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298 Poetry Paper 2

Page history last edited by Eric Leonidas 5 years, 11 months ago

ENG 298: Poetry Paper


Your next critical paper is due in TWO stages:


  • Tues, Nov. 18, a thesis statement is due
  • Final version is due December 2 (there is no draft state that I will see; you should of course write drafts)


This is going to be a short paper, 4 pages (and that's the minimum), that takes only 1 short poem as its main focus.  Your job is to develop and support an argument about what, and how, the poem means.  The first step is to develop a thesis.


Thesis Statement


Just to review:


  • It must be a claim: not a truism, not a fact, not an obvious statement.
  • You will know your thesis is a claim if it is contestable, if someone can argue an opposing viewpoint (and might choose to do so).
  • In a literature class, a good thesis will argue the meaning of a text—what it does or shows.
  • A good argument uses strong active verbs.  Claims do not tell us that texts “are about” something, or “take x as a theme,” or “have a message.”  Authors (or, if you’re uncomfortable with intention, texts) show, demonstrate, suggest, argue, contend, attempt, subvert, support, reinforce, reject, etc.
  • The grammar of a good argument often reveals its complexity.  That is, good thesis statements often include a yet, but, however, although, nevertheless, etc.


Because poetry is relatively difficult, and requires some interpretive work even to gain a basic sense of what’s being said, students often conclude that a paper that summarizes the poem, stanza by stanza, and that points out a few technical points—the meter, the rhyme scheme, a use of personification—will pass muster.  It will not.  You will need to make a claim about the figurative meaning of the poem, to offer an interpretation we can argue about beyond the poem’s literal “argument.”  Remember that a lyric poem expresses a speaker’s thoughts, perceptions, emotions, or ideas.  Think about the “frame” or structure of the poem as complicating, or perhaps commenting on, the idea, and you will wind up with an argument.




In [author’s] lyric/sonnet [title], a speaker [active verb and an object] ________.  By the end of the poem he/she seems to conclude/believe _________.  The [formal element], however, reveals that ________.  The poem thus suggests that _________.


The form of [author’s] lyric/sonnet ________ demonstrates continuity and integrity.  Within those confines, however, the speaker experiences ___________.  The tension between the form and the speaker’s _________ suggests ___________.


Over the course of  [author’s] lyric/sonnet [title], a speaker experiences a crisis: he/she [description of crisis].  Nonetheless, [some formal element(s)] suggests [resolution or reconciliation, or perhaps an emotional reversal that hints at a way forward].


These are skimpy, I admit.  Those blank lines certainly require more than a word or two.  In fact, I can easily imagine these being elaborated into 5 or 6 sentences—elaboration coming mostly in between the sentences I’ve put up, NOT tacked onto the end.


Here's a version of the first, with significant modification:


In David Wagoner’s lyric “My Father’s Garden,” the “melter” at the center of the poem is described as a hero, making and unmaking the world in his metal workshop.  His challenge is to retain a sense of imaginative creativity as he toils away at labor described as both physically demanding and monotonous.  A final simile suggests failure: his effort to envision his work as life-giving collapses onto a tired and forced comparison.  At the same time, the poetic speaker’s regular use of metaphor to depict his father demonstrates an imaginative empathy that might stand as a kind of inheritance.  If the father could not quite sustain the role of artist, he bequeathed to his child a commitment to plastic powers of mind.


Some Reminders:


  • Poetry is hard.  Our tendency is simply to reward ourselves for making sense of the poem, and so theses tend to be descriptive rather than argumentative.  Ask yourself whether you are doing something more in your thesis than summarizing or describing.
  • This paper asks you to base your argument about what the poem means on how it means; something of the poem's formal construction needs to be included in your thesis.
  • Your argument should implicitly or explicitly answer the question of “So what?”  In other words, why does your argument matter?
  • Citation: BE SURE your citation format is correct, especially the punctuation, and that your works cited list is flawless. 
  • TOPIC SENTENCES: be certain that each paragraph has a real one—a sentence that is a claim, and that requires a paragraph’s worth of evidence and analysis to support.  Thus, BY DEFINITION topic sentences cannot be facts, or introduce quotations, or be vague generalizations.
  • Edit for concision—make sure every sentence is as direct and economical as possible.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread.
  • Review the Norton, pages 629-31 on structure.




I cannot emphasize enough that this paper is a “close reading” of a poem.  You MUST, MUST, MUST look at technical aspects of the verse to support your argument.  I don’t want a laundry list of everything you can “name” in the poem.  So you must be judicious in choosing what technical aspects apply to your argument.  But I expect discussion of at least three of the following elements we’ve been working with: stanzaic and line structure; rhyme and other sound effects; rhythm and meter; and figurative language.  Naturally I also expect you to employ the technical vocabulary we have encountered.



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