Poetry analysis is a fundamental component of every unit we teach. The purpose is not just to prepare students for the AP Poetry Analysis essay on the AP Literature exam, but also to introduce the major themes of the novel or play through a complementary text that addresses the subject matter through a different lens. Similar to the thought-provoking quotation that we use as the basis of our Journal Discussions, we want to give students another perspective on the issues they will encounter in the novel or play they are about to read.
Oftentimes, the choice of poem is relatively obvious by allusions made in the title or text of the novel or play. For instance, when reading Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, it makes sense to analyze William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming," the poem from which the title of the novel is taken. Similarly, when reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening, it is helpful to analyze Charles Swinburne's "A Cameo" since Gouvernail murmurs the first two lines of the poem during Edna's farewell dinner on Esplanade Street. There is a reason that authors and playwrights allude to other literary works, and our job as readers is to determine the thematic connection between the two.
When there is not an obvious allusion made in the title or text, we have the opportunity to select a poem that relates thematically to the novel or play and is consistent with the AP Literary Analysis prompt already chosen. For instance, when we teach Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, we want students to focus on how Esperanza's feelings towards her neighborhood change over the course of the novel. To achieve this purpose we chose the 2010 AP Literary Argument prompt for our final essay:
"You can leave home all you want, but home will never leave you."
- Sonsyrea Tate
Sonsyrea Tate's statement suggests that "home" may be conceived as a dwelling, a place, or a state of mind. It may have positive or negative associations, but in either case, it may have a considerable influence on the individual.
Choose a novel or play in which a central character leaves home yet finds that home remains significant. Write a well-developed essay in which you analyze the importance of "home" to this character and the reasons for its continuing influence. Explain how the character's idea of home illuminates the larger meaning of the work.
While there are many poems that focus on the concept of "home," we selected Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" to compare and contrast with Cisneros' work. When analyzing any piece of literature, we focus on the four pillars of style analysis: diction, imagery, language, and syntax. We will go into depth on all four elements in the Style Analysis section of the Framework, but for this section we will examine what is unique about analyzing poetry in comparison to prose.
When we present a poem to the class, we structure it like an AP Poetry Analysis prompt that students will find on the AP Literature exam so they get more comfortable with the format:
When we first introduce poetry to students, we note that paragraphs and sentences in prose have been replaced with stanzas and lines in poetry. We emphasize, however, that most poetry is still written in complete thoughts and contains end punctuation. Our advice to students is to read poetry as if it were prose, pausing and stopping when the punctuation dictates. We always read poems out loud in class twice—the first time by the teacher to model how it should sound and then a second time by a student reader. For poems with multiple long stanzas, we might have different students read different stanzas aloud.
Since every word in poetry is important, we first define any words that students might not know—like "indifferently" or "austere" in Hayden's poem, for example. We want students to consider the significance of the diction, imagery, and language in a poem—which we discuss in detail in the Style Analysis section—but for this section we are going to focus on how the syntax of poetry, which we call poetic devices, differs from prose and how poets use these poetic devices to establish tone and reveal theme.
We break poetic devices into three categories based on the repetition of sounds. The first category identifies the repetition of specific letter-sounds, which takes the form of alliteration, consonance, and assonance. The second category concentrates on the repetition of syllables, which involves a poem's rhyme, rhythm, and meter. The third category focuses on the repetition of words or phrases, which we call parallel structure:
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words whereas consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds within words. Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds. Poets use repeated sounds not just because they are pleasing to the ear, but also to emphasize certain words and create connections between words.
Let's look at the opening stanza of Hayden's poem:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
When introducing poetic devices, we first ask students to find as many repetitions of consonant and vowel sounds as possible within an opening stanza. For Hayden's poem, students usually notice the repetition of the hard "k" sound that comes at the beginning of words like "clothes," "cold," and "cracked"; in the middle of words like "cracked," "ached," "weekday," "banked," and "thanked"; and at the end of words like "blueblack."
When we ask students to describe the tone, or feeling, associated with that particular sound, students often say it is harsh and abrupt. The next question is why Hayden would want to repeat that particular sound in his opening stanza, and how that sound might reflect the feelings that the speaker has internalized when remembering his father and his childhood home.
Despite the coldness of the relationship he had with his father, it is clear that the speaker's feelings have changed now that he is older. The adult speaker seems to recognize and appreciate the fact that his father "got up early" during the week, most likely to go to a blue-collar job that produced "cracked hands that ached." Not only does Hayden alliterate the "weekday weather" to emphasize the harsh conditions that his father endured during the week to provide for his family, but he also alliterates the "blueblack cold" when the speaker's father "made / banked fires blaze" to show how the father also provided comfort for his family in the early morning darkness before any of them had gotten out of bed.
When Hayden stops the opening thought with a caesura in the middle of the fifth line, he uses the period to interrupt the flow of the line to set us up for the devastating final words of the stanza: "No one ever thanked him." When reading those words, we sense the guilt and regret the speaker has for failing to appreciate his father when he was a child.
Hayden's use of assonance is also interesting to analyze in the first stanza, specifically with the juxtaposition of long and short "a" sounds. The long "a" sounds connect the hands that "ached / from labor in the weekday weather made / banked fires blaze." Those same hands that "ached" from long hours of manual labor outside the home were the same hands that "made" the fires inside the home—on "Sundays too"—to provide comfort and warmth for his family.
One could argue that the length of those drawn out "a" sounds reflects the long thankless days that the father spent providing for his family with no apparent acknowledgment or appreciation of his sacrifice. Is there bitterness inside the father? Perhaps those harsh "k" sounds combined with the short "a" sounds in "blueblack," "cracked," "banked," and "thanked" reflect not just the speaker's fear of his father as a child, but also the resentment that the speaker imagines the father must have had towards his ungrateful family.
We emphasize with students that any literary interpretation—but especially with an analysis of the subtleties of syntax or poetic devices—is subject to debate. The role of a literary critic is not necessarily to be "correct," but to make interesting observations based on evidence from the text to make the reader think differently or more deeply about the work. Some interpretations are more convincing than others based on the evidence to support the claims, and others are more compelling based on the insight and depth of the analysis.
Our advice to students is to think deeply about the literary work and make as interesting an argument as possible based on the evidence from the text. An essay does not necessarily have to convince the reader that a certain interpretation is "right," but it should always aspire to be thought-provoking and make the reader think about the work in a new way.
When we introduce the concept of rhyme, we differentiate between "end rhymes" and "internal rhymes." When end rhymes create a consistent pattern, we call that a "rhyme scheme" and use letters, such as ABAB, to represent the repeating pattern. For Hayden's poem, however, there are no end rhymes, which means there is no rhyme scheme. The first question that students should ask is why Hayden would choose to write his poem in free verse rather than with a set rhyme scheme.
Just because there are no end rhymes does not mean, however, that there are no internal rhymes. In the first stanza, we see "blueblack" and "cracked" on successive lines and "banked" and "thanked" in the same line. These internal rhymes are not only aesthetically pleasing to the ear, but they also link those words thematically. It is up to the reader to make a connection as to why the poet would want to pair those two words.
In the first pairing, the "blueblack cold" represents the harsh conditions that the father has to face everyday—"Sundays too"—to provide and care for his family. His perpetual sacrifice is represented by the "cracked hands that ached," but it seems that the "aching" of his hands does not just reflect a physical hardship; instead, it seems to also imply an internal suffering, one that the speaker is unable to recognize as a child but acknowledges and takes some responsibility for as an adult. Similarly, the "banked fires" that the father made "blaze" every morning go unacknowledged by his family; despite the fact that he should have been "thanked" for the sacrifices he made, no one ever did.
In the second stanza, Hayden also uses internal rhymes effectively:
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
The first line connects "wake" with the first syllable in "breaking," showing how the father regularly gets up in the early morning to make the house warm for his family by "breaking" the cold. The tone of the stanza, however, is not one of familial love and warmth. The present participles at the end of the first line connect with the present participle in the fourth line to create a series of internal rhymes by repeating the "-ing" syllable on "splintering," "breaking," and "fearing." Despite the speaker's understanding at an intellectual level that the father's efforts are "splintering" and "breaking" the cold, they are sublimated by his simultaneously "fearing the chronic angers of that house." Instead of feeling gratitude for this father's efforts, the speaker only has dread and fear, fully aware that his father's temper is always in threat of "splintering" and "breaking" the peace and tranquility of the house.
When determining rhythm, we have to look at the punctuation and the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables (i.e. meter) in a line or stanza. In looking at the punctuation in the second stanza, the first thing we notice is the proliferation of commas. The comma at the end of the first line creates an asyndeton that takes the place of an "and" that could have easily separated the two present participles in a smoother, more rhythmic way. Instead, Hayden uses the comma to create a jarring transition between the two participles that abruptly concludes with the period at the end of the line.
One could argue that the punctuation aptly reflects the harsh, abrupt tone that we saw in the consonance of the repeated "k" sounds in the first stanza, which continues in the second stanza with "cold," "breaking," "call," and "chronic." The commas at the end of each successive line in the second stanza slows the pace and makes us consider each line carefully. The commas never complete the thought, however, so we carry the tension from one line to the next—and even into the next stanza—understanding implicitly that the "chronic angers of that house" remain unresolved and simmering beneath the surface, which breaks any sense of harmony in the house or rhythm in the poem.
The disruptive punctuation is complemented by the absence of a set meter. To determine meter, we have to recognize which syllables are stressed and which are not. The easiest way to do that is to look at the multi-syllable words first to determine where the natural accents lie. For instance, the word "splintering" in the first line of the second stanza has three syllables, but only one contains the natural accent, which is the first; the final two syllables are unstressed. Likewise, in "breaking" the first syllable is stressed and the second is not. In fact, all of the multi-syllable words in the second stanza have the first syllable stressed:
After we find the natural accents, we then look at the single-syllable words, where there is ample room for interpretation. In general, primary words—like nouns and verbs—are usually stressed whereas secondary words—like articles and prepositions—are not. This is a guideline but not a rule, however. When words are stressed, they are emphasized; sometimes it makes sense, based on the context of the line, to stress an adjective, for instance, rather than the noun. Similarly, stressed and unstressed syllables usually alternate in poetry to create a natural rhythm, but poets will intentionally disrupt the rhythm to call attention to specific words.
Here is a possible scan of the second stanza in Hayden's poem:
The first line starts off with a series of three rhythmic iambs (two-syllable combinations of unaccented syllables followed by accented syllables) before the pattern is broken with the words "splintering, breaking" at the end of the line. By analyzing the meter, we can assume that soon after waking—even on Sundays with a fire warming the house—the speaker still feels a sense of tension and unease. What is interesting is Hayden's decision to end the line with a weak, unaccented syllable, which one could argue conveys a sense of weary resignation, as if the speaker can never escape the constant "splintering, breaking" tension that permeates the house.
The first syllable of the second line, "When," could certainly be accented, but leaving it unaccented allows that feeling of helplessness to carry over from the previous line and build into another series of rhythmic iambs that runs through the next two lines until it is disrupted once again by a present participle, this time "Fearing," which starts the fourth line and connects to the "splintering, breaking" of the first line. This rhythmic pattern—and its disruption—repeats itself as if to imply that any sense of harmony within the house cannot remain for long.
The preposition "of" in the final line of the stanza could also be unstressed, but choosing to accent the preposition creates another series of four straight iambs that is broken once again by a present participle, this time the "Speaking" at the beginning of the final stanza. What is interesting is that the father is responsible for the "splintering, breaking" of the rhythm in the second stanza, but it is the speaker who is responsible for breaking the rhythm in the final stanza by "Speaking indifferently" to his father, which seems to imply that they both share responsibility for the psychic tension and "chronic angers of that house."
III. Parallel Structure
Parallel structure is the repetition of words or phrases within the lines of a poem. We have already seen how Hayden uses parallel structure in repeating the use of present participles to break the rhythm of the lines in the second stanza and at the beginning of the third. We also see a key repetition in the penultimate line that, one could argue, unlocks the thematic meaning of the entire poem:
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
By repeating "'What did I know, what did I know" the speaker acknowledges his own ignorance as a child of the love and sacrifice that his father demonstrated through his daily actions. The repetition also implies a sense of guilt and regret that he was unable to understand or appreciate his father when he was younger. What is obvious is that the speaker has matured over the years—perhaps now having children of his own—and sees his father in a new, more compassionate light.
If this were the first poem of the year, we would go over each line and stanza to make sure students understand how to identify poetic devices. As the year progresses and students become more comfortable with the analytical process, they answer the study guide questions on the back of the AP prompt independently or in small groups. Then we go over their answers and share different interpretations of the poem as a whole class.
After we have explicated the poem and answered questions from the study guide, students prepare to write their AP Poetry Analysis essay. Similar to the AP Literary Argument essay, we begin by using Hegel's Dialectic to organize our thoughts:
The AP Poetry Analysis prompt for Hayden's poem asks students to consider how the speaker has "re-assessed" the "strained" relationship he had with his father in childhood. One possible way to organize the argument would be to have the thesis, or initial claim (i.e. first body paragraph), focus on the "strained" relationship in the speaker's childhood. The antithesis, or counter-claim (i.e. second body paragraph), could then focus on the speaker's re-assessment of that relationship once he becomes an adult. The synthesis (i.e. third body paragraph) would focus on what the speaker has learned from the experience, which would also reflect Hayden's overall theme (i.e. "the meaning of the work as a whole").
If this were the first assignment of the year, we would provide a model for what a quality AP Poetry Analysis essay using Hegel's Dialectic might look like:
When using Hegel's Dialectic for an AP Poetry Analysis essay, it is sometimes helpful to think of the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model in terms of tone and theme instead. Students should look for competing, yet complementary, tones in the poem, which would then be the focus of their first two body paragraphs. Students would then resolve the tension between those competing tones by revealing overall theme in the concluding third body paragraph.
Once students have completed the Journal Discussion and written the AP Poetry Analysis essay, they are now ready to begin the novel or play with a solid introduction to the major themes of the work. Moreover, they will be able to compare and contrast how the author or playwright addresses the Essential Questions with the poet and and the author/speaker of the quotation. Ultimately, students will have to answer those Essential Questions for themselves, but they now have three different guides to help them along the way.