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Poetry Notes

 

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These questions will help direct your reading of the poems for your poetry journals.  If you cannot answer a question, do not worry and ask in class when we discuss the poem.  These questions come from the college level textbooks that the poetry comes from so the questions will make you think.

 

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“Mirror”—Sylvia Plath
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Who is the speaker?  What is the central purpose of the poem, and by what means is it achieved?

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In what ways is the mirror like and unlike a person (stanza 1)?  In what ways is it like a lake (stanza 2)?

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What is the meaning of the last two lines?

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“Hidden Meanings”—Dabney Stuart
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This poem blends references to age-old fables and fairy tales with modern language and phrasing.  Apart from its humor, what does the poem gain from this unusual blend?

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What does the poem suggest about the continuing relevance of fairy tales to the real lives of human beings?

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What is the significance of the title?

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 “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”—William Carlos Williams
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Why is springtime so poignant a time for this lament?  What has been the speaker’s previous experience at this time of year?

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Why does the speaker’s son tell her of the flowering trees “in the distance”?  What does he want her to do?  Contrast the two locations in the poems—“yard” versus “meadows,” “woods,” and “marsh.”  What does the widow desire?

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Imagery may have degrees of vividness, depending on its particularity, concreteness, and specific detail.  What is the result of the contrast between the vividness of lines 2-3 and the relative flatness of lines 13-14?  How does the fact that “masses” (10, 11) appeals to two senses relate to the speaker’s emotional condition?

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“The Forge”—Seamus Heaney
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What does the speaker mean when he says “all” he knows is “a door into the dark” (1)?  What more does he know, and how does he make his knowledge evident?

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How do the images describing the blacksmith (10-11) relate to his attitude toward his work and toward the changing times?

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The speaker summarizes the smith’s world as “shape and music” (9), terms that suggest visual and auditory imagery.  What do the contrasts between visual images contribute?  The contrasts between auditory images?

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“Reapers”—Jean Toomer
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The poem presents two examples of cutting down vegetation.  What contrasts are drawn between reaping and mowing?  How does imagery reinforce those contrasts?

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What is signified by the speaker’s stating that the “horses drive” (5) the mowing machine rather than that a man is driving the team of horses?

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For whom (or what) would the weeds represent “shade” (8)?  Are the connotations of shade positive or negative in this context?  How are the usual connotations of “rat” (6) altered in the poem?  Characterize the speaker

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 “The Hound”—Robert Francis
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What does “Equivocal” (2) mean?  Show how this is a key word in the poem.

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What is the effect of “Equivocal” constituting a line by itself?

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“The Subalterns”—Thomas Hardy
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Vocabulary: subalterns (title), wight (9), ark (11), fell (19), owned (20)

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What limitation and what attitude are shared by the four personifications (“sky,” “North [wind]”, “Sickness,” and “Death”)?

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Paraphrase the last stanza and explain the psychological reaction it displays?

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“Mind”—Richard Wilbur
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A poet may use a variety of metaphors and similes in developing a subject or may, as Wilbur does here, develop a single figure at length (this poem is an example of an extended simile).  What is the advantage of this type of development?

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Explore the similarities between the two things compared in this poem.  In line 12, what is meant by “A graceful error” and by “correct the cave”?

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 “Metaphors”—Sylvia Plath
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Like its first metaphor, this poem is a riddle to be solved by identifying the literal terms of its metaphors.  After you have identified the speaker (“riddle,” “elephant,” “house,” “melon,” “stage,” “cow”), identify the literal meanings of the related metaphors (“syllables,” “tendrils,” “fruit,” “ivory,” “timbers,” “loaf,” “yeasty rising,” “money,” “purse,” “train”).  How do interpret line 8?

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How does the form of the poem relate to its content?  Is this poem a complaint?

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“Pink Dog”—Elizabeth Bishop
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Vocabulary:  scabies (8), sambas (33), depilated (38). Rio de Janeiro (subtitle) is famous for its uninhibited Carnival celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar, as well as for its beaches and its beggars.  The following are associated with Carnival: fantasia (28), “carnival costume,” according to a note written by the poet; mascara (31), a mask.

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In what tone of voice does the speaker address the pink dog?  How do the rhymes help to define that tone?  In what ways is the speaker’s attitude toward the dog more complex than it seems at first?

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How does the personifying effect of apostrophe suggest a more serious meaning for the poem?  What does the speaker finally suggest about the dog’s “naked” (3) condition and about the possible ways of compensating for its identity as an outcast or object of ridicule?  In what ways is the dog’s condition related to the human condition, especially in a setting like Rio de Janeiro?

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“Toads”—Philip Larkin
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The poem describes two “toads.”  Where is each toad located?  How are they described?  What are the antecedents of the pronouns “one” and “the other / One’s” (33-34) respectively?

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What characteristics in common have the people mentioned in lines 9-12?  Those mentioned in lines 13-20?

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Explain the pun in lines 22-23 and the literary allusion it leads into.  (If you don’t recognize the allusion, check Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 4, scene 1, lines 156-58).

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The first “toad” is explicitly identified as “work” (1).  The literal term for the second “toad” is not named.  Why not?  What do you take it to be?

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What kind of person is the speaker?  What are his attitudes toward work?

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“Suum Cuique”—Ralph Waldo Emerson
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The title is Latin:  “to each his own.”  How would you interpret its relevance to the poem?

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Discuss the metaphor in line 1 and the simile in line 2.  Is “Pay every debt” literal or metaphorical or both?

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“Dream Deferred”—Langston Hughes
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Of the six images, five are similes.  Which is a metaphor?  Comment on its position and effectiveness.

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Since the dream could be any dream, the poem is general in its implication.  What happens to your understanding of the poem on learning that its author is a black American?

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 “The Sick Rose”—William Blake
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What figure of speech do you find in the poem in addition to symbol?  How do they contribute to its force or meaning?

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Several symbolic interpretations of this poem are given below. Can you think of others?

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Should symbolic meanings would you suggest?

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 “Curiosity”—Alastair Reid
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One the surface this poem is a dissertation on cats. What deeper comments does it make? Of what are cats and dogs, in this poem, symbols?

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In what different senses are the words death, die, and dying here used?

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Compare and contrast this poem in meaning and manner with “Ulysses.”

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 “Sun and Moon”—Jay McPherson
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In what ways are the personification of sun and moon as man and women, and brother and sister, appropriate?

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In what sense have they been parted “by ordered heaven”? Explain their punishment.

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When will they “meet” (12)?

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“Incident”—Countee Cullen
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What accounts for the effectiveness of the last stanza? Comment on the title. Is it in key with the meaning of the poem?

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“Barbie Doll”—Marge Percy
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In what ways is the girl described in this poem different from a Barbie doll? Discuss the poem’s contrast of the living girl, a human being with intelligence and healthy appetites, and the doll, an inanimate object.  

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The poem contains a surprising but apt simile: “Her good nature wore out / like a fan belt” (15-16). Why is the image of the fan belt appropriate here?

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Why does the speaker mention the girl’s “strong arms and back” (8) and her “manual dexterity” (9)? How do these qualities contribute to her fate?

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Discuss the verbal irony in the phrase “the magic of puberty” (5) and in the last three lines. What is the target of this satire?

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“in the inner city”—Lucille Clifton
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In what contexts is the term “inner city” most often used, and what is it usually meant to imply?

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What are the connotations of “silent nights” (6), “straight as / dead men” (7-8), and “pastel lights” (9)?  By implication, what contrasting qualities might be found in the life of the inner city?

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Is the irony of this poem verbal or dramatic?

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“Mr. Z”—M. Carl Holman
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Vocabulary: profane (10), kosher ( 20), exotic (20), ethnic (21), orbit (25).

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Explain Mr. Z’s motivation and the strategies he used to achieve his goal.

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What is the author’s attitude toward Mr. Z? Is he satirizing him or the society that produced him? Why does he not give Mr. Z a name?

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What judgments on Mr. Z are implied by the metaphors in lines 16 and 22? Explain them.

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What kind of irony is operating in the last line? As you reread the poem, where else do you detect ironic overtones?

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What is Mr. Z’s color?      

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 “Out, Out”—Robert Frost
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How does this poem differ from a newspaper account that might have dealt with the same incident?

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To whom does “they” (33) refer?  The boy’s family?  The doctor and medical attendants?  Casual onlookers?  Need we assume that all these people—whoever they are—turned immediately “to their affairs” (34)?  Does the ending of this poem seem to you callous or merely realistic?  Would a more tearful and sentimental ending have made the poem better or worse?

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What is the figure of speech in lines 21-22?

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“Miniver Cheevy”—Edwin Arlington Robinson
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Vocabulary: khaki (22). The phrase “on the town” (15) means “on charity” or “down and out.”

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Identify Thebes, “Camelot” (11), “Priam” (12), and “the Medici” (17). What names and what sort of life does each call up? What does Miniver’s love of these names tell about him?

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Discuss the phrase “child of scorn” (1). What does it mean? In how many ways is it applicable to Miniver?

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What is Miniver’s attitude toward material wealth?

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The phrase “rested from his labors” (10) alludes to the Bible and to Greek mythology. Explore the ironic effect of comparing Miniver to the Creator (Gen. 2.2) and to Hercules. Point out other examples of irony in the poem and discuss their importance.

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Can we call this a poem about a man whose “fate” was to be “born too late”? Explain your answer.

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“Leda and the Swan”—William Butler Yeats
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What is the connection between Leda and “The Broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead”? If you do not know, look up the myth of Leda and the story of Agamemnon.

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How does this poem do more than evoke an episode out of mythology? What is the significance of the question asked in the last two lines? How would you answer it?

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“Leda’s Sister and the Geese”—Kathryn Howard Machan
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What does this humorous version of the Leda / Zeus story add to your perspective that grand myth? How does the language create humor?

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“[S] ore afraid” (10) in an allusion to Luke 2.9. How does the poem make use of it? What purpose in served by this vulgarized link between two incidences of divine birth?

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“Loveliest of Trees”—A. E. Housman
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Very briefly, this poem presents a philosophy of life. In a sentence, what is it?

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How old is the speaker? Why does he assume that his life will be seventy years in length? What is surprising about the words “only” (8) and “little” (10)?

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A good deal of ink has been split over whether “snow” (12) is literal or figurative. What do you say? Justify your answer.

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“To the Mercy Killers”—Dudley Randle
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On form, this is a Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of three quatrains and a concluding couplet (units of 4, 4, 4, and 2 lines each); but in structure (organization of thought) it follows the Italian model of an octave and sestet (8- and 6-line units) in which the first eight lines introduced a thought and the sestet producers some kind of counterthought. What “turn” of thought occurs at the end of line 8 in this sonnet?

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Identify the paradox in line 2 that introduces the central topic of the poem. (It is also stated in the title, but line 2 states it more effectively because of its alliteration.)

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Is the speaker advocating a universal standard of conduct or merely expressing his personal desire?

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“Crossing the Bar”—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
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Vocabulary: bourne (13)

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What two sets of figures does Tennyson use for approaching death? What is the precise moment of death in each set?

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In trouble weather the wind and waves above the sandbar across a harbor’s mouth make a moaning sound. What metaphorical meaning has the “moaning of the bar” (3) here? For what kind of death is the speaker wishing? Why does he want “no sadness of farewell” (11)?

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What is “that which drew from out the boundless deep” (7)? What is “the boundless deep”? To what is it opposed in the poem? Why is “Pilot” (15) capitalized?

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“The Flea”—John Donne
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In many respects this poem is like a miniature play: it has two characters, dramatic conflict, dialogue (though we only hear one speaker), and stage action.  The action is indicated by stage directions embodied in the dialogue.  What happened just preceding the first line of the poem?  What happens between the first and second stanzas?  What happens between the second and third stanzas?  How does the female character behave and what does she say during the third stanza?

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What has been the past relationship of the speaker and the woman?  What has she denied him (2)?  How has she habitually “kill[ed]” him?  What is his objective in the poem?

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According to a traditional Renaissance belief, the blood of lovers “mingled” during sexual intercourse.  What is the speaker’s argument in stanza 1?  Reduce it to paraphrase.  How logical is it?

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“Getting Out”—Cleopatra Mathis
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Consider the shifting pronouns as you answer the following:  Does the poem assign blame to one or the other of this couple?  Can you tell whether either or both were involved in “the silent work / of tightening the heart” (3-4)?

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The poem contains only one detail about the marriage before it began to collapse—the “matching eyes and hair” (16) of the two people.  Does this detail help explain why the marriage came to seem too confining?  What kind of emotional maturity does it signify?  How does the last line contribute to this idea?

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Should “inmates” (1) be interpreted as imprisonment or confinement to a mental hospital?  Explain your choice.

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Explain the shift in tone from line 14 to line 15.  What emotions do these people feel for each other now?  How do you know?