Sample Language Analysis and Commentary

“Language is the dress of thought.” —-Samuel Johnson

Here’s a dress for thought: Viktor and Rolf bring a new interpretation to an old masterpiece.  You can check out their exhibition at the NGV this summer.

victor-rolf
Viktor and Rolf: Wearable Art (Couture Fall/Wintor 2015-16), images based on Dutch Golden Age paintings of the 17th century, such as ‘The Threatened Swan’ by Jan Asselijn, 1650 (Rijksmuseum)

 

Not to your taste? It’s conceptual, brother.

Speaking of conceptual, remember that this task is all about discovering and explaining how writers present things through their choice of language in order to influence the audience (make them feel, think or act in a particular way) to in turn persuade them to accept their point of view.

Keep this concept in your head and you should not be phased by this section of the exam.

By now, you will have read Vyom Sharma’s comment piece in The Age dealing with gambling.

Now read the sample-language-analysis-and-commentary-on-gambling-comment-piece , which I wrote.  You will not be given an article so long nor be expected to write so much in the 25 minutes you are required to spend on this task in the exam, however it should give you an idea of the nature of the task and of the kind of things you should find and comment on: the process and results of analysis.

Not sure of the process (how to get there)?  Check back to the table related to the gambling article.  You will find the process pretty clearly stepped out there.

 

 

 

Diving Deep into Rosewater: analysis

INDIVIDUAL PASSAGE ANALYSIS SKILLS PRACTICE

  •  Choose a passage of your choice and analyse it for features of a satire:
    • generalisation
    • incongruity
    • parody
    • exaggeration
    • inversion
  • Complete a table of examples and their effect.

PAIRED PASSAGE ANALYSIS SKILLS PRACTICE

  • Read your partner’s passage and annotate the text for the features of satire.
  • Share your findings with one another and mark your partner’s table of examples and effects.  Query by adding a question mark to any points which are contested or uncertain
  • Come up with a set of statements (at least four) about Vonnegut’s beliefs or message:

“Vonnegut suggests that….”

Essays: show what you know

quote-between-the-idea-and-the-reality-between-the-motion-and-the-act-falls-the-shadow-t-s-eliot-226845

What is the difference between the idea of an essay and an essay of ideas?

It’s often tempting to begin an essay with this question in mind: ‘What do I (read: my teacher) want my essay to sound like?’  If you answer this question with , ‘Like an essay,’ then chances are you are going to use vocabulary and phrases which you can string together to make your essay sound like an essay.  EssayspeakWorse still, you might answer this question with: ‘Like I know what I’m talking about when actually I’m not at all sure.’  This is going to be a very mysterious read for anyone seeking knowledge and understanding of the thing about which your are writing.

These students are focusing more on sounding like an essay rather than presenting their knowledge or understanding:

The main idea that the poem seems to revolve around is a very important one…

The poem is one that describes an old man in relation to his surroundings in a very imaginative way….

Plath uses this technique as many readers can relate to this.  She does this extremely well and it helps her get her point across to the reader.

 

So, what if you being with the question: ‘What do I know or understand and how can I show this in my essay?’  Notice the focus here.  Assume we can all communicate our ideas in writing (the ‘essay’ bit of the task), and instead the focus is on what we know or understand about the subject matter of the essay.   Guess what?  An essay is simply sharing your knowledge and understanding with others in writing.  So the focus should not be about appearing to write an essay but rather the knowledge and understanding that is being communicated by it’s very nature is an essay.  The quality of the student’s thinking is the focus; how that gets written up is secondary to the content.

Remember that an essay is your big ideas about others’ big ideas and how they are presented.

In short:

 

ACTIVITY

  • Re-read one of your essays.  Highlight those sentences where you have used ‘essayspeak’ without showing any knowledge or understanding specific to the text at hand.  Rewrite them to show what you know.

 

Frame and Focus: getting poems in the picture

017_frame_focus_photo_point-512

Take a photo of your class quickly using an ipad camera.  The image will most likely have some problems: not everyone will be in the frame; not everyone will be in focus.  Take a second photo of the class and take the time for the ipad camera to find its focus and for you to ensure that all students are in the frame.  The resulting photograph will undoubtedly be better. You will be able to zoom in on the detail of a student’s facial expression to interpret their mood from their expression, or zoom out to interpret the mood of the class as a whole.

Now take this theory (which involves giving time to the subject matter and the skill) and apply it to unseen poetry analysis.

Focus: You need to know what the poem is about or what happens in it.  This is the subject matter of the poem – the bit that you need to lock onto and get an idea of.  Extract these details (make some notes) and have a think about them as you re-read the poem.   Sometimes taking them out of the poem and making a little list will enable you to make connections between them more easily than searching for them each time in the poem as you read through it.

Frame: Make sure you have the whole poem in your sights.  Your analysis should have breadth.  Ignoring parts of the poem because they don’t immediately make sense is an unwise decision.  It is more than likely these parts hold the key to unlocking some of the complexity of the poem and the poet’s message.  Think back to poems we have done in class: they often begin with the easier, concrete details and move into figurative language which deals with more abstract, complex ideas.

Zoom in: this is what you do when you look at the little details in a poem; turns of phrase; word choices; similes, metaphors, personification, repetition, sibilance, alliteration, assonance, ellipsis, end-stopped lines, caesura, enjambement, rhyme, rhythm (the list goes on).  You job is not to ‘spot the device’; your job is to take a closer look at the language and explain its intended effect.  We zoom in to find evidence to support our interpretation of a poem.  Once you have these quotations, use these questions to get to word-level analysis:

  • What does this suggest?
  • What does the speaker (or writer) think or feel about this?
  • what does the author want us to think or feel about this?
  • Are there any other instances in the poem that link to this idea?

Zoom out: this is what you do when you try to identify the ‘big ideas‘ in a poem.  These could be things like beauty, identity, loneliness, love, power, relationships (between whom?), one’s past, one’s sense of self, evil, honesty etc.  There are so many you couldn’t imagine them all.  Reading the poem,  you should get a feel for the ‘big idea/s’.  Re-read the poem and look for clues to support your theory.  The clues to these big abstract things are in the concrete details in the poem.  To zoom even further out, you need to get to this big question:

What is the author suggesting about [the big idea] and what this suggests about what it means to be human?  Yes, it’s a wide zoom out but you’re only going this far because you have all the evidence there in the detailed zoom in.

So the secret is to READ.  Relax and RE-READ.  This is where diffuse thinking is important.  Your first idea or theory (‘it’s all about cancer’) may not have enough evidence to be supported.  You need to be open to variations on a theme.  The poem may well be about adversity, relationships and facing the idea of death but these themes could feature in a poem about exams as much as one about illness.  You don’t have to come up with a concrete answer or harebrained theory.

Test your thinking by re-reading the text.

Take the time for the poem to come into focus. You won’t be able to do this kind of thorough thinking about each of the three poems you have to choose from in the exam, so make a decision in reading time and choose the one that seems clearest to you.  Use your WIG:WIDGY ratio to determine the one which you ‘get’ the most.

How does this look when you start thinking about a poem?  Read Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poem God’s Grandeur and then look at the notes I have made on the focus and frame sheet which helps me to remember the zoom in (little details) and the zoom out (big ideas) of the analytical thought process.

God’s Grandeur in the frame

Then, the question is how to write this top-class thinking up?

You will use a traditional text essay structure and write in a formal register.  No-one wants to hear an account of how you felt when you were reading the poem (none of this kind of unedifying drivel: “At first I thought this but then I thought that.” Save it for your diary, kiddo.)  Instead you will have an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion.  You will write in the present tense; despite the fact that you poet may be deceased, he or she lives on in the poem they have written.

INTRODUCTION:

Remember that this is the ‘sucker punch‘ of your essay.  It knocks out the examiner with its insight and clarity.  The examiner should be left a little breathless, if you will.  It’s show-what-you-know time before you step them through how you got there.  This is no time for treading-water-while-I-think writing which shows zero understanding of the poem in question (e.g.”There are lots of different themes in this poem and using many different poetic devices the poet presents a powerful message.” Garbage.)  This is also no time for withholding information like a whodunnit novel or for teasing the examiner with an elaborate dance of the seven veils.  This is sucker punch time: OOF!

An introduction should signpost:

  • the poem and poet
  • the focus of the poem
  • the poet’s message (your big idea about their big idea/s)
  • the speaker of the poem’s views and values (explaining the big idea might get you here)

BODY PARAGRAPHS:

Use your common sense here and take your cues from the poem and its subject matter.  Your body paragraphs can follow:

  • the poem’s ‘big ideas’
  • the stages (or stanzas) of the poem
  • the poem’s focus (subject matter) and how we are positioned to view it

A body paragraph should:

  • have a strong topic sentence which shows understanding of the poem/poet’s purpose and message (your big idea about their big idea)
  • present evidence (quotations) of the way the audience is positioned to view these things
  • draw our attention to the complexity of the poem: its use of technique or its presentation of an idea
  • make observations of the language and structure
  • link structure and language to the way an idea is being presented and how that links to the ideas presented in the poem as a whole
  • draw connections across the text: compare and contrast and connect
  • draw connections between the focus of the poem, the big ideas and the little details
  • provide a nuanced interpretation.  Avoid the oversimplification of the poem-in-a-nutshell approach:

e.g. ‘This poem is all about love.’  [Mic drop]

Instead, look closely at the ideas presented and show a refinement of understanding:

e.g. ‘This poem is a celebration of the precious nature of love between siblings and at the same time a warning of how the loss of a parent can compromise that bond.’

  • get the poetic devices terminology right (don’t misuse a term)
  • avoid praise and criticism (this is really about ascertaining what the poem/poet sets out to do, not how well they do it)
  • avoid personal journey language or vague expressions that tell the reader nothing of your understanding (“I really liked this – it makes the poem flow better and provides a deeper understanding”)

CONCLUSION:

You should come back to the poem’s message in light of the evidence you have presented.  You can look at the big picture here too – what the poem suggests about [the big idea] and what it means to be human.

 

 

 

Poetry Analysis: think before you write

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker

  1. Read the poem first, slowly, taking care of the punctuation. Remember that the end of a line of poetry may not be the end of a unit of meaning, a thought, an expression.
  2. Look up any unfamiliar words and write their meaning above the word on the poem.
  3. Form a theory – what do you think the poem is about?
  4. Annotate: What I get/What I don’t get yet.  The bits you don’t get are likely to be important.  Don’t ignore them; take the time to ponder them. Come up with a theory to test on your next read-through.
  5. Read the poem again. Annotate  using the question: ‘What does this suggest?” to interrogate each unit of meaning (reading between punctuation) and hopefully support your theory!
  6. Annotate the poem using the question: ‘What does the speaker of the poem think or feel or do?’
  7. Annotate the poem using the question: ‘What is the reader supposed to think or feel or do about this?’
  8. Highlight the evidence from the poem (words or phrases) – look at the poetic techniques being used and how that contributes to the poem’s message or impact.
  9. Think about HOW the poet achieves these things or WHY they create the effects they do.
  10. What does the poem  suggest about what it means to be human?

Now you are ready to write up your response in a concise piece of prose.

HOW DO I STRUCTURE MY ANALYSIS?

Introduction: identify the purpose of the poem – the poet’s subject matter and message and a brief outline of the intention of the poem so that you can outline how this is achieved in more detail.

Body paragraphs: Use your common sense when organising your response.  You could allow your paragraphs to follow the structure of the poem chronologically (stage by stage) – this may not be delineated by stanza or line but by units of meaning (read between the punctuation!).  Your paragraphs might be based on the presentation of key people, places or ideas in the poem, or by the structure itself.  You will PEE on your work, naturally.

Point. Evidence. Explanation.

 (or an alternative acronym if you are more genTEEL)

Your analysis will get to word-level.  This is not an essay to spot poetic device; this is to provide an interpretation of what the poet is communicating and how and why the poem is so written.  You will quote key words and phrases and link these to the poem’s message and the poet’s techniques.

Conclusion: return to your introduction’s assertion – sum up how the poet’s intended impact is achieved and place this in a broader context: what the poem might be suggesting about what it means to be human.

 

GET THINKING

What does this suggest?”

‘What do I get/What don’t I get yet?’

What does the speaker of the poem think or feel or do about…?’

‘What is the reader supposed to think or feel or do about….?’

‘How does the author achieve this?’ (techniques, language choices, structural features)

‘What does the poem suggest about what it means to be human?’

Essays: not as easy as ABC, 123

Sure, Michael Jackson and his brothers were pretty confident when they sang ABC but they weren’t talking about writing text analysis essays.  Or were they?

A common misconception is that an English essay just needs to reflect the topic back in some way.  Like a ‘paint by numbers’ activity in the diagram above, this approach  involves identifying different elements in the topic and then writing a paragraph on each, slapping a generalised introduction and an even more generalised conclusion on either end.  Bingo!  You have a very run-of-the mill essay.  It may not present a coherent, insightful interpretation but it shows the student has read the topic and found evidence in the text which matches it.  This approach will merely illustrate the essay topic, much like the painting above is a mere illustration of the numbers diagram, rather than someone’s original, independent interpretation of a house in the snow.  An essay like this might only ever get a C+ or B grade at best.  The content won’t be wrong but the thinking won’t be very right.

This painting is a more nuanced interpretation of a house in the snow.  You know you want a more nuanced interpretation of the text you are studying so let us see how this might play out when we start to think about  Macbeth.

A possible essay topic might read:

”This dead butcher and his fiend like queen’.  To what extent do you think this is an accurate assessment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?’

A ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach would be to structure an essay question in this way:

Main contention: Yes, Macbeth is definitely a ‘butcher’ and Lady Macbeth is ‘fiend-like’.

P1 Macbeth kills Duncan = butcher

P2 Macbeth kills Banquo and Macduff’s family = butcher

P3 Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits = fiend-like

Thinking=meh.

Notice how the main contention offers a very simplistic yes/no response to the question. The main contention should be a student’s ULTIMATE ANSWER. Notice how the paragraphs merely seek to illustrate the topic’s key elements.  The supporting arguments need to provide an interpretation of the text.

A more sophisticated essay plan responding to the same essay question might look like this:

Main contention:  Although Macbeth has a conscience when hesitates to kill Duncan and experiences guilt after murdering Duncan and Banquo, he is most definitely a butcher by the play’s end while Lady Macbeth presents as a woman capable of being fiend-like when she is Macbeth’s partner in crime however her demise is pitiful.  She dies mad and guilt-ridden and Malcolm’s assessment of her as having evil power at the play’s end does not ring true.

P1 Macbeth resists the idea of killing Duncan and is troubled by his actions, both in killing the King and later Banquo, which suggests his conscience prevents him from merely ‘butchering’ those who stand in his way.

P2. Macbeth does become a butcher by the play’s end because he becomes impervious to his conscience and doggedly pursues he course of action to the end which includes ordering the killing of Macduff’s family in a brutal, bloody manner.

P3.  Lady Macbeth demonstrates her fiend-like capacity when she calls on the evil sprits to make her capable of goading Macbeth to kill Duncan and when she is able to present as unperturbed by the crime to the court.  It is when we see her madness emerge later that we understand that her freedom from guilt was only temporary and she dies more wraith-like – powerless.

Notice how all the key elements of the topic have been interpreted for the benefit of this essay – this student is officially ‘doing more with the topic’ which is teacherspeak for THINKING.  This main contention is an ULTIMATE ANSWER.  It sets the terms for the essay – the interpretation.

The ‘to what extent’ part of the question is answered in the main contention by considering where or when in the text it might be true or untrue and qualifying their response.  In this example the main contention is basically this: it is true for Macbeth (though not at the play’s beginning) and it is not true for Lady Macbeth (though true at the play’s beginning).

The topic sentences all go part of the way to answering the topic.  Each stage demonstrates knowledge and understanding and goes beyond the deceptively simplistic essay topic.

This second essay plan shows that the student has weighed up all their ideas first before settling on their interpretation.

Remember that these are only the bones of the argument.  The student would have to flesh these out with quotations and analysis – explaining the significance of the language of the quotation in the light of their interpretation of the text.

See?  Not as easy as ABC, 123, do re mi…but much more meaty (if you will allow me a butcher’s expression).