Introduction to Literature

Poetry IV: Society

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Trafalgar Square on the day George VI was crowned: London 1938 from The Aperture History of Photography  Bk 1.  NY: Aperture, 1976.
James Wright (1927-80)
Wallace Stevens (1879-54)
W. H. Auden (1907-73)
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
poetry--a critical voice
     "Poetry... must stand at the opposite pole to politics. It must 'recharge' the language when its strength has been sapped by the debilitating effects of political and general misuse." from Poetry and Society
  • What kinds of pressures do we experience from society in general?  And from our society?
  • Do we need to overcome the barriers, or shorten the distance, between modern people?  Do we say hi to our "neighbors"--or people we meet in an elevator? 

    *On-line Journal for Ray's class
    *On-line Journal for Kate's class
    James Wright (1927-80) 

    "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" (1963) Click here for poetry reading

    Relevant Links and a biographical sketch 

    James Wright , Introduction to Poetry   p. 436 
    "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio"
    Questions for 1. Understanding & Analysis;  2. Application & Wild Association
    the text
    1. Questions for Understanding & Analysis
    1. This poem presents a speaker who is about to watch an American football game. Do you know what football is? It might help you to look at the relevant site below, which presents an explanation of the game and its rules. In this poem a football game is used as a metaphor for life in society. In what ways is life in society like a football game?
    2. The first stanza presents various workers. Why are they dreaming about heroes? Do they see themselves as heroes? Why do you think the  "Polacks"  are slowly drinking their beers rather than going home? Why are the faces of the negroes "gray"? Why are they "in" the furnace?
    3. The second stanza suggests that the men introduced in the first stanza are "ashamed to go home."  Why? How do their jobs effect their family life? Why do their wives feel unloved? Why are they like chickens?
    4. If the second stanza shows how the men's jobs affect their relationships with their wives, the third stanza shows how their children are affected. Why do the sons play football? Are they too looking for love and human contact? In what ways is playing football suicidal? In what ways is it beautiful? Explain the final line.
    5. What does the phrase "Their sons grow suicidally beautiful" mean?  What is the psychological relationship between the sons and their fathers?  (Cf. The McGraw Hill Introduction to Literature p. 473)
    6. James Wright's father was a coal miner, and his youth was spent in a blue-collar environment in the Midwest.  How does the poem demonstrate his knowledge of this aspect of America?  (Cf. The McGraw Hill Introduction to Literature p. 473)
    7. What does this poem suggest about how individuals are effected by their jobs and life in society?

    Relevent Links and a biographical sketch:

    James Wright was born in Martin's Ferry, Ohio in 1927 and died of cancer in New York in 1980.  He wrote with compassion about social outcasts--criminals, prostitutes, and the insane--as well as politics, nature, and human relationships.  ...In a poem entitled "Many of our Waters," Wright offers [a] comment on his goals:

            The kind of poetry I want to write is
                    The poetry of a grown man.
            The young poets of New York come to me with
            Their mangled figures of speech,
            But they have little pity
            For the pure clear word.

            I know something about the pure clear word,
            Though I am not yet a grown man.
             And who is he?
    Wright's "pure clear words" illustrate various poetic options available to contemporary poets; he wrote both closed and open form poems ... (Ray Schulte)

    back to the top

    Elizabeth Bishop "In the Waiting Room"
    Relevant Links

    Elizabeth Biship, Introduction to Poetry p. 316
    ¡@¡""In the Waiting Room"
    Questions for 1.Understanding & Analysis;  2. Application & Wild Association
    the text  (her paintings)

    Questions for Understanding & Analysis

    1. This poem presents the experience of a six-year-old girl as she goes to the dentist's office with her aunt. Can you describe in your own words the experience that she has? Have you ever had a similar experience? What does the girl see in the magazine? How does she respond to what she sees?
    2. When the girl hears her aunt cry out in pain she thinks ¡§that it was me: / my voice, in my mouth¡¨ and ¡§I was my foolish aunt, / I¡Xwe¡Xwere falling, falling¡K.¡¨ Why do you think the girl confuses and mixes herself and her identity with that of her aunt?
    3. In the second stanza the speaker tries to stay calm by reassuring herself that she is all right, yet a new awareness of her own identity keeps returning to her mind:

    4. But I felt: you are an I,
      you are an Elizabeth,
      you are one of them.
      Why should you be one, too?

      What insight about herself is the girl just discovering?

    5. The girl comes to recognize herself as a female. What does that mean for her? Why does it frighten her?
    6. What does the girl in this poem come to realize about herself as an individual and a female in society?
    Application & Wild Association
    1. Have you ever had a similar awareness with the girl's (see the above quote)?  How different is this girl's sense of identity from the speakers in Whitman's "I saw in Louisianna a Live-Oak Growing," Dickensen's "I'm Nobody? Who are you?"  or Frost's "Mending Wall"?
    2. The girl gets a sense of self-identity partly from reading the magazine National Geographics.  When surfing on the web, what do you feel about your self-identity?  A Taiwanese, or citizen of the world?
    Relevent Links: back to the top

    Wallace Stevens

    ¡§Disillusionment of Ten O'clock¡¨

    Relevant Links

    Photographic portrait of Wallace Stevens by Sylvia Salmni, 1948
     ¡§Disillusionment of Ten O'clock¡¨
    Questions for 1.Understanding & Analysis;  2. Application & Wild Association
    E-Text; Another colorful version

    Questions for Understanding & Analysis:

    1. By ten o'clock in the evening many families are preparing for sleep. This brief poem explores the pressures that attempt to make us conform to social expectations, to be just like everyone else. What do you think the first line of the poem means when it says ¡§The houses are haunted¡¨? Are the people in the houses fully alive? Or are they half-alive, like ghosts?
    2. What are the connotations (see page 1534 in your textbook for a definition of this term) for the color "white"? What do you think the poet is suggesting by stating that the nightgowns in line two are white rather than colorful?
    3. What are "socks of lace"? What are "beaded ceintures"? Why are the people in their houses not wearing such unusual clothes? Line seven in the poem says that the people do not want to appear "strange"; why do they not want to be different from everyone else?
    4. The poem suggests that these people who are dressed the same and live the same kinds of life, unwilling to be different or even to be themselves, are also not free even in their dreams. Why are they not going to "dream of baboons and periwinkles"?
    5. The final three lines of the poem present a person who is not like the people in the houses. How does that person differ from the rest of society? What does it mean to catch tigers? What kind of animals are tigers? Are they easy to catch? What qualities would a person need to catch them? What do the tigers symbolize? Also what does ¡§red weather¡¨ mean? What are the connotations of red?
    6. In this poem what does Wallace Stevens suggest about society? What does he think individuals in society should do? What does the title suggest about the people in the nightgowns and the sailor?
    7. More about literary techniques.
    ¡@Relevent Link: back to the top

    W. H. Auden

    "The Unknown Citizen" (1940)

    Relevant Links

    W. H. AudenIntroduction to Poetry p. 311
    "The Unknown Citizen" (1940)
    Questions for 1. Understanding & Analysis;  2. Application & Wild Association

    Questions for 1. Understanding & Analysis

    1. To help you understand this poem, you may want to know a little bit about the monument for the unknown soldiers. For a brief explanation of this famous tomb, see the relevant link below.
    2. Who is the speaker of this poem? How would you describe him? What is important to him? Do you think the poet's ideas about the "unknown citizen" being described are the same as the speaker's view of him?
    3. This poem uses much irony. Give an example of this irony and explain it.
    4. The poem presents many facts about this individual. Briefly, what is known about the man? In spite of all these facts, the man remains "unknown." In what ways is he still "unknown"?
    5. Explain the final two lines of the poem.

    6. What does this poem suggest about our society and about individuals in that society? In what ways is this poem a satire?
    Application & Wild Association
    1. Is being an "unknown citizen" as Auden describes it the same with being Dickensen's "nobody"?
    2. Besides  The Unknown Citizen," "Disillusionment of Ten O'clock," as well as all the stories we have read ("The Lottery," "A & P," "A Rose for Emily," "Paul's Case," "Yellow Wallpaper"), also deal with social conformity.  How are their perspectives different?  What are the ways offered in these texts to resist social conformity?   How do we strike a balance between insisting on our individuality and respecting social norms?  Or do we need to?
    Relevent Links: back to the top

    ¡""Mending Wall"
        -leading questions
    Robert Frost

    from Robert Frost homepage

     Relevant Links

    Robert Frost "Mending Walls" (1914)

    Before Reading

    What functions do you think "wall" usually serve? To separate or protect us against the outside world? To mark boundaries or make connections?


    After the 1st Reading:

    1. Main Idea and symbol:

      -- Explain what the first line of this poem means to you. What is the "something" here that "sends the frozen-ground-swell under it"? Why does it not like the wall?
      -- Mending Wall: How is the process of mending the wall described (ll. 15-22)?'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
      -- Does the wall stand for something else? Is it a symbol?
      -- The poem contrasts two different ideas about "mending walls." Describe them--the ideas and how they are expressed. Do you agree that "Good fences make good neighbors"?

    2. Characters:
      -- Do you agree with that idea or do you think that "Good fences make good neighbours"? How is the neighbor described at the end of the poem? 
      -- Describe the speaker of this poem and his values. Is humorous or self-contradictory (or both)? (Why does the speaker repairs the holes made by hunters, and inform his neighbor of the gaps if he does not find the wall necessary? Why is Spring both a time for mending, and creating mischief in the speaker? Why does the speaker wants to change his neighbor? )
      -- Besides the speaker and the neighbor, we can say that there are two other "characters" (agents) in this poem: the "Something" which does not like the wall, and the hunters (as a group).  Compare and contrast their attitudes toward the wall.
      -- Examine the images (the neighbor as "old-stone savage" and "in darkness"; the hunters "with yelping dogs"; the speaker with "Spring" and "Elves") associated with these agents who are for or against the wall, and find out the the meanings of the wall, as well as the speaker's attitudes toward it.

    Further Questions or After the 2nd Reading:

    1. Personification: Literally, the thing that breaks the wall should be the frost on the wall. The speaker, however, calls it a "Something" that actively "sends" the ground-swell, "spills" the boulders, and "makes" gaps. Why?
    2. Poetic Form, and Sound and Sense:
      -- the poem is a blank verse (any verse comprised of unrhymed lines all in the same meter, usually iambic pentameter), so the meter is iambic in general. What are the effects of the very regular iambic? Are there exceptions (trochee or spondee)? For instance,
      -- What's the sound effect of the hyphenated term with trochaic + spondaic meters, "frozen-ground-swell"?
      -- What's the sound effect of the regular meters here below?
      We keep the wall between us as we go.
      To each the boulders that have fallen to each. (ending with an anapest.)
    3. Structure and Repetition:
      -- The poem can be divided into four parts: 1) the speaker's description of Something's work vs. that of the hunters; 2) the speaker and neighbor's walking the line; 3) The speaker's two attempts at persuading the neighbor; 4) Conclusion with "Something" and a symbolic depiction of the neighbor. Examining the four parts, can you find any repeated lines? What are the functions of their repetition?
      -- This poem has other repetitions in iambic pentameter (e.g. "To each the boulders that have fallen to each/And some are loaves and some so neatly balls" ). What are the effects of the repetitions and regularity in form?


    • What does this poem suggest about the relationship between individuals in our society?  Of the several ideas about "mending wall" and the wall itself, which do you prefer?
    • There are several other texts dealing with the idea of wall; for instance, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Norman McLaren's "Neighbors" and Robert Lepage's Polygraph.  Try to think of other examples.

      Related Links: Pink Floyd: "Another Brick on the Wall" (Chinese analysis); qvP

    Relevent links:  back to the top