Poetry (II): Personal Identity 
Sylvia Plath

Gwendolyn Brooks

Walt Whitman

Merternity, Marc Chagall, 1913
from A Concise History of Modern Painting p. 127.

General Questions:
Generally, self-identity can be defined in terms of 1) one's nature or inner essence, or 2) one's differences from, or relations with, others.  How about the following poems?  (Pay attention to the "I/We-You" relations in the poems.)  Which of these poems do you consider to be feminist?  Which do you identify with most? 

SYLVIA PLATHS (1932-1963)
  • "METAPHORS" (1960)

  • --leading questions
  • Relevant Links


    from Sylvia Plaths site (more pictures here)

    Questions for*Understanding & Analysis  *Application & Wild Association
    "METAPHORS"--*Understanding & Analysis
    1. What is a metaphor? What fact about the speaker do all of the metaphors in this poem refer to? If you think of this poem as being a riddle, what is the answer to the riddle?
    2. Why does the speaker in line one say that she is a riddle? Why nine syllables? If you look at the whole poem, you will see that it has nine lines; can you suggest a reason why?
    3. How does the speaker feel about her situation? About her new identity?
    4. Explain the final line of the poem.  What do you think of her tone--full of expection, or with resignation?  Do you agree with the speaker?   Have you ever been on "a train theree's no getting off"?
    5. More about literary techniques.
    Application & Wild Association
    1.  Compare the poem with the animation "The Bulge" and Chagall's painting (see Above).  How different are these three (four, if you include the animator's) presentations of pregnancy?  Do the differences have to do with the gender of the poets, painter and animator?   What is your view of pregnant woman?

    Relevent links:

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  • "WE REAL COOL" (1960)

  • --leading questions
  • Relevant links
  • Questions for*Understanding & Analysis
    1. The speaker of this poem clearly identifies himself or herself with a group that s/he refers to as we. Who is the speaker?
    2. What are her characteristics? What can you say about the group to which s/he belongs? How aware of himself or herself is the speaker?
    3. The first line of the poem states We real cool. What do you think is the tone of this poem? Does the poet think the speaker and his friends are cool?
    4. Read the poem outloud several times, trying to stress different words with each reading. How does the meaning of the poem changes as the emphasis changes?
    5.  Why do you think Brooks chose to end each line of the poem, except the last, with the word we?
    6. Application--What is the "cool" thing to do in college?  Do you know of anybody like the "we" in this poem?
    7. More about literary techniques.
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    EMILY DICKINSONS (1830-86)
      --leading questions
      --wild associations
    Relevant links

    from Emily Dickensen Page

    the text and Chinese annotations

    1. How would you describe or characterize the speaker in this poem? What is she like in the first stanza? Does she seem
    2. different in the second stanza?
    3. Please read the poem outloud and decide why it has so many dashes.  Does it signify suspense, secrecy, and/or hesitancy?  How do you characterize the speaker, who speaks with long pauses?  This poem, in part, is about the spaces and distance between people.  Do the dashes, then, create a sense of distance and isolation? What other effects do they create?
    4. What is the speakers relationship with "you"? Who is "you"? What new identity does the speaker take on by seeing herself as a a pair of us? Who are "they" mentioned in the first stanza?
    5. Could the "you" in the first stanza be the "Somebody" in the second?  What more do we get to know about the speaker in this stanza?
    6. More about literary techniques.

    Application & Wild Association

      1. Does Emily Dickensen's biography (a short one, a longer one) shed any light on this poem or the next one?
      2. ( To interest you: "Dickinson had what appears to have been a normal childhood---was bright, witty, had friends, went to parties---but by her early 30's began a withdrawal which later became almost complete: there were occasions when even people whom she obviously loved had to speak with her from the other side of an ajar door.")
      3. Do you see yourself as a somebody or nobody?  Or both or neither?
      4. You can contrast the self this poem with two contemporary feminist songs: Sinead O'Connor's "Red Football, " Alanis Morissete's "Not the Doctor." Can you explain the similarities and differences among them?


      Before Reading

      • What do you imagine yourself seeing or hearing at the very moment of death? What does the fly mean?

      After the 1st Reading:

      • Speaker and Tense: Who is the speaker of this poem? Where is she? Is she living or dead? Why is the poem written in the past tense?
      • The Fly: What are the connotations for the word fly? How are some of those connotations helpful for understanding the poem?
      • Stanza 1: What does "the stillness in the room" refer to? There are two sets of contrasts in this stanza: fly vs. stillness; stillness vs. heaves of storms. For your reference, the stillness between two heaves of storms can refer literally to the eye of a hurricane, or the circular area of relative calm that is found at the center of a cyclone. But what about its symbolic meaning?
      • Stanzas 2 and 3:-- The second and third stanzas show more clearly what moment of death the poem is about?  Can you describe it? -
        -- And the attitudes of the speaker as well as those around her? For instance, why are the people described as eyes and breaths, God, the King, and death, the last onset (meaning "attack" and "start")? Why is the dead speaker worried about what of his/hers belong to whom?
      • Stanzas 3 and 4: --Instead of God the King, there comes a fly. Before mentioning the fly, there is a dash, just as there is one at the end of the first line. What do these dashes possibly mean?
        -- Why does the speaker describe the sound of the fly in the final stanza as being "With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz"?
        -- "I could not see to see." The last line contains what seems to be a contradiction. What could it mean? A clue: what does the "Windows" that fail mean? Reading back, what could the room (which is filled with stillness) mean for the dying speaker?

      Further Questions or After the 2nd Reading:

      • Some similes and metaphors are used to give us a picture of the moment before death. Why is Stillness associated with Storms? What is the "assignable portion" that the speaker signs away? Why does the fly have "Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz"? What is the Windows that fail at the end?
      • Dickinson is a master of slant rhymes (a type of rhyme where the final consonant sound of two words is identical, but the final vowel sounds are not the same.). For instance,the words "Room" and "Storm" in this poem.What effects do the rhymes in this poem create (for instance, connecting "room" and "storm," "firm" and room," "buzz" with "there it was," and "me" and "see"?

      • As the poem is quite ambiguous, please try again to sort out its multiple meanings.
        • If the window means that of the soul, and if "the fly" means something mundane and distracting, how ironic is the moment of death is, as opposed to a Christian view which holds that God would come to pick one up?
        • If the window means that of our eyes, the room, our consciousness, and the fly, as David Porter puts it,"the buzz of ceaseless consciousness," maybe the speaker merely loses his/her physical senses ("see to see") but s/he can still see in another way?
      • Application--Why does Dickensen write so much about death (Cf. "Because I could not stop for Death" p. 741)?  How is her view of death different from, or similar to, yours? Please also compare this poem with the views of death expressed in "Not Waving but Drowning" and "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night."


      • Some background information: does it influence your reading of the poem?
        1. Emily Dickinson in her life experienced a lot of family deaths and deaths in the community of Amherst. For a long time, her bedroom window overlooked the village graveyard.
        2. Emily Dickinson wrote the poem "I HEARD A FLY buzz--when I died" during The Civil War--in 1863, according to her latest editor. Around this time, she herself might have early symptoms of anterior uveitis, («e¬q¸²µå½¤ª¢ , a kind of eye disease), which made her think she was going blind. However, she wrote on the Civil War in a letter: "Every day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be, more stupendous" (Ryan).

        Reference: Ryan, Michael. "How to use a fly." The American Poetry Review, March-April 2004 v33 i2 p15(3).


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    WALT WHITMAN (1819-92) 

    "A NOISELESS PATIENT SPIDER" (1862-1863) --leading Questions

    "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" (1867) --Leading Questions

    Relevant Links

    Questions for*Understanding & Analysis  *Application & Wild Association
    the text and Chinese annotations
    1. What does the first stanza suggest about the spider? What activity is the spider engaged in? Keeping in mind that activity,
    why is the second line so much longer than the first line?

    2. The second stanza implies that the speaker is like the spider. In what ways is the speakers soul like the spider? What activity does his soul do? How is that activity like the workings of the spider?

    3. The first stanza presents the vacant vast surrounding encompassing the spider, while the second stanza presents measureless
    oceans of space around the soul. What other similarities and parrallels do you see between the two stanzas?

    4. More about the techniques .. .

    Application & Wild Association
    1.  If you were going to compare yourself to an animal, what animal would you choose? Why?
    2. The song "Sound of Silence" can be seen as another search for inner soul--by talking to darkness as an old friend.  Please pay attention to the contrasts in imagery between darkness and light, silence and sound.  The phrase "sound of silence" is an oxymoron; can you explain why?

    Relevent links:

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