Unit Overview: Wilfred Owen: Poetry of the First World War
The Australian Curriculum for English requires all pupils to ‘compare and evaluate a range of representations of individuals and groups in different historical, social and cultural contexts’. This Assignment is designed to do so through the study of Wilfred Owen’s poetry from the First World War.
The Unit is organised into five parts.
Part 1: Reading and Responding to Poetry
Part 2: The Poems
Part 3: Context Readings and Activities
Part 4: Directed Tasks
Part 5: Final Assessments
Part 6: Further Readings and Poems
Part 1: Reading and Responding to Poetry is designed to help students better understand the techniques and terminology that inform both the writing of poetry and the interpretation and analysis of poetry. Part 1 is divided into two sections.
The first section presents information on poetic theory under the headings ‘Voice, Register and Tone’; ‘Form, Pattern and Typography’ and ‘Imagery, Argument and Viewpoint’. Each segment finishes with ‘Questions to ask yourself when thinking about …’ summarises the concerns of the segment and equips students with strategies to apply when tasked with developing their own understandings and interpretations of the poems.
The second section is a glossary of words and meanings that students are expected to know and apply.
Part 2: The Poems presents students with a collection of eight poems by Wilfred Owen. This selection is by no means exhaustive; further poems are appended at the end of the Assignment if students and / or teachers wish to broaden their field of reference.
Part 3: Context Readings and Activities presents students with a selection of materials to better empower them to contextualise Owen and his poetry.
Part 4: Directed Tasks presents each poem again for close consideration. Students are first offered material that comments on particular language and features of the poem and possible meanings within and interpretations of the poem. Students are then challenged to engage with the poem and offer their own interpretations and insights in response to a range of questions and activities.
Other than the final poem – Spring Offensive; Owen’s last poem and thus the last presented – the sequencing of the poems does not presuppose that they will be studied in this order; nor are they chronologically arranged. Likewise, later questions and activities do not presuppose that earlier ones have been done and thus necessary insights and skills have been gleaned and practised.
In other words, teachers and students may pick and choose what poems they do and when without there being any consequence to realising Assignment outcomes and objectives.
Similarly, and embracing differentiation and self-directed learning practices and theories, it is not anticipated that all tasks will be done by all students all the time. In some instances, teachers may select and direct that particular tasks be done (by a whole class; by select students); at other times, students may choose what they do, with the understanding being that they are engaged with their learning and making choices that not only support and reflect their preferred learning styles, but that also challenge them and broaden and deepen their insights and capabilities.
The Assignment was designed in and for the context of a five (5) lesson week being divided into a “two on: three off” split; two lessons of direct and shared instruction (close analysis and discussion of a poem): three lessons of self-directed learning with designated or nominated activities and responses to be submitted before or at the start of the next learning cycle.
That being said, the Assignment is easily adaptable to suit and address variable needs and contexts.
Part 5: Final Assessments presents a range of both written and oral formal assessments tasks and activities. Again, a wide variety of and variably styled and structured tasks and activities have been presented to afford students and teachers differentiated choices.
Part 6: Appendices – Further Readings and Poems is, self-evidently, a collection of further readings and poems for those students inclined towards exploring matters further, but who may be limited in regards accessing suitable and appropriate materials.
The Years 9 and 10 English curriculum is built around the three interrelated strands of Language, Literature and Literacy. This Assignment and its associated activities have been designed to balance and integrate all three strands. Together the strands focus on developing your knowledge, understanding and skills in listening, reading, speaking, writing and creating. The learning will build on concepts, skills and processes developed in earlier years - your teacher will revisit and strengthen these as needed – and introduce, develop and refine new concepts, skills and processes.
Below is a written description of what you will need to know and be able to do by the end of Years 9 and 10. Each Assignment Unit should be seen as an opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge outlined. The Achievement Standards are broken down into six main parts.
Receptive modes (listening, reading and viewing)
By the end of Years 9 and 10, students are able to analyse the ways that text structures can be manipulated for effect. They are able to analyse and explain how images, vocabulary choices and language features distinguish the work of individual authors.
They are able to evaluate and integrate ideas and information from texts to form their own interpretations. They are able to select evidence from the text to analyse and explain how language choices and conventions are used to influence an audience. They are able to listen for ways texts position an audience.
Productive modes (speaking, writing and creating)
Students are able to understand how to use a variety of language features to create different levels of meaning. They are able to understand how interpretations can vary by comparing their responses to texts to the responses of others. In creating texts, students are able to demonstrate how manipulating language features and images can create innovative texts.
Students are able to create texts that respond to issues, interpreting and integrating ideas from other texts. They are able to make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, comparing and evaluating responses to ideas and issues. They are able to edit for effect, selecting vocabulary and grammar that contribute to the precision and persuasiveness of texts and use accurate spelling and punctuation.
Following is a list of learning outcomes that will be addressed in this Assignment. As this is a poetry unit, the material allows and compels such a wide variety of outcomes to be integrated into your study. These descriptions come straight from the Australian National Curriculum - English.
Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects (ACELA1553)
Understand how punctuation is used along with layout and font variations in constructing texts for different audiences and purposes (ACELA1556)
Explain how authors creatively use the structures of … clauses for particular effects (ACELA1557)
Identify how vocabulary choices contribute to specificity, abstraction and stylistic effectiveness (ACELA1561)
Interpret and compare how representations of people and culture in literary texts are drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts (ACELT1633)
Present an argument about a literary text based on initial impressions and subsequent analysis of the whole text (ACELT1771)
Reflect on, discuss and explore notions of literary value and how and why such notions vary according to context (ACELT1634)
Explore and reflect on personal understanding of the world and significant human experience gained from interpreting various representations of life matters in texts (ACELT1635)
Analyse texts from familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and discuss and evaluate their content and the appeal of an individual author’s literary style (ACELT1636)
Analyse text structures and language features of literary texts, and make relevant comparisons with other texts (ACELT1772)
Analyse how the construction and interpretation of texts, including media texts, can be influenced by cultural perspectives and other texts (ACELY1739)
Interpret, analyse and evaluate how different perspectives of an issue, event, situation, individuals or groups are constructed to serve specific purposes in texts (ACELY1742)
Use comprehension strategies to interpret and analyse texts, comparing and evaluating representations of an event, issue, situation or character in different texts (ACELY1744)
What will be expected of me during this unit?
Engage with the material – poems and activities – in a consistent and concerted fashion
Engage with the material – poems and activities – in an open and earnest fashion
Contribute to the class dynamic and discussion
Follow instructions carefully
Take an active responsibility for your own learning
Demonstrate maturity and independence
Be organised and ready to learn when you come to lesson
Take pride in your work
Set learning goals and constantly review them
Encourage and help others achieve their goals
Respect the rights of others to learn
Do your best
Assessment Submission Acknowledgement
This document must be filled-in, signed and submitted with a formal assessment, when completed.
Assessment Title: _________________________________________________________
Declaration: I confirm that I have completed and submitted this Assessment on the date noted below. The material submitted for assessment is my own work. Material from other sources has not been submitted, unless acknowledged.
One of the characteristic things about poetry is its richness or density of meaning. Poets work closely on language - they make it do as much as possible in the space of a small number of words. That's why poems need reading more slowly, and more often, than other kinds of text.
This quality of concentration is characteristic of all poetry whatever cultural tradition or context it comes from. It reflects the nature of poetry as an expressive art - that what a poem says or does matters to the person who is writing it. It's what enables poems to lodge memorably in our minds, and to go on extending and deepening their meanings over time.
Studying poetry in school is at least partly about learning to appreciate what goes into a poem's making. This introductory section looks at four broad aspects of poetic craft which contribute, in different ways, to the meanings readers are able to make.
VOICE • REGISTER • TONE
Poetry is written to be heard as well as seen, to be spoken as well as read. Poets listen to their drafts as they emerge and try to develop a distinctive voice or style across a body of work. One mark of enduring quality in a poet is a sense of a recognisable individual voice.
A poem's voice may also give us a sense of where it's coming from in a wider sense. It may be the characteristic voice of a particular place, time or literary tradition. Or it may be more universal.
VOICE is not always a matter of simple identity. In some poems there is more than one voice - for example, when the poem is set out in the form of a dialogue. In some poems, the voice which has been adopted is that of a 'persona', a kind of character within the poem - so the 'I' of a poem is not always the author.
As with other kinds of writing, a poet's choice of REGISTER - of vocabulary and grammatical structures - will strongly affect the way a reader responds.
The VOICE of a poem is often clearest when the poem is addressed directly to the reader, or to a third party whose conversation is overheard. This kind of voice will tend to be more personal, more like a drama than a written narrative.
The TONE of a poem is best explained as the 'tone of voice' in which we imagine the poem to be spoken. From the tone, we get our sense of the poet's relationship to the reader - or the nature of the adopted persona. We may also pick up an expressed attitude towards the things described. The tone of a writer's work is sometimes so consistent that it becomes a part of what we recognise about her or him. In other cases, tone may vary both between poems and within a single poem, as the variations of voice and mood track the development of the poem's ideas.
Questions to ask yourself when thinking about VOICE
How would I read this poem aloud? Is there anything in the voice of the poem which makes it difficult for me to read it aloud?
Does the voice in this poem sound as if it's coming from a particular time or place?
Who seems to be speaking in this poem? Who is the poem speaking to?
Does the poem's tone of voice suggest a particular attitude towards or relationship with, the reader?
Is the poem characterised by a particular kind of vocabulary or sentence?
Does the tone of voice suggest a particular attitude towards the subject matter of the poem?
Is there more than one kind of voice in the poem? If so, what's the relationship between the two?
FORM • PATTERN • TYPOGRAPHY
Poetic FORM is to do with a poem's shape and pattern, both on the page and to the ear. One basic distinction is between what are called ‘metrical’ and ‘non-metrical’ forms. Metrical poetry (or verse) is composed to fit a recurring pattern of rhythmical stresses, and often a rhyme scheme as well. The poem is laid out in regular blocks. The verse unit ranges from simple couplets to elaborate stanzas. Most song lyrics are metrical, to match the repeating patterns of musical composition. In poems of this kind, the meaning is, to some extent, made to fit the shape: the poet's choice of words and word order must take account of the rhyme scheme and the pattern of syllables.
In a non-metrical poem, on the other hand, the structure is 'organic' in the sense that it finds its own shape line by line, resulting in irregular patterns and variable paragraphs, rather than fixed stanzas. This form of poetry, sometimes called 'free verse', is built around the varying rhythms of the speaking voice, and of natural grammar, so is likely to sound more like a person talking.
Before 1900, virtually all poetry in English was metrical. During the 20th century, the Modern movement greatly extended the boundaries of what was considered poetic, so that any kind of language could be incorporated into a poem, and irregular forms became much more common. Yet traditional metre hasn't died out and many contemporary poets are still strongly attracted to its music and its feeling of durability.
Although some modern poetry (like some modern art or music) may appear entirely fragmentary and 'unstructured', most poets consider carefully how a poem sounds and appears. In a non-metrical poem, poetic PATTERNING can be achieved in other ways, particularly through the repetition of words and phrases to build rhythmic and emotional energy. The majority of the poems in this Assignment Unit take a nonmetrical form, but build pattern and cohesion in other ways, such as through consistency of voice or line length, repeated grammatical structures or the echoes of half rhymes or rhythmic fragments.
Another aspect of FORM is to do with the visual presentation of the poem on the page, or its TYPOGRAPHY. Traditionally, each line of a metrical poem is marked with a capital letter (regardless of sentence grammar), and indentations at the start of lines correspond to rhyme patterns. There is also a tendency for punctuation to coincide with the ends of lines and for each stanza to end with a full stop so that 'running on' the grammatical sense across a line break is a definite variation on the established pattern.
In non-metrical poetry, lines are likely to be more fluid, varying in length for specific effects and running on as a matter of course. Capitals are used as in prose, to begin sentences, rather than lines. Lines aren't marked so emphatically, and punctuation marks, which are a written convention, may be replaced by spaces representing the breath-pauses of speech. In a lot of modern poetry, the upper case and other punctuation marks have been eliminated altogether. Instead, the poet relies on line breaks and spacing to suggest how the poem should be voiced and understood. Different fonts (typefaces) and other variations can also be used to structure or emphasise.
Questions to ask yourself when thinking about FORM
Is there a formal structure to this poem? Does it have a regular metrical pattern? Is there a rhyme scheme? Could someone sing this poem?
Are there other ways in which this poem is patterned? What elements of repetition are there?
Is this structure associated with a particular type of poem or particular period?
What typographic conventions does the poem use, or not use? How does that contribute to the style or voice of the poem?
Do any of these things help me to understand what kind of poem this is?
Does the form of the poem emphasise any aspect of its mood or meaning?
IMAGERY • REPRESENTATION • METAPHOR
In poetry, an 'IMAGE' is a sharply-focused descriptive detail. This is most often a visual detail (like an image in a film), though it can evoke any of the senses. It is through their images that poets engage the reader's imagination, evoking a place, mood or person, and also influencing us to respond in particular ways.
At the core of any IMAGE is a noun. Adjectives may extend and adjust the noun's meaning, as may the verbs which go with it, but the noun is what we see - so it will be a concrete (i.e. non-abstract) -noun. Images work because 'things' carry meanings of various kinds, depending on the context in which they occur - they can imply an event, an emotion or a wider idea.
IMAGES will often mean different things to different people, depending on their experience both as readers and as human beings, and one of the things poets do is to compel or encourage us to see things in a different way. However, images also work through the shared meanings and associations which any culture develops around particular words or objects - their connotations. When an image is consistently recognised and interpreted in the same way, it becomes an established symbol within that culture.
IMAGES can be either literal or figurative. In the case of literal imagery, connotation is achieved through selecting and emphasising details.
When an IMAGE is figurative (or metaphorical - the words are interchangeable), its connotations are doubly emphasised since that is the point of the shift into figurative language: the thing described acquires the connotations of the thing named. For that reason, METAPHORS tend to feature strongly in what is sometimes termed 'emotive language', whether in poetry or in propaganda. Metaphors are also a means of converting abstract ideas into the physical images with which poetry deals.
Discussion of METAPHOR in the classroom is sometimes sidetracked into the essentially trivial distinction between 'simile' and 'metaphor' as alternative forms of 'linguistic device'. What matters is not the difference between the two, but the way both are used to impose or suggest meanings.
A METAPHOR is not so much a decorative 'device' as a way of thinking. Some metaphors are so deep-rooted that they structure the way almost everybody thinks - that life is a journey, that love is a fire, that argument is a kind of warfare. Others, in poetry especially, are acts of invention, in which one object is fused imaginatively with another, in order to startle or disturb the reader into some fresh perception. Careful attention to the IMAGES in a poem helps to put us directly in touch with the poet's imaginative vision, and with the values and attitudes which underlie it.
Which image first caught my attention? Which image is most central to what the poem has to say? Did any of the images surprise me?
Are some of these images metaphorical? What things are being superimposed here? How does this add to my understanding?
Do some of the images suggest strong positive or negative connotations?
Do certain images connect with each other, to create a particular mood, attitude or impression?
Are there contrasting images in the poem? How do these contribute to meaning? Do they relate to shifts in the narrative or argument?
NARRATIVE • ARGUMENT • VIEWPOINT
The NARRATIVE of a text is the order in which events, images or ideas are recorded, and the way in which they relate to each other. In looking at the narrative sequence of a poem, we are focusing on the way it has been constructed in terms of the development of its content.
Many poems are like miniature stories. They record a series of events, perhaps leading to some kind of insight at the end. First person NARRATIVES give the appearance of personal memories. Third person narratives or descriptions can seem more detached, with less of a sense that the poet is present in the text.
The past is the natural tense for NARRATIVES, though telling a story in the present tense can produce a sense of reliving the experience, moment by moment. Looking carefully at the tenses used in a poem will help to establish its chronology, and to distinguish, for example, 'how it used to be' (also signalled by words like 'once' or 'then') from how it is now, or how it might be in the future.
The distinction between NARRATIVE and ARGUMENT isn't a hard and fast one - narratives can be used to illustrate arguments, for example. But many poems are built around the logical development of ideas, rather than the recounting of events. Arguments proceed by asking questions, stating propositions, referring to examples, drawing conclusions. However, while other kinds of writers deal in abstract debate, poets are more likely to make their point through resonant images, or other less direct means. This way of organising a poem is particularly common to those written in the second person.
The underlying structure of a poem can usually be detected through its use of connectives. In the case of ARGUMENT, these are likely to be logical conjunctions such as 'if', 'so', 'because', 'but', 'yet', rather than the conjunctions of time used in narratives.
Another way of thinking about the development of a poem is in terms of its transitions - the term used in film editing for the way shots are joined. Spaces between sections in a poem may signal a break in continuity: a kind of fade out and in. One image may effectively dissolve into another, or the cut may be more abrupt. And as with films, poems often leave it to the reader to make sense of such transitions for themselves.
Thinking about the sequence of a NARRATIVE or an ARGUMENT in this way may draw attention to the VIEWPOINT of the poem and take us back to the sense of 'voice' with which we started. We need to work out whose voice we are hearing, and who is seeing whatever is being described. Is the viewpoint fixed or does it shift between different observers, or over time? As with any other text, the beginning and the ending of a poem are likely to carry a particular kind of force.
Questions to ask yourself when looking at NARRATIVE
Is the poem divided into sections? Do these correspond to shifts in the development of the story or the argument? How does the poet manage the transitions between them?
What tenses are used here? Is there a dominant tense, or a mixture? What does this tell me about the poem?
Which pronouns are used? Is this text broadly first, second or third person? Or is it a mixture?
From what viewpoint is the story told? Where would the camera be if the poem were filmed? Does the viewpoint change?
Is it clear what kind of sequence this is narration, argument, description?
Which are the key connectives? What do they tell me about the way the poem develops?
What questions does the poet ask? What questions are left for the reader to ask?
The following definitions are provided so that you can further develop your ability to deploy language and terminology to adequately and effectively construct and convey qualified interpretations and insights regarding poets and poetry.
These are words and meanings that you are expected to know and apply.
alliteration: the repetition of initial letters in words next to, or near each other, to create a sound effect, for example: 'From pillar to post a pantomime'. Most often a consonant.
ambiguity: words and lines can sometimes suggest more than one interpretation, or meaning: poems are sometimes shaped so that their meaning is deliberately ambiguous, or uncertain, for example, ‘salients’ in Exposure.
assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences.
colloquial expressions: popular words and phrases which can be found in everyday conversation. This aspect of language is often linked to region, culture, historical period or occupation, for example: ‘Boche’ was a pejorative French euphemism for the Germans.
couplets: pairs of lines which are often rhymed.
imagery: the descriptive language used to create a particular picture, feeling, or mood in the reader's imagination.
metaphor: a particular kind of image, which describes something as though it were something else. For example, a carpenter's knuckles could described as 'silver knobs of nails'. A line like this works in two ways; it evokes the work-worn hands of the carpenter and the polished highlights of his skin, but it also suggests the nails which he hammers into the wood and the shine on them, created by the hammering. In an extended metaphor, the comparison is developed over the course of the poem.
mood: the atmosphere of a poem and the feelings which it evokes. Some of the sound patterns and images of a poem could, for example, evoke bitterness, energy and anger. Regular stanza lengths in a poem could help to reinforce a mood of cold fury and conviction, if supported by other techniques.
narrator: the speaker, the person who tells what happens in a poem or a story. The narrator's views and experiences may be those of the poet, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is always the case.
onomatopoeia: the sound of an onomatopoeic word helps to suggest what it describes or means, for example 'splash' or ‘plonk’.
para-rhyme: consists of two words with identical consonant-sounds and different vowels; they are incomplete forms of rhyme – the reader expects a perfect rhyme and is left vaguely unsatisfied and frustrated. The effect is one of sadness, of unfulfilled promise and of discord. Often, the second word in the pair is lower in pitch than the first (“escaped / scooped”, “grained / ground”), making a falling, despairing sound.
personification: a type of metaphor where an animal, object or abstract idea is described as though it were human. This can help make what is being described 'come to life' but it can also be used to suggest how closely people and things might be related to each other.
puns: sometimes called a play on words, a pun is any word or expression which allows the poet to create more than one meaning. Puns can also be created by using words which have similar sounds but different meanings.
rhyme: words that have a matching sound quality. Poems sometimes have rhyming words within the lines (internal rhyme) instead of, or as well as, at the end of them.
rhyme scheme: the pattern in which rhyming sounds occur within a poem.
simile: the direct comparison of one thing with another. Most similes make the comparison by using the words 'as' or 'like'.
sound pattern: this is a general term which refers to any words or lines where sounds are repeated to create a mood, a feeling, or the noises of everyday life, for example: 'hit, hurt and flattened'. In this line, repetition of the soft, consonant letters h, f and t combines with a succession of three short vowel sounds to suggest the quick, short, intakes of breath and the accompanying effort as the carpenter with knuckles described as 'silver knobs of nails' hammers the nails home.
stanza: poems are often organized into groups of lines called stanzas or verses.
syllable: the basic sound unit of a word : 'flat' has one syllable; 'flattened' has two.
tone: the attitude of the poem, for example; serious, humorous, or sarcastic.
voice: the voice of a poem helps to suggest its mood, attitude and purpose. Essentially, it can be defined as the way we might choose to express the words and lines, were we to read the poem out loud.
vowel sounds: the letters a, e, i, o, u are called vowels. The remaining letters of the alphabet are called consonants. It is difficult to define the 'length' of vowel sounds without taking into account the consonants placed next to them; if you are able to 'sing' or sustain a vowel sound, it is 'long'; if the vowel sound allows you to speak it abruptly, it is 'short'.
An Approach to Accessing Poetry #1: Entry-Level Empathy
There is no ‘right way’ to analyse and interpret a poem. There is no strategy or technique that you can learn and apply that will guarantee you a complete and correct analysis and interpretation.
This is so, I suspect, primarily because there is no correct or complete ‘answer’ to a poem. It is what it is, and works in the way that it does – its relative success is mediated by what you bring to it, and the manner and mindset with which you engage with the piece. Basically, a poem is what you make of it.
In effect, I think it’s fair to say that a poet doesn’t compose a poem with the intention to impose meaning – to be didactic. A poet doesn’t compose a poem anticipating that a reader will ‘get it’ or ‘won’t get it’ and that it’s one or the other. If that was the intention, why write a poem? Why not just lay out the idea, experience or opinion in prose form?
I think, and believe, that a poet composes a piece with the intention to challenge a reader to explore the possibilities inherent within language … and to consider how and why these possibilities afford a reader the opportunity to explore and consider different perspectives about shared concerns related to being bearers of the human condition.
Which is a long-winded and convoluted way of saying: the possible meanings of a poem will reveal themselves … but you need to draw them out.
Entry Level Empathy Approach.
Read and (re)read the poem – in isolation. That is, take the ‘clean version’ and read it, free of the distractions of other materials. ‘Own it’, as a language construction – as an ordered sequence of words on a page.
What does what is there on the page mean to you?
Irrespective of what you have thought or heard before, what do you understand the poem to be about?
Imagine that you had to explain the poem to an unfamiliar audience; make notes as to how you would do so. Consider integrating phrases like:
Dulce Et Decorum Est is about …
In the poem, Owen describes …
By describing this in this way (concept + example ?), Owen is trying to say/show that …
A distinctive feature of the poem is that … he makes this part of it like this in order to …
This is a fundamental need / concern at this stage – you have to fashion for yourself a ‘working knowledge’ of the poem, and be able to enunciate it.
On a clean copy version go through the poem and annotate the piece – this is a messy but necessary job. In effect, use a red or blue or green or whatever colour pen and go through and, in effect, interrogate the poem. Line by line, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, stanza by stanza … note on and around the piece things that you consider to be of interest or importance and things that you don’t yet understand.
And by interrogate I mean interrogate – you’ve got to work the piece hard and thoroughly for information. Don’t settle for the superficial and easy – dig deeper for significances. If the poem won’t tell you something, don’t let up – push harder, or approach the problem from a different angle.
In this way, you will come to ‘own’ the poem – you engage with it as a subject and break it down. Thus, what you believed yourself to understand at point 2. will now be more fully realised and better able to be substantiated … or you might have had that understanding challenged and now wish to reconsider and reconceptualise it.
Now that you own the poem in isolation – in its ‘it is what it is’ state – it should prove advantageous to consolidate and broaden and deepen your understanding by (re)reading any ‘context materials’. In effect, apply a filter of ‘known associations’ and ‘informing / overarching concerns’.
Then go back into the (recently) clean version and amend or update your annotations with any new or different insights or possibilities. This cycling back through the versions may seem tedious and tiresome … but it will yield significant positive outcomes. This is called being rigorous.
An Approach to Accessing Poetry #2: Close Analysis
Any opinion or critical response to a poem must be built upon a personal reading and the particular understandings and insights that come from your engagement. What you make of it and what it means to you are of utmost importance.
Close analysis will not tell you or reveal to you the meaning of, or answer to, a poem.
Close analysis might offer you new understandings and insights, because of the rigour it imposes … but its primary function and benefit is to offer you ways and means of substantiating and validating that which you already think and believe.
In effect, close analysis presupposes that you accept that a poem – just like any literary form – is a carefully considered and carefully contrived construct. It is made up of elements. Close analysis, then, is about deconstructing the poem – identifying those elements and analysing how they have been employed to realise an effect.
An analogy: the author is an artist that uses the tools at his or her disposal to fashion a piece of art. In this case, the tools of the author are called ‘literary techniques’. They are deployed to ‘make’ the poem – the words are sculpted into a poem.
And this is what we’re looking for: the techniques deployed through the words employed.
But you have to (re)read the poem closely and carefully … which you should already – given that this is Senior School English - be comfortable and familiar doing.
And every time you find something of interest or significance, you must then interrogate it: ask of it “and-so-what?”
Because there’s nothing ‘random’ in a poem. There’s no padding. Everything’s there for a reason. Everything in it has been carefully considered and judiciously deployed.
To return to the artist analogy: if the poet is a particular ‘type’ of artist, he is a sculptor. He takes the block of stone and cuts out and carves away the excess bulk, and then chips and chisels away the unnecessary bits, and then polishes and refines, polishes and refines until all that’s left is all that is necessary, and all that matters.
Poetry is language that has been sculpted into its most elemental of forms.
And like any piece of art it hopes for you to appreciate and enjoy it for what it is, but also expects you to consider and contemplate it closely and carefully … if you want to be rewarded for your efforts.
Close Analysis: What to look for in a poem …
What issues and ideas do you think the poem deals with?
What is the poem saying? What is its message/moral?
What did the poet hope/intend to achieve in writing this poem?
Who is telling the story of the poem? (n.b. persona does not necessarily = poet)
Through whose eyes do we see the characters and events of the ‘story’?
How would you characterise the ‘voice’ of the persona?
What do you believe are the thoughts and feelings of the persona?
To what extent / in what way is the persona significant to / in the poem?
How is the poem arranged?
Does it have stanzas?
How are they organised?
Does the physical appearance of the poem affect / contribute to its meaning?
To what extent / in what way is the form of the poem significant?
How is the mood of the poem achieved? Through word choice? Technique(s)?
What does the poem ‘sound’ like?
What kind of ‘attitude’ does the poem have?
Does the tone of the poem change?
What do think is the poet’s attitude to the subject of the poem?
What do you think the poet’s attitude is to the intended audience?
How is the tone of the poem achieved? Through word choice? Technique(s)?
How do you think the poem should be read aloud? Softly? Loudly?
Do you think there are special words or phrases that need to be louder than others?
What effect does the rhyming scheme (if any) of the poem have on you?
Sounds - alliteration:
Does the poem use repeated consonant sounds? Why?
What words are emphasised by this alliteration?
Sounds – assonance:
Does the poem use repeated vowel sounds? To what effect?
Look at the vowel sounds ‘in general’. Does the poet slow the poem down with long vowel sounds, or use short sharp ones, crisply?
Are there other sound effects, like onomatopoeia (the sound imitating the sense/action)?
What effects do the metaphors, similes and symbols of the poem have on you?
What pictures and sounds are conjured up by the poem?
What associations do they expect you to make?
To what extent / in what way is the imagery of the piece significant to / in the poem?
What are your feelings about the poem?
Does the poem relate to or challenge your understanding and experience of life?
In this way, through close annotation and analysis, you will be able to ‘harvest’ material with which and upon which to qualify and substantiate your insights and interpretations and opinions.
This material will become the evidence upon which you build your case. This material will be the nucleus of your paragraphs.
Close Analysis: Theory in Application
For the above approach to ‘work’ – for it to yield useful material - the approach assumes that you have cultivated personal and particular understandings and insights from your engagement with a poem. What you make of it and what it means to you remain of utmost importance.
Close analysis serves only to help you substantiate or qualify for an audience your interpretation of a poem.
Close Analysis: What to look for in a poem … asks you a lot of questions. Or, more so, it gives you a lot of questions for you to ask of and about a poem.
But, coming up with answers is not the be all and end all; you also have to be able to explain to your audience how and why particularities of the poem have given you reason or cause to reach these understandings and insights.
This is when and where annotations become both useful and necessary.
And for these annotations to really work to your advantage, they have to be emergent from or in regards to the elements of the poem that YOU have responded to or identified to be of significance.
What I find that affects me might well affect you differently, or not at all.
You might find something that I miss, because maybe I missed it. Or, maybe I did find it, but didn’t find it to be of significance and therefore it didn’t warrant annotating.
All of which is why I am trying to encourage you to read a poem for your own meanings.
All of which is why I will be trying to encourage you to engage with poems closely and carefully and from different perspectives and with different approaches.
Because it’s what matters to you that matters most.
And all you have to do is figure out why it matters, and how whatever it is you’ve found affects the way you understand the poem.
Close analysis and rigorous reading will repay your efforts.
Perhaps not immediately all the time … but, most definitely, at some point.
Where this is all heading:
You know what the final assignment is – the essay question and the case that you will need to make.
You will need to choose a poem or poems upon and through which to make this case.
For each of the poems you must – in a clear and confident and (hopefully) compelling way – be able to contend with the following dot-points.
Or, another way of putting it: if you ever feel inclined to say or suggest or choose to believe that you “don’t know what to do” or “don’t know how or where to start”, well, contending with (i.e. “answering”) the following dot-points could / should be a good and necessary place to start.
What does your audience – the reader of your treatment – need to know in order to ‘get’ what it is that you want to say and/or show?
In writing this poem, what is it that you believe Owen sought to say and / or show – what was his motivation; what was the message or moral he might reasonably have expected the reader to glean from the poem?
How does he accomplish this in and through his poem?
In order to back-up your insights and interpretations, what evidence would you present to support your determinations?
Given this selection of evidence, how are you going to use it to validate your insights and interpretations.
Given this selection of evidence:
how are you going to use it to support the making of your case?
how are you going to use it to validate your thesis / line of argument?
how are you going to use it to answer the set question?