What is denotation? What is connotation? How does knowing
these meanings add depth and meaning to a poem?
The readings in both texts today offer us ways to begin approaching poetry, and
these are important practical and philosophical beginnings. Keep in mind
how you distinguish poetry from other forms of literature, and note how Perrine or Oliver
offer insights to sharpen and clarify your perception. Part of what you'll be
doing in this class is learning to find the language and tools to express the initial and
sometimes vague perceptions we bring to the art of reading poetry.
As you read Oliver and, more importantly, Perrine, make sure you take time to understand
and appreciate the poetic selections they provide. This is part of your practice in
reading poetry. Although we will not necessarily go over every poem in class, I expect
that you are familiar with them. If you have trouble with any part or want to discuss
a particular poem, please bring your questions and suggestions to class. These poems
will be the subject of our discussion!
I offer the following notes, suggestions and questions as a way to help you get the
most out of your reading, and to lead our discussion in class on Wednesday.
Compare Perrine's idea: "Initially, poetry might be defined as a kind of language
that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language" (2), with
Oliver's description of poetry. In her "Introduction" Oliver distinguishes between
the content of language and the formalities of language: "And yet, how can the
content be separated from the poem's fluid and breathing body? A poem that is
composed without the sweet and correct formalities of language, which are what
sets it apart from the dailiness of ordinary writing, is doomed" (3).
If what distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature or art is a more intense
use of language, and what Perrine calls a "higher voltage" per word (Perrine 8), then
why does it become so important to know exactly what these words mean?
We will follow Oliver's premise that a poem is both content and form and these are
intrinsically related. Consequently, we will focus on and learn about
formalities and technique, what Oliver calls the "thoughtful machinery of the poem" (4).
Why is it important to study the poetry of the past?
Oliver writes that "Poetry is a river; many voices travel in it; poem after
poem moves along in the exciting crests and falls of the river waves. None
is timeless; each arrives in an historical context; almost everything, in the
end passes. but the desire to make a poem,
and the world's willingness to receive it -- indeed the world's need of it --
these never pass" (9).
What do you think Oliver's comparison between poetry and a river of many voices means?
Why is it significant that "none is timeless"?
Oliver claims that "the subjects that stir the heart are not so many" and that
"contemporary creative force is something that is built out of a past,
but with a difference" (11). Explain.
This universal sense of the poetic ties into some of the concerns expressed in Perrine's
opening chapter, namely that poetry expresses significant experience and not simply
moral lessons or beauty (4). Why is it important to avoid the two common approaches to
poetry that a) see poetry as providing a lesson
or bit of moral instruction and b) see poetry as always beautiful? If poetry covers the
range of human experience, what else might we expect?
On imitation: note that Keats' self-imposed plan for becoming a poet involved
intense imitation, the effects of which we can see in his early poems especially.
When we begin our reading of Keats, we will return to this idea and observe some of
Keats' style as it develops through various stages of imitation and creative experiment.
In chapter 2, Perrine offers 5 practical steps for reading poetry. USE THEM! If it seems
awkward or --shame -- time consuming, so be it. This is what it takes to get to the heart
of poetry. Here's the payoff, though. It becomes easier with time. Another payoff: it
makes the poetry SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING! Pay each poem the tribute of reading it carefully.
Note: if Perrine highlights a word in bold, it is generally pretty important and you
should know it. There is a glossary of highlighted terms in the back of the book. For
example, for this class, you should know what it means to paraphrase
a poem and to identify a theme of a poem.
I want to underscore that in stating a theme: "we should be careful not to phrase it as a moral
or lesson -- not 'you shouldn't' but 'a person may.'" (27). Please work on this
in your writing and discussion.
Perrine offers (pp. 27-31) some important questions to address when we read a poem. These are
questions to which we will return again and again for every poem. Let's get used
to answering them:
By what means is that purpose achieved?
On page 31, Perrine offers a list of questions that you can refer to throughout the semester.
These questions become increasingly more complex, and some will be difficult to answer
at this point. However, when you begin analyzing and preparing your anthology of poems,
these questions will provide excellent guidance. If you can answer these effectively, you
have a good grip on the poem. If you cannot answer a question, then raise it in class.
Chances are you are not alone!
Denotation and Connotation:
Be certain to understand the distinctions between denotation and connotation, as Perrine
describes them in this chapter.
"It is always important to determine the level of diction employed in a poem, for it may
provide clear insight into the purpose of the poem by helping to characterize the speaker" (44).
What does Perrine mean by "level of diction"? Compare two poems that employ different
levels of diction and explain the effect each has.
"Poets... use as much of the word as possible" (46). Keep this in mind as you offer
your annotations of specific words and phrases.
In a little question on p. 47, Perrine offers an important point to remember: "The
context screens out irrelevant meanings while allowing the relevant meanings to pass
through" (47). In your zeal to discover meaning, do not lose track of the fact that
some meanings do not fit the context.
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