BRACKETS: A Book Of Poems In Which We Are Defined By Our Choices And Directed By Their Consequences

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For example, it may be an archetypal Romantic exploration of man and nature. In this it can be helpful to say something about the mode of the poem and identify its genre or form if you can. For example, is it rhetorical, contemplative or close to a song? Is it narrative or descriptive? Is it an elegy? Is it a sonnet? A commentary should be concerned with the passage or poem as a whole, but it should also show the development through the passage or poem.

This means that an appropriate structure for writing a commentary may be to follow this development. To do so in an illuminating way will very likely involve paying attention to the compositional structure of the passage or poem: What is the compositional movement through the passage or poem?

As you write your commentary you should be looking to illuminate the theme or themes or mood or emotion that the passage or poem illustrates and explores. This is not just a matter of identifying the theme but also of looking at how it is presented. How does the theme develop? How do contrasting themes relate? Is the theme typical of the story as a whole? When you refer to the passage or poem, this should be done clearly and succinctly by reference, for example, to first, second etc. You do not therefore need to quote large sections from the text.

In a story or novel, the theme of the passage may be linked to characterisation. In this case you should consider not only what is revealed about a character but also how this is done, and maybe relate this to other aspects of the passage too. In general, in prose you need to pay particular attention to questions of narration: What is the role of the narrator?

Is there direct or indirect interior monologue? How does irony function in the passage? What is the role of dialogue or description? What is the significance of the key words or motifs? Is there any use of imagery? Are there any metaphors or similes? What is their significance? Are they standard or original? Are there any other tropes — exaggeration, paradox etc.? When looking at style in terms of lexis and syntax, you should consider what kinds of word are being used and their register. Does one particular part of speech play a particularly significant role? Are there a lot of adjectives or verbs?

Is the lexis conversational? How does the choice of words relate to characterisation? In terms of syntax, pay attention to sentence type and structure. Are there questions or exclamations? Is the syntax simple or complex or convoluted? If you are studying the texts in translation, it may be difficult to comment on aspects of style. If the translation is a good one, however, it may be possible to draw attention to the tone and register of the language, as well as the rhythm of the passage as a whole.

In Cummings' 'may I feel said she' Complete Poems , p. Taken as a whole the poem develops sinisterly towards a sexual possessiveness in the woman, a possessiveness which is unexpected because the gender boundaries have been consistently defined in the poem with woman as innocent and emotional "is it love said she" , and man as dominant and lust driven "let's go said he".

The structure of the poem with its alternating masculine and feminine lines, the first demanding forward movement, the second hesitating, has its axis in the doubt expressed by the woman about the propriety of an affair:. In the lust of the encounter such doubt becomes forgotten, and the woman is a joint accomplice in the forward drive of "don't stop said she". A complete reversal of roles occurs in the final two lines. Now the man sees intercourse in spiritual terms whilst the woman becomes dangerously possessive, with the suggestive capitalisation of "Mine" implying that sex, for the woman, is a type of religion, but one of ownership rather than spirituality:.

Although the man is placed first in the alternating lines, we realise that this structure gives the woman the final say. This critical response to the poem contrasts with what occurs when the lunulae are subtracted. Now the text reads, almost logically:. The alternative structure, in which the male line frames the two thoughts of the woman, offers a more balanced gendering.

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Both male and female make requests of the other. The man asks to 'feel', to be allowed to stay, only if the woman is willing; the woman responds, 'it's fun' and 'go slow'. There is no sinister interplay of dominance and hesitation and the final line of this alternative, without the 'Mine', turns divine into an adjective which relates solely to the woman, and is therefore a positive complement, rather than being seen suggestively in the context of lust replacing religion.

This technique of segregating the lunulae from the poem ought to be a dangerous one, because it clinically dissects the poem into something away from its original form. However, because it is a technique Cummings endorses in his careful structuring of the alternative verse, it is a valid one to carry out here. Although the poem must primarily be read in a normal, linear mode the fact that the second 'poem' has an integrity of its own enables re-construction of an alternative, the direction of which is diametrically opposite the gender terms of the whole.

These are not lunulae which we may decide spontaneously whilst reading to maintain or dissolve, but are lunulae which we are invited to deconstruct and therefore read either one poem or another. This invitation to work with the lunulae, rather than simply accepting what the poet has written occurs in Harrison's poem 'The Heartless Art' Selected Poems, p. The penultimate stanza forces us to modify the lunulae which makes a mockery of the poem as an elegy:. The reader is referred to footnotes at the bottom of the page - respectively "how you stayed alive", "4th" and " In doing this, we must re-enact the inert form-filling with which the nurse registers Seth's death.

It is a grotesque action because it abuses our sensibilities about the pre-formed nature of poetry, or any art work, which should explain in itself rather than expecting us to do the writing. Both here, and in the fission of methadone into syllables, the first of which conveniently rhymes with death, poetry becomes a heartless art because it constructs rhyme from the facts of death rather than using death as an inspiration for creation.

Rather like Marvell's 'Bermudas', here Harrison allows the facts to guide his chime rather than making the rhyme act as oratory to his subject. The lunulae force us to deconstruct poetry before we can read the poem. When we have done this, we observe the poem as a failed "in memoriam". Its intention was to repay the debt Harrison owed Seth, who showed him the workings of machinery, by illustrating the mechanisms of poetry.

Although Harrison does this, because he writes the poem after Seth's death its original intent is eliminated and poetry is therefore reflected back on itself rather than with a view to another audience. We sense that the final stanza ought to be parenthetical but instead it is the crux of the poem. The poem fails to reach its intended recipient and we become both voyeurs of a private piece and protagonists in creating the poem and in creating exposing the failure of poetry to work at an elevated level. Harrison needs to be published, to write that poetic form, the 'memoriam', expected of all poets and his poetry is designed for broadcast not privacy.

It has ambitions beyond its own self-contained pretensions to beautiful aesthetic. Becoming a poet has therefore compromised his humanity and poetry, although a creative act paradoxically is one of detachment from the human in its incessant aesthetic demands. Harrison exposes the greasy science of poetry in which rhymes are stored and engineered.

By completing the lunulae we enact the poet's quest for a rhyme from any source and at any cost, even compromising the humane. Just as with Cummings, to fill in or detach the lunulae is absurd because by doing so we annul the whole point of writing and reading. We become locked in a hermeneutic circle of action, which debars all emotion such that to act is to deconstruct poetry, and therefore to expose the heartlessness of poetic action.

In a reversal of what Cummings suggested, since syntax is first, who pays any attention to the feeling of things? The lunulae as used above serves to demonstrate the raw technical methods behind poetry. In another method, although the structural aspect is not foregrounded, the lunulae exists as a space in which the poet suggests that his or her poetry may not be fully accomplished, and dramatises a failure to completely capture an idea and to convey it succinctly.

It suggests the impossibility of controlling the imaginative spirit which inspires writing. As suggested in Clarke's poem the poetic, public voice may follow a different thread from the personal, private imagination and so in a sense any lunulae, by containing something tangential, suggests a hyperactivity of the imagination which prevents the poet maintaining a consistent reasoning. Indeed, the lunulae has often been used to suggest the poet's doubt about the integrity of his poem although Elizabeth Bishop takes this to the extreme.

In her poem 'The Weed' Complete Poems , p. The poet is dreaming that she is dead and that, though dead, she is still capable of meditating whilst the uncertainty of her location expressed by the 'at least' in the lunulae establishes the poem as fantasy. The allusion to Coleridge's 'This Lime Tree Bower my Prison' suggests that this is a poem in which the imagination will project movement whilst the physical body remains still. There is a constant growth and motion in the weed and the heart but the restless vitality contrasts with the inactivity, emphasised through the doubts expressed in lunulae, of the poet in response to this psychosomatic intrusion.

She notes that "Its green head was nodding on the breast. Because of the dark the green quality of the weed must be constructed by the imagination, not by external measurements. The reader is unable to relate the metaphor to anything physical and empirical. Indeed, even the heart is not described in the first person as necessarily belonging to Bishop. The poem's internalised, imagined system prevents our gaining of a definite intent in the poem. The denial of resolution is finally accomplished by the lunulae which undermine even the imaginative basis.

If the weed is the creation of the poet's imagination, what are we to ground it on if that imagination and the poetic system used to represent it is itself shown to be unstable? The final lines turn the ambiguity of what the weed represents into a paradox about poetry as an artefact:. Here the internalisation is completed. The stream is weed-deflected, not deflected by anything tangible, and the weed has no external purpose but to divide the poet's heart. The dichotomy between stream and drops elsewhere in the Bishop canon, for example, 'Man Moth', drops and tears are used to suggest precious moments of containment of some emotional or imaginative spirit suggests that the river represents a total understanding of which the weed, its "heavy drops" as "my own thoughts?

If the poet herself is not certain if the weed originates in her thoughts, how can we know that the poem actually means anything? Given the internalised system of representation and action established by the poem, there is no clear origin for the poem. The context of the relationship between signifier and signified is unstable because all that is signified is imaginary and the signifiers, the words, are themselves incapable of describing what is occurring because the poet herself lacks perception.

When her imagination which replaces perception is itself shown to be uncertain of its own nature, as expressed in the private doubt of the lunulae, the poem's meaning self-destructs. The final ambiguity the lunulae promotes depends on the way a poem is performed and the different responses to the lunulae which will be generated depending on whether we discover them audibly or visually. Because this is dependent on personal preferences, not every recipient of a poem will discover the effect of the parenthesis when spoken and it is therefore only a potential, rather than intrinsic effect.

The characteristic of the lunulae in the twentieth century is that it comments on the act of writing. Importantly, however, the act of writing is different to the act of speaking and whilst a lunulae can be written, it cannot be spoken.

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The lunulae lose their unique containing quality and become conflated, like a homophone, with other forms of parenthetical idea such as the line break or the comma such that it cannot be made clear to the listener that the poet is consciously marking something out as being parenthetical. If the lunulae is a private space for the poet to express doubt about poetry, in being dissolved private and public distinctions must also vanish. The lunulae encapsulate a qualification which undermines the credibility of the superficially forceful tone. The first lunulae is remarkable for it is the first time that the qualities of a lost object are described and elaborated.

There is a sharp contrast between the growing enormity of the things Bishop loses - albeit metaphorically, rivers and continents - and the sudden minute summary of identity here. By using description, against the trend of the poem and in a line which barely fits as a pentameter, Bishop breaks the mould she has created for herself.

It is losing not some thing, an object, but someone, a subject, that matters. Paradoxically, however, there remains an inadequacy about the description. Whilst Bishop has broken her design she does so in lunulae, a space conventionally reserved for emphasis and examples which support an argument already stated, and the fact that there are only two details, the latter of which is harshly split across lines, implies that the sum of the subject is more than what is admitted.

By saying something against the structure of the poem, but by saying very little, there is suggestively an enormous amount left unsaid. The awkward structure of the final stanza, with its extra line, its use of the antiquated "shan't" instead of "isn't", the qualification and repetitive "too hard to master", and the intercluding lunulae disrupt the regular integrity so apparent in the tight two-rhyme scheme of the preceding verse. This shift in tone, the struggle to maintain superficial poetic form against an underlying and deep emotion is confirmed by the final lunulae, " Write it ".

There is an ambiguity of its meaning, the two parts of which depend on how we maintain the lunulae when read, but dissolve the lunulae when spoken. Taking the grammar literally leads to a positive reading. We substitute the first "it", which refers to the "art of losing", to the "it" in the lunulae, in which case the sense can be paraphrased as:. However, this positive reading to which the grammar invites us contrasts with the inadequacy of expression implicit in the first lunulae. If Bishop has achieved a victory in reconciling her personal loss through the medium of words, it is a pyrrhic one because it has sacrificed representation of the human for textual summary, just as 'The Heartless Art' does.

The substitution of the ambiguous 'its' can only occur when the poem is seen and retrospectively criticised. Alternatively, we can work against the grammar, and here the challenge the performed lunulae makes is enacted. Because we can observe the page, see the poem as an artefact, we see also the potential truth of its statement. The art of losing is defined for us and can be achieved and mastered.

Although it may look like disaster, it cannot be disastrous because here the poem is, created, and all we need to do to master loss is to write it down in a similar way, to re-enact the poetic process. Once we read the poem aloud, however, this relationship between mechanism and result is removed and we are kept one literary step away from the solution the poem suggests; we can never master the art of losing because to do so we must and the italics enforce this as imperative, not optional write rather than listen. The lunulae Write it can lead backwards, as occurs in the first reading but also forwards, because of the repeated like.

To make a pause between "like" and "write" and to remove the pause between "it" and "like" is to turn the sense to mean, 'Write it like disaster'. Whether such a mode is intended is impossible to know as there is no evidence to suggest that Bishop wrote the poem for an audience.

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Thus the effect of reading the lunulae aloud may be unconscious. Indeed, it might be read privately in a similar way but the effectiveness of the alienating effect is doubled when the lunulae is read aloud. The lunulae make a double challenge to the pragmatic advisory effort of the poem. On the first reading the lunulae suggest a defiant achievement, although one which also forces a suppression of problematic emotions.


On the second reading, in which the lunulae dissolve, this failure becomes explicit and the drama of the poem is not the public mastery of loss but the private knowledge of a poet who knows her 'Art' cannot achieve its ambitions. The alternative interpretation created in speaking the lunulae is not unique to Bishop, although 'One Art' is remarkable in the way in which it draws attention to the many levels of literary control of the emotions. Geoffrey Hill's long poem Speech! Depending on the preference of the speaker the meaning can shift from the aggressively dismissive - 'one cannot have any sex fantasy, whatever it involves, as the final answer to life' - to the more open - 'one cannot have sex fantasies, anyway, as the final answer to life' - implying that there might, at least, be an answer to the "question how to end".

Other moments of vocal play recur throughout the poem. However, Hill's most imaginative use of the lunulae comes in the second of his 'Two Formal Elegies: For the Jews in Europe' Collected Poems , p. Here the lunulae shift dramatically emphasis when received aurally. As in The Waste Land, the first lunulae acts as a visual metaphor of enclosure:. Contrarily, the second lunulae acts at the opposite of enclosure, implying an infinity of irresolution:.

By placing an ellipsis in parenthesis, Hill suggests a closed and permanent loop of played scenes of destruction.

Parentheses and Ambiguity in Poetry of the Twentieth Century

The one-way barrier made by the first lunula brings us into the line of the poem and then we are forced to return perpetually to the start of the line by the ellipsis and the open question and the closing lunula, and hence re-enact the replaying deaths. The lunulae functions as a kind of valve, allowing us in and keeping us there. Clearly this is an effect of which we are deprived when the poem is read aloud, and the sentence stands more definitively as a statement of what is seen, rather than a recreation of the effect of that sight.

Finally, by closing his poem on a parenthesis, Hill proposes the problem of formal remembrance as man has constructed it:. In the sonnet form the last line, here provided by the lunulae, traditionally provides a sense of resolution. By denying this - by ending on a question, in lunulae, with a word outside the rhyme scheme - Hill defies the logic of elegy.

His question is parenthetical, because it goes against the conventional and settled mode of remembrance in which "sufficient men confer". By challenging established wisdom Hill prevents any sense of satisfying judgement. However, when read aloud the visual properties of question and brackets, which demonstrate Hill's poem to be functioning tangentially to humankind's usual forms of remembrance, become lost.

The question achieves a greater level of explicit defiance and the sentence tends to a political demand rather than personal lament. By working against the tradition, Hill's final lunulae, unlike in most of the other poems discussed above, actually reasserts poetry's ability to challenge conformity and to forge new arguments which may reproduce a human empathy in our systems of representation. Empson condemned italics in poetry for being vulgar, since "a well constructed sentence should be able to carry a stress on any of its words and should show in itself how these stresses are compounded" Empson, p.

It might be argued that the lunulae has a similar coarseness because it stresses that something is parenthetical rather than allowing us to work this out for ourselves. Certainly it is possible to create ambiguity by forcing the reader to determine at what level of activity a word or phrase is working, that is to say how parenthetical or fundamental a word is in the general argumentative trend.

However, if we treat 'unsignificantly' as an unpunctuated parenthesis, one which functions as an aside against the general movement, the word has ironic connotations. Clearly for Icarus it is of great significance that the sun has melted his wings. Enabling such a decision making process through the elimination of guiding punctuation is something we other poets such as Emily Dickinson achieve. However, the lunulae is not vulgar because it creates ambiguity, rather than resolving it.

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The parenthesis in poetry might be better termed 'par-antithesis' for it expresses, through being the private space for a poet's thoughts, a tangential movement to the rest of the poem, even whilst being integrated in it. Lunulae therefore undermine, perhaps partially but often fundamentally, the integrity of the surrounding verse. Where the essence of a poem is to illustrate something about the nature of poetry the ability of the lunulae to suggest disharmony is something to be exploited.

By shutting an admission of poetic failure, in the sotto voce private space implied by a lunulae, off from the rest of the poem which, presumably, seeks to engage us with its success, the lunulae is a still, small voice which is often more powerful in the boldness of its reappraisal of the poet's art than the loud, superficial explications of the rest of the poem. This scepticism about artistic achievement is a defining quality of the modern and the lunulae, by questioning the coherence of the poetic imaginative process, re-asserts the dynamism of the poem of the mind in the act of finding, if not in its resolution.

John Lennard, in his comprehensive examination of the parenthesis, takes a broadly socio-historical approach, demonstrating how the use of the lunulae has been affected by cultural attitudes to the printed word, for example, to denote sententiae or to indicate attributions of speech and the practical necessities of the printing process.

Inevitably in such a prosaic subject area there is going to be some overlap of ideas.

There is, for example, no escaping from the fact that Eliot is the first modern poet to use the lunulae outside of its traditional boundaries. However, I hope to adopt a psychological rather than historical line and suggest how the lunulae has been used to indicate a psychological instability and complexity which therefore contributes specifically to ambiguity of meaning in poetry and, further, how such complexity even tends to the paradoxical such as to question the completion of the poetic act itself.

Although sometimes even this can be problematic. Ironically, the aphorisms might be also seen as denoting sententiae in a return to the seventeenth-century usage of the mark. See Facsimile and Transcript, p. This enforces the idea that the lunulae is consciously acting in a way outside the normal. Thus such a poem might also have latent in it some form of third-type ambiguity, in that two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously.

Hence it is a convenient metaphor for death, which is seen as an infinite rather than unified space. Hugh Kenner has suggested a similar problem exists with the footnote which is in itself a peculiar form of parenthesis:. He is wrong to suggest that "parentheses, like commas, tell the voice what to do" because in being spoken parentheses, or rather lunulae, become conflated with other forms of caesura such as the comma.


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