for a deeper meaning
Step-by-step; there are ten  steps here:
A poem’s title does not always have great significance. The title might not make much sense until you start to understand the poem. The title “The Sick Rose” (by William Blake) gives us a reasonable hint about what the poem means. T. S. Eliot’s title “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seems to give some direction, but after the reading the poem, the title might be considered misleading or ironic. Wallace Stevens’ title “The Snow Man” gives very little help.
Pay very close attention to what individual words mean—and especially to what you think might be keywords, since this is where meaning can be concentrated.
Which words stand out, and why?
Consider how words may carry more than one meaning. A dictionary is obviously useful, especially one based on historical principles, since it will point to how the meanings of words may have changed over time. “Silly” once meant “helpless.”
Do you notice lots of material or immaterial things (nouns) or lots of action (verbs)?
Think in terms of oppositions, tensions, conflicts, and binaries.
Consider word choice, or diction:
Address the tone of the speaker or narrator, which is the attitude taken by the poem’s voice toward the subject or subjects in the poem:
Is the tone serious, ironic, amorous, argumentative, distant, intimate, somber, abrupt, playful, cheerful, despondent, conversational, yearning, etc.—or is it mixed, changing, ambiguous, or unclear?
[Key terms: style, diction, register, tone, irony.]
Focus on how the words are ordered. Look for patterns; in drawing attention to themselves, they require your attention:
Punctuation organises and creates relationship between words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. In poetry, where lines are often seen as units of meaning, the importance of punctuation is sometimes magnified, though often overlooked.
Punctuation can create or reinforce rhythm. It can also control meaning or make meaning uncertain by its placement and usage, especially if it is used minimally, or in some cases, not at all.
[Key terms: syntax, enjambment, end-stopped line, stress, rhyme.]
Related to word meaning is figurative language, which often plays a crucial role in both condensing language yet expanding meaning. Most generally, figurative language refers to language that is not literal. The phrase “fierce tears” (the personification of tears) is not literal, but it is both precise and suggestive in carrying meaning.
Much of what we read is literal: The evening sky was dark; he looked up; he felt sick. Figurative language refers to language not used literally—it is used abstractly, indirectly, and often evocatively. The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Here we have an evening (a thing), spreading (an action), a patient (thing), etherizing (an action), and a table (thing). But an evening cannot be a drugged patient spread out upon a table, perhaps ready to be operated upon; this description cannot be literally true (there is no patient, no etherizing, no table, and evenings don’t literally spread out against skies); this language is used figuratively.
When figurative language (like metaphor or simile) provides a picture that evokes any of the senses, we call this imagery. “She is the sun” (a simile) contains imagery of light and warmth (the senses of sight and touch).
Poetry sometimes contains brief references to things outside itself—a person, place, or thing—that will expand, clarify, or complicate its meaning. Sometimes they are obvious and direct, and sometimes they are subtle, indirect, and debatable. Allusions are frequently references made to other texts (for example, to the Bible, or to another poem).
[Key terms: figures of speech, connotation, denotation, metaphor, simile, irony, imagery, personification, allegory, symbol, allusion.]
You probably first read a poem to yourself, silently, but most poems also create sense though sounds, unlike concrete poetry, which operates visually. Try reading the poem aloud. Sound brings attention to both individual words that are drawn together through their sound as well as to the overall “feeling” or experience. For example, repetition of sounds like “s,” “m,” “l,” and “f” might encourage a soft or sensuous feeling: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .”
A poem’s rhythm can be regular or irregular. When it has regular rhythmical sound patterns, we say the poem has a certain meter. The type of meteris based on the number of syllables per line and how many unstressed (x) or stressed (/) syllables there are.
The various meters—tetrameter, pentameter, etc.—are based on the number of feet per line.
The meter in the example below has four regular feet, and is therefore tetrameter; because each foot has an unstressed syllable [x] followed by a stressed one [/], this is called an iamb. We would then say that the line is in iambic tetrameter; if it had an extra foot—that is, five feet—we would call it iambic pentameter.
(“I WAN-dered LONE-ly AS a CLOUD“; x / x / x / x / ). A small, distinct group of accented words is called a foot (“a CLOUD”; x /).
Melody refers to sound effects, such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, with each producing a unique melodic effect. Rhyme is a type of melody, and rhymes can be perfect with identical vowel sounds (“guy” and “high”) or slant, when the sound of the final consonants is identical, but not the vowels (“shell” and “pill,” “cement” and “ant”).
[Key terms: concrete poetry, rhyme, rhyme scheme, rhythm, meter, stress, alliteration, consonance, assonance, scansion, prosody, concrete poetry, foot / feet, iambic, iambic pentameter, melody, perfect rhyme, slant rhyme, couplet, blank verse.]
All poems have a voice, which can be called a speaker (or in some case speakers, if there is more than one person “speaking” the poem).
Poems capture thoughts, ideas, feelings, impressions, experiences, and incidents, but sometimes poems also tell a story. Ask yourself:
[Key terms: speaker, addressee, tone, persona, point of view, ideal reader/listener, narrative, narrator, voice, conflict, dramatic monologue, lyric poem, irony, theme.]
Setting answers the questions “Where?” and “When?” in the poem, though often poems are not set in a specific location or time.
For some poems, a difficult but key question may be this:
Symbols represent or stand for something other than the image itself. A symbol, then, is often something concrete—a word, a thing, a place, a person (real of fictitious), an action, an event, a creation, etc.—that represents something larger, abstract, or complex—an idea, a value, a belief, an emotion.
Does the poem have any clear or central symbols? What meaning do they bring to the poem?
Poetic form usually refers to the structure that “holds” or gives “shape” to the poem—in a way, what it looks like to you on the page. This will include groupings or sets of lines, called stanzas.
Another, more interesting way to consider form is to say that it necessarily determines the content of the poem, especially in the case of a particular genre, like a ballad, epic, or sonnet; these specific forms (sometimes called “closed forms”) often have structures and stylistic conventions that are both structural and that convey units of meaning or conventions of rhyme, meter, or expression.
If the poem you are reading has a particular form or structure determined by genre, learn something about the conventions of that genre, since this can direct your attention to certain expectations of content.
Poems that do not follow determined, formal conventions have an “open form.”
[Key terms: style, stanza, genre, open form, closed form, ballad, epic poem, sonnet.]
“Purity” is a subject, not a theme; “purity is vulnerability” is a theme. “Theme” refers to a larger, more general, or universal message—a big idea—as well as to something that you could take away from the work and perhaps apply to life. One way to determine a theme is to
You might conclude that, for example, “love,” “trust,” or “loss” are subjects. Now, try to figure out what the attitude in the poem is toward that one-word subject and you have theme—for example, “love is dangerous,” “you cannot trust people close to you,” “loss makes you stronger.”
It is important to remember that many poems resist reduction to simple themes or even subjects, and such resistance—sometimes in the form of ambiguity, paradox, abstraction, or complexity—strengthens our interest in and engagement with the poem. Poems are not necessarily answers, but they may be problems or questions.
[Key words: ambiguity, paradox.]
Fully and wholly indebted to: G. Kim Blank & Magdalena Kay, English Department, University of Victoria
…life has no point (or purpose more profound) other than to reproduce.
They were all around me now. This was a real unhappy ending. They’d gone crazy. I observed a little fear and a lot of pleasure in their eyes. Fearful because I was different; excited because. as a mob, they were together attacking me. ‘Sort.3’ and ‘Sort.4’ were screaming words like, “Ayyb ilich” and, “Surrender, we’ve called Special Forces.” Some were throwing their shoes at me, I observed that mostly they are of animal skin or a shiny sort of plastic, others were throwing donuts and half eaten hot dogs. I already had my samples of their staple energy sources so I didn’t collect more, I just unwillingly played dodge-ball (‘Sort.1’ and ‘Sort.2’ did not participate in this gang violence, they continued to preen and peck, to prowl and purr.) “Bugger it all” I said to myself and then pressed my ‘Evaporate to Repatriate’ button: “Mission Control,” I said to my soul – I report by thought – “I’m coming back to base, they don’t have the answer to the question we want answered… on a scale of -42 to +42” I continued dejectedly, “I’d place their intelligence-cum-tolerance levels at around 0 [zero]”
The pervious afternoon somewhere far away, a group of beings in a kiosk called ‘Mission Control’ had detected yet another blue-green globe. Up there, expert philosophers, psychologists and political perfectionists only wanted an answer for this: how it all began, how it was destined to end and what exactly was the purpose of life (3 into 1). They elected to investigate this one (circling a tiny star called A-B2956) because it was sending out odd sounds and peculiar metal objects. What made them curious was three recent offerings – a non-breathing furry object (a Russian dog called Laika) another similar object with a cheeky expression (an American monkey called Ham the Chimp) and then a dummy in a cherry red car that wouldn’t talk and like just one song. Were these signs and symbols of friendship or threat? Were these signs of deep intelligence or the polar opposite? The Mission Control captain asked an eager one to zip on over, and beam back a report about this globe’s life forms and cognitive reasoning abilities. Stella, who had a hunger for escape, volunteered to make the trip. She was be no means unique, whilst carrying out her duties on A-B2956-3, a million and one others from her classification were investigating other globes of interest across the mega multiverse. She dared to dream though: might the mysterious senders of dogs and monkeys finally answer the question that no sentient being had yet answered?
At the crack of dawn this morning, I opened my eyes and asked myself, ‘where am I?’ It was a rhetorical question because I knew I’d been scanned to A-B2956-3. I began my observations. My thoughts were being transferred to my plasma capsule inserted under my skin. This capsule then beamed my observations, GPS locations and all other diagnostics (the seven senses) to the boffin-dorks up at the kiosk. I was happy to observe that I’d appeared on dry land in a sea of sand (liquids and I had a complicated relationship). I found myself in a walled enclosure with a variety of buildings. The wall was quite high and I saw low quality fixed observation cameras were everywhere. Each building had words upon them in two languages, some were rock, some were metal some were glass.
Soon after A-B2956 rose I became surrounded by moving objects – well, four sorts of carbon-based living beings. The littlest floated in the air, the next smallest were on four legs then, the larger two were quite different. Sort.3 and Sort.4 were similar in their size. Sort.3 mostly had black gowns and a few were what we’d call fashionistas. Almost all walked slowly with active plasma capsules in their hands, almost all coloured their faces. Sort.4 were more whitey-pink or whitey-red in complexion, they carried bags of paper, walked more quickly and few held or even had plasma capsules.
I followed as quietly as I could a number of Sort.3s and a single Sort.4 into a funny little room. To get here we passed through invisible walls, when I got close it seemed to be as hard as crystal, but somehow it just opened up and the heat became chill. Somewhere silent slaves were opening and cooling vents. In the room the Sort.4 was making lots of noise, waving paper in frustration at the relaxed looking Sort.3s and saying something like “missing deadlines results in zeros.” He then got angry with the antiquated interactive display. When the class began (a being who seemed a combination of Sort.3 and Sort.4 had come in and pressed an on button), the Sort.3s watched him quietly, just moving their heads (i.e., nodding) some seemed to copy what he said onto their own paper but I saw many doing activites on their plasma creations under the desks. Some were swiping pictures right and left, some watching video recordings while others still were moving candy-eating animations with their fingers along never ending pathways. I was confused because if the Sort.4 came close, they quickly hid their plasma creations.
I followed in a secretive way large numbers of Sort.3s into some sort of energy station. It was noisy here. It was on two stages. All around energy was being exchanged. Exchange was with little bits of tin or colourful paper; it was too funny! The place was smelling not too good, I saw a black hole in the ground and went in. The water was dull grey but was wonderful. I covered my body in this peculiar perfume. When I got out, the Sort.3s seem shocked and moved away. I then started taking samples of energy and then the screaming began. I thought to myself can they see me? Many Sort.3s were wearing solar glasses even though the rays of A-B2956 were not getting into this building. I experimented and began removing their solar glasses but this caused the screaming to increase and some sudden laying down to happen. Maybe the beautiful smelling liquid had made my invisibility suit stop working.
Stoically I continued on my quest trying my best to understand and observe these peculiar beings. There was a white Sort.4 with a smile on his face, sitting in the corner of the energy station building. With excitement he held his mug to drink black liquid, I got close and before his tongue touched the substance I drank some, he looked in my direction with fear and fright. I don’t know why but seconds later he dropped the liquid over his clothes, screamed and ran away (he didn’t get far at all because he then fell over a laying Sort.3 which cause even more screaming and two or three more sudden lay downs). Well that was liquid. Now I needed some solid evidence. I saw one big Sort.3 lady about to bite a huge burger, but I got to it first and took three-quarters of it in a single bite. She screamed, “Jinny, Jinny.”
The third venue I investigated had this written on it, “Hamman/Bathroom.” I saw transparent liquid with an awful smell. The strange Sort.3s were covering their hands with it. By now I was being followed. The boffin-dorks said that the grey body perfume was letting them know my GPS. I’d broken Rule Number 1 of alien observation: Don’t get seen. But what could I do? The perfumed water was nice, I was not going to remove it and the chaps up there agreed, if they could coat themselves in it they’d not remove it for love or for money (the sample I’d beamed back and named ‘eau de égout’ was the talk of the kiosk). Inside this room were small little rooms with chairs. These chairs were filled with this transparent liquid. And a button caused a water fall of it to come out. They were unbelievable, they carried their colour with them. They face their reflection and start to dab more colour onto their faces, when I got close to them I felt dizzy, with each movement strong perfume radiated from their bodies. When some removed the black gown from their head, something billowing puffed out. Then I observed them applying false hair onto their eye lids, I mean ‘why?’ Why would they do that? They were like wings, maybe they helped their eyes to fly to the sky. Several had nails like claws, long and pointy – for what possible purpose I could not imagine. Many, I noted, keep extra eyes in small boxes with colourless liquid that tasted sour (I tried a few samples), then they placed these on to their brown eyes. It was when I tried to collect samples of the puffy fluffy cloud-like stuff above their heads that they went berserk. ‘Stranger!’ ‘Foreigner!’ they began to chant.
Stella didn’t like the thought she was having. Maybe her A.I. soulmate, Ricardo Lime (version 12.6 of the intergalactic best selling Real Logarithm™ iMate series), was right and the boffin-dorks were wrong. RL’s answer wasn’t neither poetic nor romantic, it was basically, this: we are here by chance of a random chemical reaction. Since then and until now, life has no point (or purpose more profound) other than to reproduce.
Inspirations and/or Recommended Readings
Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.
Malkin, B. (2018, 7 Feb). “SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars.” The Guardian. Retreived from, theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/space-oddity
Huntington, S. (1997). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. London: Penguin.
Just another number…
(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)
He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.
— W. H. Auden
(Chicago Manual of Style)
The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is used in some social science publications and most historical journals. It remains the basis for the Style Guide of the American Anthropological Association and the Style Sheet for the Organization of American Historians. In distinction to the APA format, CMS offers writers a choice of several different formats and actually permits the mixing of formats, provided that the result is clear and consistent. It also provides a comprehensive formatting and styling guide (the layout and structure of your writing) and additionally covers, inter alia, plagiarism, language tone, construction of tables and graphs.
Take a look at the two article extracts below, both use the CMS reference format.
Alexander, James. “The Four Points of the Compass,” Philosophy, 87, no.1(2012):79-107.
The Four Points of the Compass
Donahue, T. J. “Terrorism, Moral Conceptions, and Moral Innocence,” The Philosophical Forum, 44, no.4(2013):413–435.
Terrorism, Moral Conceptions, and Moral Innocence
Sample document format
The pages below show a sample document using CMS note-bibliography format.
Source: Diana Hacker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007).
(American Psychological Association)
APA is often used to cite and reference sources that you use in your academic writing (an author-date reference style); another common formatting style is Chicago (CMS). With APA, there are “in-text” citations and “post-text” references. So, if you use information from a source like Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”, you would cite it in the text like: (Pinker, 1994) or Pinker (1994) or Pinker (1994, p. 75) and reference it at the end like: Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. London: Penguin.
(SURNAME, YYYY) this is the default option:
… was necessary (Smith, 1988).
… was the result (Adams & Almansouri, 2013).
(ORGANISATION, YYYY) use if there are no author details:
… was necessary (UNDP, 1988).
… was the result (IMF, 2013).
(TITLE, YYYY) use if source has no author/organisation details:
… was necessary (Liquid Gold, 1988).
… was the result (Trade Imbalances, 2013).
(SURNAME, ??) if source has no date use n.d. “No Date”:
… was necessary (Jones & Marsden, n.d.).
… was the result (World bank, n.d.).
APA provides a comprehensive formatting and styling guide (the layout and structure of your writing). In fact, APA covers all aspects of the writing process, inter alia, plagiarism, language tone, construction of tables and graphs. The pages below show a sample document in APA format (pink) with good academic-style writing points (blue).
Source: Diana Hacker (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007).
Genre = a type or kind of literature.
Fiction = narrative prose literature.
Poetry = metrical literature.
Drama = representational literature.
Short story = written to be read at a single sitting.
Novella = written to be read in several sittings.
Novel = written to be read in multiple sittings.
Lyric poetry = expresses thoughts or feelings.
Narrative poetry = the narrator is a storyteller.
Dramatic poetry = the narrator interacts with others.
Comedy = from disorder to order, ends happily.
Tragedy = from order to disorder, ending badly.
Tragicomedy = mixes tragedy and comedy.