Windows and Doors
A Poet Reads Literary Theory
Publication Year: 2014
Published by: University of Michigan Press
Series: Poets on Poetry
Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page
I started writing poetry the first time I read contemporary poetry, in seventh grade. That is when I remember thrilling to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Not Shakespeare or Tennyson or Poe with their antique diction and fair ladies—rather, a woman who spoke to me and who made me want to talk back. The germ of the book...
Many friends, colleagues, and students have helped me think through the issues of this book. Lisa Katz was crucial to its conception and commented on most of the drafts. Linda Kauffman helped me turn the idea into a project. Madeleine Mysko made the text more coherent and readable, as did Helen Hodgson...
Roots in Our Throats: A Case for Using Etymology
Every piece of writing depends on two language tools—diction and syntax—tools so basic that writers often don’t think about them. But poets in particular need to pay attention to syntax and diction. While the teller of a story may successfully employ very...
While animals communicate using signals that refer to whole situations, syntax is unique to human beings. Animal calls (birdsong, for example) can be continuous analogue signals or a series of random variations one a time, but my cat’s meow while standing in front of his empty food bowl differs from Oliver...
Rhythm and Repetition in Free Verse, or, the Poet as Witch
In a highly influential set of lectures later published as a book, How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin inaugurated what is known as speech act theory.1 He divides spoken language in two categories: “constative speech acts” that say...
Gertrude Stein’s Granddaughters: A Reading of Surprise
It’s said that Elizabeth Bishop’s pet toucan was named SAM, as an acronym for the three qualities in poems she prized most: spontaneity, accuracy, mystery. Of course, what readers perceive as spontaneity may be the product of deliberate and intense labor...
Metonymy, the Neglected (but Necessary) Trope
Medieval rhetorician Peter Ramus lists only four important tropes: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche (a part for the whole, which later commentators subsume into metonymy), and irony.1 Metaphor has received by far the most critical attention, and is also the trope most closely connected with poetry, as for example...
“Why Must It Always End This Way?” Narrative Poetry and Its (Dis)contents
There are four modes of poetry—story (narrative), song (lyric), description, and argument. We know that individual poems may combine these modes. An epic narrative, for example, contains description, and a lyric refrain may have an embedded argument...
A Sexy New Animal: The DNA of the Prose Poem
Over the last fifty years or so, the prose poem has produced much critical wringing of hands. Michael Riffaterre, for example, calls it “the literary genre with the oxymoron for a name.”2 And yet when we define those terms—that is, when we subdivide the genus and species, as it were—we do manage to make the...
Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems
A collection of poems is sequential, not simultaneous like visual art, but many times when readers open a book, they don’t read the poems in the order they have been arranged. Does it matter, then, how a book of poems is organized? What goes into the shaping of a book, and what is the effect of that shaping on the...
Performance of the Lyric “I”
I once polled my poet friends, asking if they remembered the first poetry reading they attended. Karen Garthe remembers hearing Robert Creeley at Goucher College when she was a high school student, deciding then and there that she wanted to write poems herself. Another friend recalls being struck by Galway Kinnell’s...