Mediterranean Sea
Tools for Analyzing Poetry

I. What Is Poetry? Compare the following sentences:

Do you see Mary sitting under the tree waiting for Joseph and me?

            Do you see
            Sitting under the tree
            For Joseph and me?

Consider the difference between language and the visual arts, between discursive and presentational symbolic transformation (see Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key [2nd ed. New York: New American Library, 1951] 76-89).

However, poetry is never purely presentational; its richness and ability to convey both rational and intuitive meanings simultaneously stem from the tension between the discursive and presentational modes. A poem never has a single, definitive meaning, so the key question to ask is not what but rather how a poem means. For this reason, a poem can never be completely translated into another language but must be read in its original form to be fully understood and appreciated. Poetry is much more closely bound to the structure of the language in which it is written than prose, and a comparative look at poetry in various languages (such as we are doing in this seminar) is one of the best ways to appreciate this close relationship, which must be grasped in order to write a good analysis of a poem. Also, careful study of poetry gives a clearer understanding of the structure of a language, since a good poet will exploit and call attention to all the qualities of his/her language. The examples in these pages will be drawn from English, but in the seminar we will apply these tools to the Latin, French, and Spanish poems, where we can all benefit from the varied linguistic expertise of the participants.

II. Tools for Analyzing Poetry

For the purposes of analysis, poetry can be approached on a number of different levels; the following outline is adapted from René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (3rd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1956), which is strongly influenced by the principles of New Criticism and by the Russian Formalist Roman Jakobson.. We will utilize this outline as we discuss the various conceptual tools for the analysis of poetry.

A. Sound Stratum

B. Style: Notes

C. Imagery and Figuration: Notes

D. Virtual World

E. Point of View

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Barbara F. McManus
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November 2007