Essays

Basic Requirements - Reasonable Argument - "Station" - "Station" and "Tales" - Scratch Outline - Outlines - Moulin Rouge! - "Elephant Love Medley" - “All You Need is Love”

Basic Requirements

Essays will be marked for content and expression. You must also express yourself grammatically and in the proper format — coherent paragraphs for the commentaries, and the traditional academic structure for the essays. Saying what happens in the text doesn't get you many marks; it merely shows that you've read the text and understand the basic points about it. 

In your essays you must make interpretations and arguments — not just summaries and observations. Also, give specific support for your interpretations and arguments. If you say that something occurs in a text, show where, how, and why. Back up your points with specific references to the text.

For an 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.” 

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Reasonable Argument

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 the singer 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"

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in a crowd;

Petals on a wet black bough.

Sample Essay

Stopping to Smell the Roses

The meaning of Pound’s poem must take into account the title, since the human and natural images in the two lines are in obvious contrast to the industrial setting mentioned in the title. Where Pound’s metro station is located isn’t clear, yet a quick glance at Wikipedia shows that the poem was written in 1912, and was based on an experience he had in the Concorde metro station in Paris. The generic nature of the location in his title — “a station in the Metro” — doesn’t make the reader think about a particular location — the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower — but about characteristics shared by all metros: technology, noise, crowds, people waiting, cars roaring in and out of the station, sudden gusts of air, etc.  

Pound creates a contrast by suggesting that the station is a mechanical thing while the faces and petals are natural things. The difference between the station and the people is highlighted by the word “apparition.” This is not a word used for the perception of ordinary things, whether they are static (like a sign reading “Concorde”) or dynamic (such as a car rolling into a station). Rather, “apparition” is a term used for the sighting of a spirit, ghost, or supernatural being. Pound thus suggests that he sees the petal-like faces as entities on a different, perhaps higher, plane. Whether this higher plane is emotional, spiritual, or aesthetic is not specified.

Another possibility is that Pound suggests a comparison or similarity between the station and the people. Just as the station is one entity composed of many elements, so the people in the crowd are one entity. The mechanical world of the station might even be seen as a living, breathing entity — a bough of people with petal faces. In this case, the ‘lower’ physical and the ‘higher’ emotional levels become blended on the aesthetic level, that is, in the perception of beauty. The petals are neither mechanical nor human, and can therefore serve as an aesthetic medium connecting the inert to the living. Perhaps Pound is suggesting that if we can transform anonymous faces into petals, we may be able to transform a subway station into a place of beauty.

Pound leaves us the choice—to be apart from, or to be a part of, the industrial world around us. The ambiguity of his imagistic, concrete poetry allows for either interpretation. Yet one thing is sure: in order to appreciate his poem, we must take an active role in discovering its meanings. Unlike many of the ads we might see on a subway platform, these twenty words do not urge us to buy something, but to think about the possibility of beauty in the world around us.


Comparative Essays

In comparing texts, try to find some common feature, whether it’s stylistic or thematic. For example, both Hamlet and Macbeth explore the highest form of betrayal: a subject killing someone who is both a friend and a king. Then see how — and why — the texts work differently. In Hamlet the betrayal is more intimate, since the murderer betrayed his own brother (who is also Hamlet’s father), and since the murderer also insinuates himself into Hamlet’s private life — going so far as to spy into his romantic relation with Ophelia. This gives Shakespeare a chance to explore the psychology of a character who is traumatized by the death of his beloved father, the re-marriage of his mother, the treachery of his uncle, and the destruction of his romantic relationship. In Macbeth on the other hand, the person betrayed is a king who may be a friend yet who isn’t as intimately connected to the protagonist. Yet the murderer in this case is the portagonist. This gives Shakespeare the chance to explore the psychology of a killer — his motive, his guilt, and the destruction of his soul.

"Station" and "Tales"

Here's a sample essay comparing Pound’s short poem, “In a Station of the Metro” 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.

Scratch Outline

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. 

Outlines

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).

Moulin Rouge! 

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 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. 

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Introduction - Contents - Outline

SCHEDULE: Week 1-7 - Week 8-14