Poetic Diction and Syntax

When using these tools in analyzing poetry, pay attention to their specific effects in the poem, how they contribute to the poem's meaning. In many cases the poet will use diction and syntax in unexpected or deviant ways. This is popularly called “poetic license,” but poets don't bend the “rules” of language just because they can; in a good poem, there is always a reason for unusual uses of language. Look for the hidden relation or significance that compensates for the break in the reader's expectations.

A. Collocation: tendency of words in a language to occur in close proximity to each other (based on logical and meaningful relationships between them, patterns of association and usage, etc). Collocation can be ascertained by experience, reading, and study of dictionaries that give multiple examples in the form of quotations, such as the Oxford English Dictionary. As illustrated below, the same word can have very different collocations. Poets can draw on collocations to create special effects and nuances of meaning.

B. Denotation: the neutral concept signified by the word; the literal “dictionary” definition. This can vary according to time period and cultural context.

C. Connotation: the associations, emotions, and implied attitudes carried by the word; the feelings it evokes. This will also vary according to time period, language, and cultural context. For example, notice in English the different connotations of the words “plump,” “overweight,” “fat,” and “obese.” See ambiguity for a discussion of how an analysis of denotation and connotation can contribute to poetic effect.

D. Paradigmatic Figures: an individual, unexpected word use (generally involves only one deviant or unexpected item). Where the writer faces a choice between equivalent items, he/she will choose one that is not equivalent.

  1. Semantic deviation: phrase containing a word whose meaning violates the expectations created by the surrounding words: e.g., “a grief ago” (expect a temporal noun); “in the room so loud to my own” (expect a spatial adjective). Examples taken from Dylan Thomas.
  2. Grammatical deviation: phrase containing a word whose grammatical class violates the expectations created by the surrounding words: e.g., “the little / lame balloonman / whistles far and wee” (an adjective instead of a spatial adverb); “Anyone lived in a pretty how town” (in the first case, you have an interrogative indefinite pronoun instead of a declarative indefinite pronoun [“someone”]; in the second, you have an adverb instead of an adjective). Examples taken from e.e. cummings.

E. Syntagmatic Figures: unusual or unexpected change in the sequential arrangement of words (generally involves more than one deviant item).

  1. Syntactic deviation: changes in word order, omission of words required by grammar: e.g., “So fair and foul a day I have not seen” (instead of the typical English sentence pattern Subject Verb Object Modifier, Shakespeare writes Modifier Object Subject Verb)
  2. Excess of patterning: repeated sound patterns and/or syntactic parallelisms: e.g., “I kissed thee 'ere I killed thee” (repetition of sounds and structures emphasizes the antithetical nature of kissing and killing). Where choices are to be made, the writer repeatedly makes the same choice.

In general, Paradigmatic Figures are perceived by readers as more unusual and deviant than Syntagmatic Figures, and poets who use many Paradigmatic Figures (such as Dylan Thomas or e.e. cummings) are often thought of as “difficult.” The more deviant the stylistic feature, the stronger the hidden significance needs to be in order to render the effort to decipher it worthwhile for the reader.

Barbara F. McManus
Tools for Analyzing Poetry
November 2007