Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The X-Ray of the Poem


Back in 2001, in an email to poet Joel Dias-Porter via the Cave Canem listserve, I offered a way to analyze poems that I characterized as "x-raying." The poem originated with one email account that went defunct, was forwarded to another that became inoperative, and ultimately was lost, or so I thought, when my computer crashed in 2003. I tried searching for it on my extant Cave Canem listserv emails, but with no success. And so I thought I'd lost it.

As I'm wont to do, I did print out a copy of the email, but instead of filing it in a clearly labeled manila folder, it ended up at the bottom of a series of papers that I misplaced, and only just found today, as I was organizing my study for the umpteenth time, this burst of cleaning prompted by the canyons of folders and papers that had arisen, like Atlantis, from the seabed of my study's main rug after this past fall semester, the move home this summer, and a decade of commuting and haphazard filing. But none of this is of interest to J's Theater readers, I'm sure. Instead, I am going to post the brief essay, if it can be called that, with a few modifications.

I want to apologize in advance to poet friends who have asked me for a copy over the years, and especially to Joshua Marie Wilkinson, who was soliciting pieces on reading poetry a while back only to receive a (polite was my intent) demurral from me. For his anthology I tried to reconstruct "The X-Ray of the Poem," but that newer version sounded far too pedantic and pompous, perhaps the result of too many years in academe, whereas when I initially penned this, I was still mostly outside the door. The naïeveté of tone shines through every sentence. I also realized with a bit of adaptation it might be useful for reading other literary genres as well, and despite my lack of access to the text below, have employed a rudimentary, working form of it in some of my classes.

It is perhaps best for a creative writer to use after a few drafts, as opposed to before them--and to be set aside, as sometimes needs to happen, in the best interest of the poem.  For many writers, the more obviously linguistic elements are often intuitive. But it also can serve as a useful tool too to see what you're up to, if you want to look, and thus know.

At any rate, here it is. Please feel free to use it, but do give credit where due, if you do.


The X-Ray of the Poem

by John Keene

One way I've thought about critically reading and analyzing a poem is to x-ray it, which is to say, to peer deeply beyond its surface level into its depths, to find out what might be hidden there, by the poet, the poem or both. Perhaps given the current state of physics, rather than "x-ray," a term that would allow us to see everything and anything from the most outward appearances to the sub-sub-atomic level (Higgs bosons or pi-mesons or whatever they're called, as opposed to capturing x-rays) might be more appropriate. Or maybe a better metaphor from science is the assay, which is what occurs when blood is passed through a centrifuge, so that the various elements and substrates are separated out, without losing the basic fact that all these elements together constitute the blood itself. Or perhaps a geographic exercise, sampling a very long, thin section of rock or soil, and viewing each of these layers to see what they reveal. Something along these lines, at any rate.

This is structuralism to a certain degree, but I think it may be useful in terms of organizing one's reading and analysis. I also think that one ought read these various elements in concert with and against each other, to gain a fuller appreciation of the poem. Meaning is one thing, or many things, but appreciating what the poem is doing and can do rewards a more attentive reading.  Sometimes a poem may appear to be straightforward, as Robert Frost's or Lucille Clifton's often do, and they can be appreciated as they are, and yet when one looks more carefully, when one looks and listens, something more may come to the fore, since this is the gift of any good to great poem: it always contains more than it offers on first glance.

A very basic poetic x-ray (which would be non-hierarchical) might include looking at the:

   Phonemic level (sounds, phonemes/words, the music created by these; why are certain vowels, sounds employed, how are they working in concert with each other, what do they seem to be doing in concert with each other);
   Prosodic level (meter/beats, rhythms, whether there are measurable, regular feet, or other kinds of rhythms, is it free or blank verse, how does the prosody play from line to line, stanza to stanza, what does it evoke, invoke, suggest, convey)
   Rhetorical level (types of rhetorical devices and figures of speech, such as anaphora, forms of repetition, ellipses, zeugma, used in the poem, and what are they doing, why are they present, how do they work, etc.)
   Symbolic level (related to content and rhetoric--are there symbols, tropes, figures, imbedded in the words, in phrases, across lines and stanzas--can the poem be read on multiple symbolic registers and what are those?)
   Stylistic level (what are the stylistics of the poem, its tone, its voices, is it consistent with the author's other works, does it echo or parallel the works of other authors, does it read as original, imitative, and if either or both, how?)
   Formal level (is the poet writing in a fixed or standard form you recognize, such as a sonnet, a sestina, a roundel, a bop, or is it vers libre--is the poet employing any of these and if so, how? Why? What is the significance of this form?)
   Genre level (to which poetic genre does the poem belong? Is it an elegy, for example? An ode? Is it a blues poem? What is the poet doing in terms of the genre? How is she writing within or against the genre, and what are the effects of her approach?)
   Thematic level (content--what is the poem about, what is or are its statements, if you were to paraphrase what it's saying as opposed to how it's saying or doing it, what would or could you say?)
   Ideological level (what is the poem's ideological stance, or is one discernible? If not, what does that say about its ideology? Does the poem comment on the conditions of its production? Its (author's) labor?)
   Historical-Contextual level (when was the poem written? what do other poems from that period look like? how does this poem function in relation to other poems of its time? What is its relation to the historical traditions in which it is written, and its relation to the poetic, literary, cultural and other discourses of its time? Does it look to the past or point a way to the future, or stay mostly within its historical-temporal horizon?)
   Holistic level (this entails reading the poem, especially aloud, and appreciating in toto, as an entire piece, even if its particulars get lost at first; reading the poem from start to finish, even a long poem, should always be the first and last step, so that its overall shape and contours, its totality, be grasped and appreciated for what it is)

One might quibble with any of these characterizations, refine or discard them, select only a few for a given analysis, or focus on only one, as the Russian structuralists did in terms of their reading of phonemes, or new historicists might in looking at the historical moment in which a poem is written, the various versions and drafts of poem, its author and the politics and society out of which it emerged. But the x-ray of the poem provides a starting poem for the beginning reader, as well as the more sophisticated one. Above all, they suggest the multiple pleasures, some involving work on the reader's part, which every poem can provide.

Copyright © John Keene, 2001, 2013.

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