An Approach to Analysing Poetry:Tutorial 1- Structural Devices Used in Poetry
Poetry Speaks to the Reader!
In my experience as a high school teacher I have found that while students are usually happy to write poems of their own and while indeed, they enjoy experimenting with different types of poetry, they often find the study of poetry a challenge. I have therefore developed an approach to analyzing poetry which, I hope, will be of use to Literature students at high school level.
Poets employ various devices to enhance the quality of their poems. This tutorial will be broken up into three parts to examine three different types of devices that are commonly used in poetry and which, if students are able to understand and apply to the poems which they read, will enable them to more readily analyze and appreciate poetry. I say appreciate, not understand, for I believe that our business as readers is not to put a meaning to the feelings, emotions or ideas expressed by the writer, but rather to relate to his ideas, to identify with him and to appreciate the thoughts , feelings or emotions which he has expressed. In short, I believe that a poem does not necessarily mean something; rather, it says something and what it says depends not necessarily on the poet only, but to a great extent on the reader as well – his/her situation and frame of mind at the time that he/she is reading the poem.
The three types of devices to be discussed in this three-part tutorial are structural devices, sound devices and sense devices. In Tutorial 1, we will examine structural devices.
Tutorial 1 - Structural Devices Used in Poetry
The most commonly used structural devices in poetry are :
These devices are referred to as structural devices as they are woven into the structure of the poem.They indicate the way a poem has been built and become apparent as soon as meaning begins to reveal itself to the reader.
Hue, Shape and Scent
This is the most common of all . It occurs when we find two completely opposite pictures juxtaposed (placed side by side) in a poem. Sometimes the contrast is obvious, sometimes it is implied. Some examples of contrast in poems are:
(i) 'Flowers' by Dennis Roy Craig
I have never learnt the names of flowers.
From beginning, my world has been a place
Of pot-holed streets where thick, sluggish gutters race
In slow time, away from garbage heaps and sewers
Past blanched old houses around which cowers
Stagnant earth. There, scarce green thing grew to chase
The dull-grey squalor of sick dust; no trace
Of plant save few sparse weeds; just these, no flowers.
One day, they cleared a space and made a park
There in the city’s slums; and suddenly
Came stark glory like lighting in the dark,
While perfume and bright petals thundered slowly.
I learnt no names, but hue, shape and scent mark
My mind, even now, with symbols holy.
This poem is a sonnet. Contrast is very effective in this type of poem. The octave of the poem (first eight lines) presents a picture of squalor, untidiness, dullness and lack of beauty; a place where you would not want to live. This is made evident through images such as ‘ pot holed streets’, ‘sluggish gutters’, ‘stagnant earth’, ‘ dull grey squalor’, ‘sick dust’ ‘scarce green thing grew’, ‘no trace of plant’, ‘no flowers’. The sestet (last six lines), on the other hand presents a picture which is completely opposite. It describes a place of beauty, life, vividness and colour. This is brought out through the following images: ‘stark glory’, ‘ like lightning in the dark’, ‘perfume’, ‘bright petals’, ‘symbols holy’.
The contrast between these two pictures is quite obvious and it helps the reader to relate to the poet's feelings and the ideas which he wishes to share.
Broad Sails Just Shifting
(ii) 'Carrion Crows' by A J Seymour
Yes, I have seen them perched on paling posts --
Brooding with evil eyes upon the road,
Their black wings hooded -- and they left those roosts
When I have hissed at them. Away they strode
clapping their wings in a man's stride away
Over the fields. and I have seen them feast
On swollen carrion in the broad eye of day,
Pestered by flies, and yet they never ceased.
But I have seen them emperors of the sky,
Balancing gracefully in the wind's drive
With their broad sails just shifting or again
Throwing huge shadows from the sun's eye
To brush so swiftly over the fields' plain,
And winnowing the air like beauty come alive.
A. J. Seymour
This poem is also a sonnet. Again the octave presents a startling contrast to the sestet. In the octave the crows are presented as hideous, disgusting and unpleasant when they are not in flight. The negative images here are: ’brooding with evil eyes’, ‘black wings hooded’, ‘feast on swollen carrion’, ‘pestered by flies’. The contrasting positive images are: ‘emperors of the sky’, ‘balancing gracefully’, ‘broad sails just shifting’, ‘brush so swiftly’, ‘like beauty come alive’.
In this poem also the contrast is clear. By juxtaposing two contrasting pictures the poet is able to highlight a marked difference between two scenes. This can be done to highlight contrasts between people, ideas, places, attitudes, emotions, experiences or situations.
This usually takes the form of a vivid picture by which a poet makes an idea clear to the reader. In the poem ‘Flowers’ the poet describes a transformation which has taken place and this transformation is seen through vivid pictures of a park with brightly colored, sweet smelling flowers. In ‘Carrion Crows’ the poet wishes to convey the magnificence of the crows when they are in flight and his illustration of such magnificence is to describe them as ‘emperors of the sky’. This image is apt as an emperor is a figure of magnificence and grandeur. He further describes their grace of movement as ‘beauty come alive’. What more apt illustration of beauty can one have than beauty itself?
Poets often repeat words, lines or entire stanzas at intervals to emphasize a particular idea. Repetition has memory effect and is, therefore, an effective tool for emphasis. In the poem ‘Flowers’, the poet begins by saying, ‘I have never learnt the names of flowers’ and he reiterates this at the end, ‘I learnt no names’. This emphasizes the idea that the transformation which he has described is one which imprinted itself on his senses. The names were of no consequence to him, it was the effect of the ‘hue, shape and scent’ which had impressed him.
The following poem is an example of how repetition is used at intervals throughout the poem:
'Colonial Girls School' by Olive Senior
willed our skins pale
muffled our laughter
lowered our voices
let out our hems
dekinked our hair
denied our sex in gym tunics and bloomers
harnessed our voices to madrigals
and genteel airs
yoked our minds to declensions in Latin
and the language of Shakespeare
Told us nothing about our selves
There was nothing at all
How those pale northern eyes and
aristocratic whispers once erased us
How our loudness,our laughter debased us.
There was nothing left of ourselves
Nothing about us at all
Studying: History Ancient and Modern
Kings and Queens of England
Steppes of Russia
Wheat fields of Canada
There was nothing of our landscape there
Nothing about us at all
Marcus Garvey turned twice in his grave.
'Thirty- eight was a beacon. A flame.
They were talking of desegregation
In Little Rock, Arkansas, Lumumba
and the Congo. To us mumbo-jumbo.
We had read Vachel Lindsay's
vision of the jungle.
Feeling nothing about ourselves
There was nothing about us at all
Months, years, a childhood memorising
(For our language
Finding nothing about us there
Nothing about us at all
So, friend of my childhood years
One day we'll talk about
How the mirror broke
Who kissed us awake
Who let Anansi from his bag
For isn't it strange how
in the brighter world before us now
The repetition ‘There was nothing at all...’ takes the form of a refrain. This thread runs throughout the entire poem. It conveys the idea of how the effects of colonialism made Caribbean people (in this instance the school girls) experience a kind of invisibility or deletion which eroded their confidence and self esteem. This is the whole point of the poem and it is emphasized through the use of repetition.
Enhancing the Reader's Experience
Structural devices are important in that they assist in bringing meaning to the poem and enhance the readers experience.
In Tutorial 2, we will discuss sound devices in poetry.