Essays - Critical Approach - Reasonable Argument - "Station" and "Tales"
"I Will Follow You into the Dark" - "Elephant Love Medley"
Essays are similar to commentaries in that they make an argument about the text, they analyze (rather than observe or summarize), and they provide proof from the text. Essays, however, are longer and more detailed. They're also more elaborately structured: they have an introduction, a thesis statement, and a conclusion. For a more complete explanation of essay structure, see the CS section, “Essay Structure.”
The essays you write for this class are short, so I suggest writing a very short introduction. If you end the body of your essay on a final or concluding note -- i.e. one that compares the poems or underscores your main point -- you don’t need a conclusion. Examples of this can be found in the following sample essays on “Station” and “Tales” and on “I Will Follow You into the Dark.”
Remember that there’s no right answer or single way to interpret poetry, which tends toward ambiguity. However, be sure to make an insightful, rigorous argument, and to support your argument with analysis and with specific references to the texts.
AVOID SUMMARY AND OBSERVATION
The biggest problem students have is summarizing or making observations when they should be making arguments. If you’re repeating content, or if you’re explaining something that’s obvious to an educated reader, then you’re not making an argument.
Keep in mind that your audience is me. Don’t supply general background information about the author or text. Instead, get immediately to your argument.
You aren’t required to use outside sources. If you do, however, make sure to document them according to MLA or APA format. See Purdue University’s OWL site for excellent interactive explanations and style guides. Be sure to look at OWL section “Using Research.”
In this first-year class I emphasize practical criticism. You’re free to bring in other angles or approaches — as long as you interpret the text itself and don’t spend alot of time on outside context. Only bring in outside context if it helps you interpret the text. Practical criticism is
an academic procedure devised by the critic I. A. Richards at Cambridge University in the 1920s and illustrated in his book Practical Criticism (1929). In this exercise, students are asked to analyse a short poem without any information about its authorship, date, or circumstances of composition, thus forcing them to attend to the ‘words on the page’ rather than refer to biographical and historical contexts. This discipline, enthusiastically adopted by the Cambridge school, became a standard model of rigorous criticism in British universities, and its style of ‘close reading’ influenced the New Criticism in America. (Oxford Quick Reference -- oxfordreference.com)
This following illustrates my emphasis in this class:
(Authorial Intention) (Postmodernism)
Biography + Reader Response + Gender
Geography & History
& Close Reading
Genre: poetic mode + music & video
Explication de texte* + Structuralism
* “explication often involves a line-by-line or episode-by-episode commentary on what is going on in a text. While initially this might seem reasonably innocuous, explication de texte, and explication per se, is an interpretative process where the resulting new knowledge, new insights or new meanings, are open to subsequent debate and disaffirmation by others” (“Explication,” Wikipedia).
Make sure that your argument is backed up by the text. If you make an argument that's clearly contradicted by part of the text, then the argument becomes unreasonable. This doesn't mean that you should stick to the most obvious meanings; explore the ambiguities and subtleties, but make sure that your interpretation is backed up with specific references to the text.
If you suspect that your argument's too far from the text, take a good look at the way it's backed up. Are you taking one word or meaning and stretching it out of context? What other words and meanings in the text back up your interpretation? If you find that other parts of the text back up your argument, then it's reasonable -- as long, of course, as there's no part of the text that clearly contradicts your argument.
For instance, one might be tempted to argue that "No I in Threesome" is about having a baby (as the third person to complete the threesome) as a solution to their marital malaise. One blog asserts this and students might be tempted to argue this. It's possible to make this case, yet it's an awkward stretch that deflates much of the internal movement, subtlety, and shock value of the lyric. To see the threesome as mother, father, and child ignores the obvious meaning in the title, and doesn't explain why he emphasizes that they should do what they want despite what other people might think or believe. To see the threesome as group sex on the other hand makes sense of the singer's build-up, his reluctance to state his real solution, and his insistence on their own free will. One can force the baby interpretation into the lyric, yet your time would be better spent exploring the subtle imagery and the rhetorical finesse which is required by the more obvious meaning of threesome.
"Station" and "Tales"
Here's a sample essay comparing Pound’s short poem, “In a Station of the Metro” (see Commentary Samples) to Cream’s lyric, “Tales of Brave Ulysses.”
I've put in bold the thesis statement and topic sentences. While this isn't common practice, please put them in bold for your take-home essays.
The Doors of Perception
“Station” is like a snapshot stopping the moving world to focus on beauty, while “Tales” is like a video taking us from this earth to far-off realms of sky, sea, and myth. Both poems use abrupt, puzzling shifts in setting and psychological states, yet “Station” encourages a grounded, positive shift in perception while “Tales” hints at the dangers of not keeping one’s feet on the ground.
The shifts in both texts are abrupt and illogical, yet they make sense on visual and emotional levels. In “Station” the poet shifts quickly from faces to petals, which are both oval and both stand out from their backgrounds. The mechanical world of the station might be seen as a living, breathing entity—a bough of people with petal faces. The word “apparition” is usually reserved for ghost sightings, yet here it urges us to see the ordinary world with a heightened sense of mystery. “Tales” also contains a sudden shift—from a “leaden winter” to a world where nature is alive with colour and light: the singer takes a steamer “to the violence of the sun” and to “the colours of the sea.” On the surface this is illogical, yet it makes sense that he would yearn for sun if he’s stuck in a grey, “leaden” winter. To escape his boredom or depression, he needs a radical departure, something that will rip him—almost violently—from the ordinary. The agent of this ripping may be drugs, yet it may also be the fantasy of living the type of dangerous, sensual life lead by Ulysses. The Greek hero is perhaps the epitome of adventure: he won the Trojan War, made love to goddesses, battled monsters, endured the excruciating song of the sirens, and became Western culture’s most famous traveller.
The imaginative leap in “Tales” is mythic and dangerous, whereas the leap in “Station” is aesthetic and life-affirming. Although the singer wants to take Aphrodite (the goddess of love) back with him to “the hard land of the winter,” she is at best an impossible fantasy, and at worst, a mortal danger. When she drowns him “in her body” this may indicate either good sex or depression and death -- perhaps the type of gruesome death promised by the mythical “sirens sweetly singing.” Or, if the poem’s about drugs, this could indicate overdose. When she carves “deep blue ripples in the tissues” of his mind this may mean he’s enjoying deep pleasure or that she’s slicing him up, driving him crazy. Either way, the promise of a colourful escape into the world of sensuality and myth turns negative.
By contrast, Pound keeps his readers in the real world so that they can find beauty in the here and now. Neither mechanical nor human, the petals become an aesthetic medium connecting the inert station to the sentient commuters. While Pound writes his poem in 1920 Paris, he avoids any overt reference to love the City of Love. And while Pound was in fact a Classical Greek scholar, he avoids Greek myth completely. His aim is aesthetic, the love of beauty, not the exploration of myth or romance. He blends the physical and the emotional in the aesthetic, suggesting that if we can transform anonymous faces into petals, we may be able to transform a subway station into a place of beauty. His poem stops us in our tracks, and gets us to smell the roses. “Tales” on the other hand offers a larger canvas containing love and myth, yet also a subtle warning about the danger of shifting too precipitously into a world of fantasy.
A good outline can be very helpful. It allows you to see at a glance how the different parts of your argument fit together. A scratch outline contains 1) a thesis statement and 2) topic sentences. A full outline contains 1) a thesis statement, 2) topic sentences, and 3) point form lists beneath each topic sentence (these lists contain—in abbreviated form—the specific proof you will use to support your arguments).
Scratch outline for “The Doors of Perception”
Both poems use abrupt, puzzling shifts in setting and psychological states, yet “Station” encourages a grounded, positive shift in perception while “Tales” hints at the dangers of not keeping one’s feet on the ground.
The shifts in both texts are abrupt and illogical, yet they make sense on visual and emotional levels.
The imaginative leap in “Tales” is mythic and dangerous, whereas the leap in “Station” is aesthetic and life-affirming.
By contrast, Pound keeps his readers in the real world so that they can find beauty in the here and now.
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark”
Paint It Black
“I Will Follow You Into The Dark” is simply written yet gets at deep emotions. In the chorus and the three main stanzas, the singer addresses a loved one who’s about to die. He promises to follow this person into the afterlife. The song’s not accompanied by any complex background music, and the singer’s voice is serious and sincere. Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspective, narrative, metaphor, and image -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.
While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity. Most of the words are monosyllabic (and thus create the illusion of simplicity), yet the stanza leaves us with mysteries, intriguing us and making us feel the challenge and adventure in what he’s proposing. The spatial details are clear and simple: he will be “close behind” her after she dies and he will “follow” her “into the dark” (I am assuming it is a female, although it could be a male). Yet where is this “dark”? He gives different ideas about where it might be, yet he eliminates these possibilities, and ends up with the same simple notion he started with. This may be appropriate, for who really knows what (if anything) comes after life?
The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death. The first word is “No” and the two settings he describes are typical, if not stereotypical: “blinding light” and “tunnels to gates of white.” The singer replaces these with the image of them holding hands—desperately, as if they were making a lover’s leap into the darkness. Yet he isn’t suggesting suicide, for they’re waiting for “the hint of a spark”—which isn’t a very clear reference, although it does rhyme with “dark” in the earlier and later stanzas. The rhyme works, for it juxtaposes the two words and the two ideas: the light that a spark gives is a small yet optimistic alternative to the dark. It also might hint at more light to come, for a spark can also light a fire. At least it’s better than a black nothing.
The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations. In the first three lines of the chorus he combines the cosmic settings of Heaven and Hell with the ordinary setting of a hotel or motel. He suggests that the big capitalized Systems don’t care about her. There may even be an indirect reference to Jesus and the manger, for when Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place to stay, they were allowed to stay in a barn. Yet here Heaven, or the Christian system in which Jesus supplies the Grace that opens the door to Heaven, doesn’t let them in. Heaven and Hell “decide” to close their doors to the woman, just as a motel manager might put on the “NO” before the “VACANCY” sign. Perhaps this is because the woman doesn’t believe in religious doctrine, or perhaps the doctrine isn’t open enough to accept those who have different points of view. In any case, we once again come back to “No,” to a negation of the traditional afterlife scenarios.
The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death. After the woman dies, her soul will “embark.” This leads us to rethink what seems like a rejection of spirituality in the previous lines, for at least he believes she has a spirit or soul (we are never told what her beliefs are). This makes sense of the previous idea—that even though he doesn’t expect she will encounter a bright light or a tunnel, he thinks that there will be a “spark” of life that remains after the body dies.
The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs. We see why he chooses mystery and ambiguity over religious doctrine: his Catholic schooling was as strict as “Roman rule” and it emphasized fear rather than love. The strict ‘lady in black’ is a betrayal of Mary, Mother of Grace, so it’s no wonder he rejects this betrayal and focuses on love instead. All of this explains why he earlier rejected the traditional Heaven and Hell scenario. He ‘never goes back’ to a traditional way of thinking, and chooses instead to broaden his vision by travelling with his beloved all over the world, from “Bangkok to Calgary,” that is, from a country that is completely foreign, to another North American city closer to Gibbard’s home state of Washington.
This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric. That the soles of her shoes are worn down suggests that her body is worn down, to the point where death is about to overcome her—which is emphasized by the word “now.” The “sleep” he refers to is the sleep of death, as in Hamlet’s famous “To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub, / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause…”. This ‘rub’ is not some vague possibility, for she is at the moment of death, of ‘shuffling off her mortal coil.’ Yet she does not have to face this alone, which is the point of the poem: death may be terrifying, yet she is not alone. Love doesn’t depend on time, place, or school of belief. As the pagan Latin poet Virgil wrote two thousand years ago, love conquers all.
At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond. He says that he will stay with her in “the blackest of rooms,” just as he says earlier that he will hold her hand and wait with her for a “spark,” that together they will pass by the “NO VACANCY” sign, and that together they will look out from the dock onto the dark waters. The song ends with a return to the idea of darkness, in this case the “blackest of rooms.” Black conjures the dark mystery of death, and also perhaps the sadder, darker, deeper feelings he will soon experience in the room as her body goes cold. As her soul vanishes into the obscure darkness, he will wait in a similar darkness, lost in mourning, waiting for a spark.
Sample Scratch Outline
Paint It Black
Despite the song’s apparent simplicity, it’s complex mix -- of perspectives, narratives, metaphors, and images -- deepen our understanding of the poet’s resolve to follow his lover into the dark, uncharted territory of death.
1. While the vocabulary and the spatial details in the first stanza are relatively simple, they hint at the puzzle of death’s obscurity.
2. The first stanza also offers an alternative perspective by rejecting traditional ways people describe death.
3. The first chorus shifts our attention from two rejected clichés to two mini-narratives which introduce more complex situations.
4. The next three lines of the chorus suggest a different narrative involving a nautical metaphor for death.
5. The final two stanzas supply a sustained narrative that explains the singer’s reasons for rejecting traditional beliefs.
6. This reference to travel and places leads to the image of worn shoes, which is at once realistic and metaphoric.
7. At the end of the song, he uses the colour black to reassure her that he will be with her till the end, and beyond.
All You Need is Love
In the “The Elephant Love Song Medley” the poor, idealistic writer Christian and the business-like courtesan Satine are drawn together into an almost magical world. The unity of this romantic world is created by the lyrics, which are increasingly integrated, and by the setting, which suggests intimacy and freedom.
Luhrmann uses increasingly integrated lyrics to unite the pair, who literally and metaphorically start off on different notes yet end up on the same note. Initially, Satine speaks prose words at odds with the poetic words Christian sings: Christian uses a famous line from the Beatles, “All you need is love,” to which Satine responds -- without rhyme -- “A girl has got to eat.” Satine then drops the prose and starts to sing in poetry, yet she continues to contradict him: Christian sings a line from Kiss, “You were made for loving me,” to which Satine responds, “The only way of loving me, baby, is to pay a lovely fee.” Note that although she contradicts Christian, she's entering into the way he's communicating. We can see that Satine is coming around to Christian's point of view when she contradicts him using lyrics from the same song he sings. Finally, she looks out into the night sky of Paris and initiates a new song: “Some people want to fill the world / With silly love songs.” Christine responds, “Well, what's wrong with that? / I'd like to know.” She thus starts a song which she knows to have an argument which starts off against love songs, yet which ends up in favour of them.
As they near the end of the medley, their interchange becomes more and more integrated.They sing in increasing unison the lyrics from David Bowie's “Heroes.” The lyrics are about living love “just for one day,” which is appropriate to the story, since Satine has a terminal illness and they won't have long to spend together. At the end of the medley they're singing the same words in harmony, Satine's higher voice floating above Christian's lower voice -- highlighting the female-male opposites as well as the attraction of these opposites. They then sing Whitney Houston's line, “I can't help loving you” in three parts: Satine sings “I,” they both sing “can't stop loving,” and Christian sings “you.” The final lyrics they sing are from Elton's John's “Your Song,” which Christian sang earlier in the film to Satine the first time he expressed his love for her. At that time, she was moved, yet she didn't enter into a medley duet -- also, she was under the illusion she was conversing with a rich Duke. This time, she knows who Christian is, and she initiates the same Elton John song: she sings “How wonderful life is,” and he then completes the line by singing, “when you're in the world.”
The setting of the scene also unites the pair by creating a romantic atmosphere, which encourages intimacy and freedom. The lights of Paris (often referred to as 'the city of love') sparkle in the distance and the night-time setting suggests the couple’s intimate seclusion -- away from society's notions about either high-class prostitutes or bohemian writers. Christian moves freely on top of the elephant that holds Satine’s bedroom, suggesting to Satine that they're free to do what they want. He demonstrates to her that no one can stop them when, after she yells for him to get down, he remains on the dome of the elephant’s head. Her life as a courtesan is beneath them, and for now they're close to the heavens and stars, breathing in the fresh air of the vast Paris sky surrounding them. The words, the music, the romance of Paris at night -- combined with other aspects of the setting -- such as the heart-shaped doorway that implodes into glittering fragments -- all suggest that Christian's romanticism will outweigh Satine's practicality in the end.