poem that are more interesting than simply “what it says” in prose, we try to construct its 1. Antecedent Scenario: What has been happening before the poem starts? What has disturbed the status quo and set the poem in motion? Here, we know what has happened: the speaker has picked up Homer (in Chapman’s translation) for the first time, and has had a revelatory experience. But the antecedent scenario is not always given to us so clearly. If it is not evident right away, one moves on hopefully to 2. A Division into Structural Parts: Because small units are more easily handled than big ones, and because the process of a poem, even one as short as a sonnet, can’t be addressed all at once with a single global question like “What’s going on here?” we divide the poem into pieces.
One way of dividing this poem up is to notice that it falls, by its rhymes, into two large parts: “I never knew Homer till I read Chapman” (abbaabba) and “Then I felt like this” (cdcdcd). The first part takes up the first eight lines, connected by the two rhyme-sounds represented by –old (rhyme a) and -een (rhyme b); and the second part takes up the last six lines, connected by a new set of rhyme-sounds, represented by –ies (rhyme c) and –en (rhyme d). There are other ways, besides this 8:6 division, to divide this poem into parts, as we shall see, but let us work first within this 8:6 division-by-rhyme. In order to suggest a meaningful relation of the parts, it is useful to look at
3. The Climax: In Keats’s [please note that this is the correct MLA format for possession by a person whose name ends in “s”] sonnet, the climax seems to come when Cortex stares at the Pacific—the high point of the poem. What is special about his experience? Why does it replace the image of the astronomer discovering a new planet? In lyric poems, the various parts tend to cluster around a moment of special significance—which its attendant parts lead up to, lead away from, help to clarify, and so on. The climax usually manifests itself by such things as greater intensity of tone, as especially significant metaphor, a change in rhythm, or a change in person.
Having located the climax, one can now move back to
4. The Other Parts: About each part, it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts. What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem? Does something shift gears? Does the tense change? Does the predominant grammatical form change? (For example, does the poem stop emphasizing nouns and start emphasizing participles?) Is a new person addressed? Have we left a general overlook for certain particulars? Here, we notice that the first four lines talk in general about states, kingdoms, and islands. The next four lines talk about one special “wide expanse,” the one ruled by Homer. The next part says, “I felt like an astronomer discovering a new planet.”
And the last part produces anew comparison: “I felt like an explorer discovering a new ocean, accompanied by his companions.” Some questions immediately arise: Why doesn’t the poem end after the poet says, “I felt as though I discovered a new planet”? Why does he feel he needs a second comparison? And why, in the second comparison, does he need not only a single discoverer comparable to the astronomer, but a discoverer accompanied by a group of companions (“all his men”)? Once these four parts (general realms; Homer’s expanse; solo astronomer/ planet; Cortez and men / Pacific Ocean) have been isolated, one can move on to the game called
5. Find the Skeleton: What is the dynamic curve of emotion on which the whole poem is arranged? “I am much traveled, and have visited [presumably by ship] many islands; however, I had never visited the Homer-expanse till I heard Chapman; then I breathed the air of the Homer-expanse, and it was like finding”—like finding what? The first stab at comparison (“like finding a new planet”) isn’t quite right—you can’t walk on a planet and explore it and get to know it the way you get to know islands and states. Well, what would be a better comparison? And the speaker realizes that whereas other poets seem feudal lords of a given piece of earth—a state, a kingdom, an island—Homer is different not just in degree but in kind. He is, all by himself, an ocean. A new ocean, unlike a planet, is something on one’ s own plane that one can actually explore; yet it is something so big that it must contain many new islands and realms within it.
When we understand this, we can identify the curve of astonishment in the poem when the Homer-expanse (a carefully chosen word that doesn’t give away too much turns out to be not just another piece of land, and not some faraway uninhabitable body in the sky, but a whole unexplorable ocean, hitherto unguessed at. The tone has changed from one of ripe experience (“Much have I travelled”) to one of ignorance (the speaker has never breathed the air of the vast Homeric expanse, though others had, and had told him about it), to the revelation of the “wild surmise”—we have found not just another bounded terrain, but an unsuspected ocean! This curve of emotion, rising from an almost complacent sense of experience to an astonished recognition, is the emotional skeleton of the poem.
We can then ask about
6. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton: If “OFLCH” by its content, is a then/now poem (“I used not to know Homer / Now I do”), what is the event bridging the then and the now? It is reading Homer in Chapman’s translation. “Reading” is not an “event” in the usual sense: most then/now poems (like “A slumber did my spirit seal”) are about some more tangible event (a death, an absence, a catastrophe). Keats plays a game, then, with the then/now poem in making its fulcrum an experience of reading. By saying that reading too is an Event, Keats makes the then/now poem new. If this is a riddle-poem (and it is: “What is Homer-land like?”), how is the riddle prepared? It is prepared by a series of alternatives: “I have seen realms, states, kingdoms, islands.” Some “expanse” is ruled by Homer, but I have not seen it yet. Will it be a realm? A state? A kingdom? Another island? The first answer to the riddle is, “none of the above; Homer land is a new planet!” But that is the wrong answer (one can’t travel to and explore a new planet, and the speaker is exploring Homer), so the poem tries again to answer the riddle, and this time does it correctly: “None of the above; Homer-expanse is a new ocean!”
The poet has played a game with our sense of the poem as a riddle by answering not in the category we anticipated from his former travels but in an unexpected one, thus making the riddle-poem new. Keats plays another game with the ignorance/discovery skeleton by making his poem a hero-poem. He makes the reward at the end of the emotional curve—the discovery of the new ocean—not a solitary experience but a communal one. We normally think of reading as an uneventful private act. Why did Keats make it heroic? Furthermore, why did he show the heroic discovery being made not by a single explorer but by a company of explorers? Cortex is not alone on the Isthmus of Panama, but is accompanied by “all his men / Look[ing] at each other with a wild surmise.”
When one discovers the Homeric “expanse” one reads alone, but one becomes thereby a member of a company of people who have discovered Homer—those people who had “oft . . . told” the speaker about Homer. A feat like Homer’s writing the Odyssey is as heroic as the exploits of Achilles: mastery of such an intellectual discovery is itself a presence of Cortez’s men, is collective, not private. Keats thought of himself as a poet among poets: a reader of Homer among readers of Homer, an explorer among explorers. And in this way he made the hero-poem both newly intellectual and newly communal and democratic. One can go on to ask about 8.Language:We have been looking at language all along, but now we can do it more consciously. How many sentences does the poem have? 2. Where does the break between sentences come? After line 4. This gives us, a new division into parts: not the 8:L6 of the then/now structure, but the 4:10 of the knowledge/discovery structure, which locates for us the moment in which traveled complacency turns to longing for Homeric acquaintance.
Poems often have several overlapping internal structures. It is one of the signs of a complex poem that its rhymes may be dividing the poem one way, its theme another way, its action from inception through climax another way, its grammar another way, its sentences yet another way. Each of these divisions has something to tell us about the emotional dynamic of the poem. What parts of speech predominate in the poem? In Keats’s sonnet, the chain of nouns of space—realms, states, kingdoms, islands, expanse, demesne, planet, Pacific—stands out as one unifying link. What other words, regardless of whether they are different parts of speech, make a chain of significant relation?
Your might notice how words of seeing and watching—seen, watcher, ken, eagle eyes, stared, looked at—connect the parts of the poem as do the nouns of space. What contexts are expressed in the diction?We notice traveling sailing, exploring, astronomical observation, feudal loyalty, and so on. Is the diction modern or ancient? Keats uses archaic words like realms of gold, goodly, bards, fealty, demesne, pure serene, and ken which help us sense how long Homer has been alive in our culture. A close look at language always leads to 7. Tone: The calm beginning, in the voice of ripe experience (much have I travelled) mounts to the excitement of the “wild surmise,” which then suddenly is confirmed by the breathless “silent” of the last line, and by the image of the “peak” corresponding to this heightened moment.
Reading a poem aloud as if it were your won utterance makes you able to distinguish the various tones of voice it exhibits, and to name them. At this point, we can turn to 10. Agency and Speech Acts: Who has agency in this poem? We notice that the main verbs are all governed by the “I” who speaks the poem: “I have traveled . . . and seen . . . [and] have been . . . [and] had been told. . . .yet never did I breathe . . .I heard . . . Then felt I.” But we notice that in the subordinate clauses a great many other subagencies are present. Bards hold island, Homer rules an expanse, Chapman speaks out, the new planet swims into ken, Cortez stares at the Pacific, and his men look with wold surmise at each other. It is by the interpenetration of the rather colorless main verbs denoting the sedentary activity of reading and the other more public or active actions of the agents, that Keats draws his new acquaintance with the Odyssey into large realms of cultural activity.
The speech act of this poem is a single long narration of the speaker’s more remote and recent pasts. The unusual thing about the speech act (narration) and agency (single main agent) is that they stop so soon: the last narrative verb by the agent is “then felt I in line 9. After that, the attention of the poem never comes back to the speaker, but instead expands out to the most exalting sorts of cultural discovery—that of an astronomer, that of explorers. 11. Roads Not Taken: What are the roads not taken in the poem? The sonnet might have ended with the comparison of the self to an astronomer. Would this have been satisfactory? Or the expanse ruled over by homer might have been shown as a new continent rather than as a new ocean. Would this have been equally revealing? Or the poem might have been written in the third person instead of the first person:
Many have travelled in the realms of gold
And they have goodly states and kingdoms seen
Round many western islands have they been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Is this as dramatic as the first person? Or the poem might have begun with the reading of Chapman’s Homer, instead of leading up to it: I once heard Chapman speak out loud and bold;
He told me of a wide expanse unseen,
Better than other states and realms of gold
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne.
Then felt I like stout Cortez on his peak,
When with his eagle eyes he saw the sea. . . .
We can see how these examples show us just how dynamic Keats’s version is. With the clear idea of the function of each piece of the poem within the whole, and of the dynamic curve of emotion governing the order in which the pieces appear, we can then pass on to 12. Genre, Form, and Rhythm: What is the content genre of the poem? A dramatic change between then and now; a poem about reading; a poem about a hero; a poem about collective experience. What is the speech act genre of the poem? A narration in the first person of a significant event marking one life-period off from another, and an asking-a-riddle: “What is reading Homer like?” What is the formal genre of the poem? A sonnet, using the usual five-beat rising-rhythm line found in sonnets, rhyming abbaabba cdcdcd. It can be compared to other sonnets rhyming the same way. About form, we always need to ask how it has been made vivid. We can then move on to the last issue which is always 13. The Imagination: What has the poet’s imagination invented that is striking? Memorable? Or beautiful?
We can tell, from the metaphors of sailing, that before writing his poem Keats had been reading Homer’s Odyssey, and had been thinking about what Odysseus had discovered as he sailed from realm to realm, from island to island. Wanting to describe his own first reading of Homer, Keats imaginatively borrows from the very book he has been reading, using the image of travel, saying that reading poetry in general is like voyaging from Shakespeare-land to Milton-kingdom to Spenser-state, but that reading Homer is not like finding just another piece of land to visit: it like finding a new planet, or, even better, a whole unexpected new ocean to sail in.
Keats imagined these large analogies—sailing, astronomical observation, discovering an ocean—for the act of reading in general, and for reading Homer in particular; they enliven the sonnet. What makes the poem touching is the imagined change from the complacency of the well-traveled speaker to the astonishment of the discovery of Homer, and the poet’s realization that in reading Homer he had joined a company of others who have also discovered the Homeric ocean, sharing his “wild surmise.” It is characteristic of Keats to see poetry as a collective act: he said in a letter, “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” not “I think I shall be famous after my death.”
But the imagination is not invested in themes and images alone. The imagination of a poet has to extend to the rhythm of the poem as well. What the imagination has invented here that is rhythmically memorable is the change from the steady first ten lines—because even the astronomer doesn’t have to do anything but look through his telescope—to the strenuous broken rhythms of the heroic last four lines with their four sharply differentiated parts: Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific— And all his men look’d at each other with a wild surmise— Silent,
Upon a peak in Darien.
The intent, piercing stare of “stout Cortez”: the amazed mutual conjecture of his men; the sudden, short, transfixed silence of the whole group; the summit of foreign experience on which the action takes place—each of these four facts is given its own rhythmically irregular phrase, so different from the undisturbed and measured pentameter narration in “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” A poem needs imaginative rhythms as well as imaginative transformation. You will, of course, read most poems without investigating them in this detailed way for their inner processes. But as soon as you want to know how a poem works, as well as what it says, and why it is poignant or compelling, you will find yourself beginning to study it, using methods like the ones sketched here.
Soon, it becomes almost second nature for you to notice sentences, tense-changes, speech acts, tonal variants, changes of agency, rhythm, rhymes, and other ingredients of internal and external structure. Poems are very rewarding things to study as well as to read, to learn by heart as well as to study. They keep you company in life. To give the poem its due, although we often understand its message, the reason for our response is the arrangement of the message on many intersecting planes into a striking and moving form. We need to be able to see it as an arranged message. Vendler, Helen. Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Boston: Bedford, 1997 http://www2.sjsu.edu/faculty/patten/vendler.html