Language: Word Choice and Order Visual Imagery and Figures of
Language: Word Choice and Order Visual Imagery and Figures of
Diction: the poet’s word choice, determines not
only meaning but just about every effect a poem
Denotation: a word’s unambiguous “dictionary”
Connotations: a word’s emotional implications
and the associations it evokes. Precision of
denotation may be just as impressive and
productive of special effects as the resonance or
ambiguous suggestiveness of connotation.
Syntax: the way the sentences are put together.
What is the situation in this poem? Is there more than one
How does Roethke make the situation ambiguous?
Look at diction, word order, syntax.
What words make it sound like this is an enjoyable,
What words make it something OTHER than an enjoyable
Based on the details in the poem, what do you know about
Economic status? Social class? Father’s occupation?
How does the speaker feel about this ritual with his father?
How does the mother feel about it?
How old is the speaker?
What is the tone of the poem?
How do you explain the title?
William Carlos Williams is sometimes referred to as an “imagist” poet.
While Williams did not subscribe to all of the tenets of imagism and was not
very involved in its founding as a poetic movement, he published some
poems in imagist anthologies and his work certainly shares some of the
imagists’ aesthetic goals and values. Imagism emerged in the early
twentieth century with the objective of producing poetry that used only
precise, clear language to reveal “the essence” of its subjects. The
imagists, a sometimes contentious group of poets led at different moments
by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell, were committed to what they called “direct
treatment of the ‘thing’” and to a rejection of all sentimental or imprecise
language. In some ways, imagism mirrored early twentieth-century
developments in the visual arts, such as the cubist paintings and collages of
artists like Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, and the work of
modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz. Imagist poets were also
profoundly influenced by the spare beauty they found in traditional
Japanese art, poetry, and drama. Williams’s poetry tends toward an
imagistic compression of language and a focus on concrete, precise images.
He characterized his own approach to poetry in his famous maxim “No ideas
but in things.” As we discuss“The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to
Say,” consider the status of objects in the poems and the presentation of
“things” within them.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,”
what information is left out
of the poem? Are you left
wondering about the
speaker, the setting, and the
How would you describe the
tone of “The Red
The speaker of “The Red Wheelbarrow” tells us
immediately that “so much depends upon” the
wheelbarrow, but he never actually specifies what
exactly that “so much” is.
What do you think the speaker means? What is it that
“depends” on the wheelbarrow?
When asked about the composition of “This Is Just to Say,” Williams
claimed that it was an actual note that he left for his wife after eating
some plums: “It actually took place just as it . . . says here. And my
wife being out, I left a note for her just that way. . . .” Critics have
often understood this text as a “found poem”—that is, a poem
composed of words and phrases borrowed from another, nonpoetic,
text that have been rearranged or reframed as poetry. The poet, for
example, might refashion language found in an instruction manual, or
a political speech, or on a street sign, and then present it as a poem.
(A recent example of found poetry is Hart Seely’s 2003 publication of
Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department briefings as The Existential
Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld.) In “pure” examples of found poetry, the
poet changes spacing and adds line breaks but leaves the words of
the poem largely in the order in which they appeared in the source
text, with few additions or omissions. Sometimes, however, poets will
add or delete words, or will combine phrases from multiple source
texts into a single poem. The “found” quality of “This Is Just to Say”
introduces questions about the poem’s speaker and its intended
reader(s) and opens up a wide range of interpretive possibilities.
Who is the speaker in this poem?
Who is the intended reader?
In “This Is Just to Say,” line 9 asks the addressee
to “Forgive me.” Is this poem meant to be an
apology? If so, how sincere is the speaker’s
What clues does “This Is Just to Say” provide
about the relationship between the speaker and
the addressee? How would you describe their
If time, list to Listen to This American
Life’s funny appreciation of “This is Just to Say.”
What figurative language is in this clip?
Figurative language: language that uses figures of speech.
Figures of speech: any word or phrase that creates a
"figure" in the mind of the reader by effecting an obvious
change in the usual meaning or order of words, by
comparing or identifying one thing with another; also
called tropes. Metaphor, simile, metonymy, overstatement,
oxymoron, and understatement are common figures of
Simile: a figure of speech involving a direct, explicit
comparison of one thing to another, usually using the
words like or as to draw the connection, as in "My love is
like a red, red rose." Ananalogy is an extended simile.
Metaphors: a particular figure of speech in which two
unlike things are compared implicitly—that is, without the
use of a signal such as the word like or as—as in "Love is a
rose, but you better not pick
Extended metaphor: is a detailed and complex metaphor
that stretches across a long section of a work.
Controlling metaphor: a metaphor which dominates or
organizes an entire literary work, especially a poem. In
Linda Pastan’s "Marks," for example, the controlling
metaphor involves the use of "marks" or grades to talk
about the speaker’s performance of her familial roles.
Mixed metaphor: occurs when two or more usually
incompatible metaphors are entangled together so as to
become unclear and often unintentionally humorous, as in
"Her blazing words dripped all over him.“
Personification: a figure of speech that involves treating
something nonhuman, such as an abstraction, as if it were
a person by endowing it with humanlike qualities, as in
"Death entered the room."
From childhood on, Emily Dickinson led a sequestered and
obscure life. Yet her verse has traveled far beyond the
cultured yet relatively circumscribed environment in which
she lived: her room, her father’s house, her family, a few
close friends, and the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Indeed, along with Walt Whitman, her far more public
contemporary, she all but invented American poetry. Born in
Amherst, the daughter of a respected lawyer whom she
revered (“His heart was pure and terrible,” she once wrote),
Dickinson studied for less than a year at the Mount Holyoke
Female Seminary, returning permanently to her family home.
She became more and more reclusive, dressing only in white,
seeing no visitors, yet working ceaselessly at her poems—
nearly eighteen hundred in all, only a few of which were
published during her lifetime. After her death, her sister
Lavinia discovered the rest in a trunk, neatly bound into
packets with blue ribbons—among the most important bodies
of work in all of American literature.
At the time of her death in 1886, Emily Dickinson—today considered
one of America’s greatest poets—had published only ten of the
almost 1,800 poems she had penned. Instead, Dickinson made use of
an unusual form of self-publication, copying drafted poems into
bound packets of folded, unlined paper, each containing around
twenty poems. Scholars refer to these handwritten booklets as
“fascicles.” The fascicles have provided fodder for many literary
critical debates about Dickinson’s work: scholars have debated the
significance in which the poems are arranged, the punctuation and
spacing of words within poems, and Dickinson’s practice of including
notations for alternative words and phrasings within particular
poems. No printed text of a Dickinson poem can accurately capture
its appearance in handwritten form in her fascicles, so editors and
publishers have had to make difficult decisions about how to
reproduce the poems in print. Early editors often insisted on
regularizing Dickinson’s punctuation, assigning titles (Dickinson left
all of her poems untitled), and rephrasing lines they considered
ambiguous or controversial. Some poems, particularly those which
have many alternate versions in the fascicles, have had convoluted
“[Because I could not stop for Death]” does not have as complicated
a publication history as some of Dickinson’s other poems, but it has
appeared in different forms at different times.
Where is the speaker? What is her situation? How is
she presented? What sort of person is she?
How is “Death” characterized in this poem?
What words are capitalized when they normally
wouldn’t be? Are these words emphasized? How are
readers to understand them? Given the form of the
poem, are there any words that you would have
thought would be capitalized but aren’t?
What role do the em dashes play in this poem? How
important are they?
What are the implications of silence in “[Because I
could not stop for Death—]”?
What sort of details does the speaker of this poem
notice? Are these important? Why is her perspective
somewhat obscured or confused?