Due By: Saturday, Feb. 10
Read the poems “Telephone Conversation (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.” by Wole Soyinka and “On the Subway (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.” by Sharon Olds.
Write a 500 to 750 word essay comparing and contrasting the themes of these two poems. Remember that you should use the close reading method of Module 5 or the explication method of this module to gather evidence and quotes from the poems to support your thesis.
Module 5: Module Notes Transcript
French critics of poetry developed a precise strategy for reading poetry they called explication du texte or explicating a poem. Explication is another word for analyze. This reading method follows a number of steps that progressive unearth the special language and meaning poems often contain. This method works best with difficult poems, but can be applied to any poetry. Much like the literary criticism you learned about in Module Two, explicating a poem represents a professional reading of poetry by scholars. It should never replace the active and more personal reading of poems you practiced in the last module. For an excellent example of how to analyze a poem along with a structure for writing about a poem using this critical method, see the University of North Carolina’s handout: Poetry Explications (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..
For this module, we will be following the method of explication presented at Hunter College’s Writing about Literature section (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. of their Writing Center.
We will apply this method to an analysis of Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.”. This is not meant to be an exhaustive analysis, but rather, a guideline to use when trying to understand and write about difficult poetry. The steps can be followed in any order.
Step 1: What is the literal sense of the poem?
Literal refers to the surface of the poem. What exactly happens in the poem independent of any meaning? If you had to write to a friend in another state or overseas how would you summarize or describe Robert Frost’s poem. Basically, a man riding in a horse and buggy crosses the country property of a village land owner on his way home. It is late at night on the shortest night of the year. He crosses a wooded landscape on the way home. It is snowing and the protagonist stops momentarily to think about life. His horse seems confused by the pause and, then, the protagonist (the main actor or character in the poem) continues on his way.
That’s the literal sense of the poem.
Step 2: What is the diction of the poem?
Diction is a fancy way to talk about language use or how we use our words. Formal diction occurs most often at work or in the classroom where you speak standard English. Formal diction changes depending on one’s audience. British royalty use very educated, elevated diction. Informal diction is more conversational and relaxed. We often use informal language at home or at recreational events. Street diction has emerged as a new informal style of spoken word poetry.
Although Frost writes poetry, the poem’s diction is informal and easy to understand. He writes as a common everyday person for another common everyday person whose education is not so important. In other words, Frost uses plain speaking diction.
Step 3: What is the tone of the poem?
Tone usually suggests attitude. “Don’t use that tone of voice with me” means don’t speak in an aggressive or angry fashion. A poem’s tone varies as much as a speaker’s attitude. Examples of tone include: happy, sad, angry, ecstatic, quiet, agitated, nervous and so on. Often irony is classified under tone. Irony (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. is when something other than what the reader expects to happen happens. This literary element was also discussed in Module 1.
Frost’s tone is very soft like the snowy night the poet describes. An excellent word for this tone would be contemplative. The poem describes a man all alone stopping for a moment to think about life before returning home.
Step 4: What is the rhetorical situation implied by the poem?
Rhetoric (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. is a fancy Greek word that refers to the speaking or writing situation you find yourself in? In other words who is the speaker of the poem? Who is the speaker addressing, i.e. the audience, and what is the context or occasion of the speech?
In Frost’s poem the speaker is the poems personae or protagonist, the “I”’ that travels across the wooded landscape. The poem’s original audience is hard to discern, but the poem implies a rather general, perhaps rural audience of everyday people. The situation is simply the poet’s moment of contemplation inspired by a particular scene at a particular moment of time.
Step 5: Does the poem use figurative language?
Figurative language is language that goes beyond the literal or surface level of a word. Most poetry makes strong use of figurative language especially simile and metaphor. Simile uses the words “like” or “as” to compare two items.
“My love is like a red, red rose.”
Love is compared to a red rose because a rose is considered an object of beauty and red is a symbol of life and passion.
Metaphor compares two unlike items through substitution, In “Digging,” Seamus Heaney substitutes the pen for a spade. That is an example of metaphor.
Frost’s poem seems primarily descriptive, but metaphor creeps in at the end. “Sleep” is often a metaphor for “death.” Thus the poem ultimately addresses the question of death that everyone must face. Metaphor lends the poem gravity and strength.
Step 6: What kind of imagery does the poem use?
Images, as addressed in Module 1, help create a visual picture in the reader’s mind through the use of the five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing.
Frost uses images of darkness and winter, i.e. the snow and the “frozen lake,” and “darkest evening of the year.”
Step 7: How does sound contribute to the effect of the poem?
Sound certainly helps differentiate poetry from prose and links poetry to its ancient roots in music. You have learned about some sound effects like alliteration and omnomatopia in the last module. For many poets, meter (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. distinguishes the poem’s rhythm or general sound pattern. In simple terms meter is the pattern of stressed an unstressed syllables in a line of poetry. Lines are measured by the number of poetic feet or units. There are numerous types of meter all derived from ancient Greece. If you decide to major in English Literature learning about meter will be important but for now you need only a general idea that meter creates the poem’s rhythm. You will learn more about the most popular form of English meter in Module 7 when you study Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Unlike many modern poets Frost often writes in regular meter. Irregular meter is called free verse). Just read line 1 aloud and you can detect a meter even if you can’t define it.
U / u / u / u /
“Whose/ woods/ these/ are /I /think/ I /know.”
Every word is a single syllable. There are 8 syllables and every other syllable is stressed. The “u” marks an unstressed syllable and the accent or “/” indicates a stressed syllable. You can only determine a poem’s meter by reading the poem aloud and listening closely to the pattern of words.
Step 8 How is the poem structured?
Structure refers to both the poem’s rhyme scheme and the physical shape of the poem, i.e. length of the line, types of stanzas. Stanzas are groups of lines set off by spaces. Frost’s poem is very symmetrical. There are four stanzas each with four lines called quatrains. A poem’s rhyme scheme is determined by looking at the last word of each line and giving that line a letter from the alphabet. Every time that word is repeated you repeat the letter of the alphabet and every time the sound of the word changes you introduce the next letter of the alphabet. Again, Frost uses very careful rhymes. Let’s look at the first two stanzas.
“Whose woods these are I think I know. aHis house is in the village, though; aHe will not see me stopping here bTo watch his woods fill up with snow. a
My little horse must think it queer bTo stop without a farmhouse near bBetween the woods and frozen lake cThe darkest evening of the year.” b
Notice that lines 1, 2 and 4 all rhyme. Also notice that the third line of stanza 1 or “here” becomes the first line of stanza 2 or ‘queer” and that each of the first three stanzas follows an identical pattern. Frost links all the stanzas together displaying such an intricate rhyme scheme. Only the final stanza changes the pattern by using 4 consecutive rhymes: “deep”, “keep”, “sleep” and “sleep”. These four rhymes convey a sense of musical closure or stop point. The poem has come to rest.