Category Archives: literary understanding

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize…”

I love an image that depicts an image, especially an image that depicts a strong image. This poem, I am told, has many of those.

Most often when we use the term “image” we’re referring to something that is visual. Literature depends for much of its impact on the skillful deployment of images; the reader’s emotional and intellectual experience is created by the pictures evoked in the mind that create or give depth to the events and emotions presented by the writer. The image affects the “mind’s eye,” or sometimes the mind’s ear or nose or fingers. So it’s fortunate that the poem my student is describing has a lot of images—or, rather, that it has a lot of images that depict strong images—and that they’re easy to visualize: that is, they are clear and accessible to the reader.

(She does say the images are “strong and easy,” where she actually meant “strong images that are easy to visualize,” but we will assume her intentions rather than her sentence structure and say Yes, good, lots of strong images that are easy to visualize, glad you commented on that!)

Here’s the whole sentence, though:

“There are many images in the poem that depict strong and easy images to visualize, such as ‘you walk by faith in the darkness.'”

She is being conscientious here, following her general statement with a clarifying example.

Except that the example does not offer clarification, beyond the clarification that she’s really not sure what an image is, or what visualizing involves. “Faith” isn’t an image, although I guess if it had been capitalized the reader might imagine “you” walking alongside a friend named Faith… Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” comes to mind… but here the word “faith” is an abstract term for a whole range of ideas and absolutely no pictures.

And I guess I can visualize darkness—actually, visualizing darkness is a component of a get-to-sleep exercise I sometimes engage in—but most writers would try to present an actual image to help the reader imagine the quality or character of that darkness, not merely say “darkness,”: I don’t know, “black as the pit from pole to pole” springs to mind, thanks to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” memorized back in the eighth grade. See, now, that’s an image, and largely for that reason the line lingers in the mind.

Student writers often try to pump up an idea or a reading beyond what it deserves or can bear. Such was the case here, where my student had chosen for her analysis essay a poem by a sincere beginner, a poem that was a poem by virtue of its short lines, not the experience offered to the reader, and the poet a beginner who had not yet learned that poetry is much more about showing than telling. This poem spoke throughout in terms like “generosity,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” “love”… the only actual image in the whole poem was “trembling hand,” and that was meant literally. But the assignment asked that the analysis include a discussion of the poem’s use of imagery, and so my student did her best to engage in such a discussion, rather than comment that this poem actually lacked imagery, instead leaving the reader to give substance to a list of abstractions through his or her own experience or insight.

So I, as the reader of her essay, am left with this image, a picture of someone walking by faith in the darkness:

Image of darkness


“As a parent he clearly does not want to watch his son dig his own grave.”

Well, this is figurative language, or ought to be. Someone knowingly behaving badly, making unhealthy choices, is “digging his own grave.” This figure has been nicely turned in recent years by writers concerned with overeating: they say gluttonous eaters are “digging their own grave with a spoon.”

But the way this student uses the phrase, the figurative language loses its  poetic dimension and offers only a bizarre picture to us: Sonny is busy out back digging his own grave, and Dad doesn’t want to watch.

I’ve written frequently about the case of the ex-pro football-playing father killed his son to save him from the miseries of drug addiction. Students grappling with this case do tend to get lost in verbal tangles. Figurative language offers itself up on the sacrificial gridiron and is scorched beyond recognition. This example is just one of many.

Here, my student was right: the father believed his son, who had quit high school varsity sports and spent most of this time lying in his room listening to music and smoking marijuana or drinking “cheap wine,” was dooming himself to a slow and horrible death in some skid-row crack house. The son refused all offers of help with his “problem,” and of course Dad believed that the end was inevitable. Sonny was digging his own grave with his drop-out tune-out behavior. But my student’s earnest desire to emphasize this parental fear and filial self-destruction literalizes the sentence. Suddenly, Sonny is in the backyard digging his grave, and Dad is standing by the kitchen window, occasionally peeking out and then pulling the curtains closed again, not wanting to watch the digging. Clearly not wanting to watch. As a parent, and all.

Note that he does not want to watch. The sentence, though, makes no suggestion that Dad is trying to stop his son from doing all that digging. “Go on and dig,” he may have said to his son; “just don’t expect me to watch!”


“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side…”

As promised, the other Medea horror.

In this version, my student makes King Creon out to be just about as selfless as Milton’s Adam, who accepts the apple from Eve and takes a bite so that whatever her fate may be, he will share it.

Creon really isn’t that kind of guy. He bosses Medea around and is quick to exile her, has no problem marrying his daughter to someone who’s already married, and is, like Creon of Thebes, full of himself. Euripedes certainly didn’t make him self-sacrificing or suffused with paternal love for Glauce.

But my student does:

“Her father, Creon, decides he will lie by her side and soak in the poison as well.”

My student conjures up a puddle of poison for Glauce to lie in (has it dripped down from gown and crown?), and then brings in Creon and stretches him out to share the bath—or to help her sop it up. Will he SOAK in the poison, or soak IN the poison? I’m not sure it matters much, except maybe to Creon. Can’t you just see him there, deciding to lie by her side? What alternatives does he consider before making his choice? “What shall I do, what shall I do?” he dithers; then, finally, “Ah! I will lie down and soak in the poison.” And is it sympathy that drives him, or jealousy? (“Why should she get all the attention?”)

In actuality, Creon does run to his screaming daughter and embrace her. But his intention is NOT to have his own flesh burned off upon contact with her poison-coated skin. Maybe he thinks he can save her; maybe he just wants to rock her and murmur “There, there.” But he doesn’t know that that one loving impulse is going to doom him to a horrible death. Ah well. Fate, the gods, and all that.

I’ve never liked either Creon much, and that may be why I don’t see the scene with the sympathy my student brings to it (or at least seems to bring to it).

I just wonder if Medea knew her poison would destroy so many of her enemies. She may be something of a monster, but to me she’s the aggrieved party, and a lot more sympathetic than any of those spoiled, self-centered Corinthians. I’m with her: “Let the whole house crash.”

Ah, excuse this bitter tone! It’s the middle of Finals!


“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as…”

My student felt the need to assure us that Cotton Mather’s position on witchcraft, although not spelled out, is clear enough to those who take the time to think about it.

For some reason I am immediately reminded of the story of Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” asked by his wife what the minister’s sermon one particular Sunday had been about. “Sin,” replied Coolidge. “What did he have to say about sin?” pressed Mrs. C. “He was against it,” replied Coolidge. (Coolidge claimed this story wasn’t true, but it’s still wonderful.)

Some positions don’t really need to be specifically expressed, and Cotton Mather’s (nay, the whole Puritan society’s) position on witchcraft was one of them. In short, he was against it. Reading Mather’s copious accounts of witchly visitations, laden as they are with vivid and judgmental language, one cannot miss his condemnation of such activities.

My student presents this idea in a rather distracted way, though:

“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as though he is against witchcraft and is strongly against it.”

We can find many grounds for distress in this one little complex sentence, but they are not equally distressing. “States” is always an unfortunate choice anywhere but in an objective news story; we have so very very many good verbs that offer information, energy, conceptual relationship, and judgment, not just the fact of uttering. “Stance” is okay, but aurally odd after “states” (in fact, it sets me up to expect a third term: “he never states his stance on stunts,” for example). The passive voice of the main clause saps the energy further while exempting the writer from any complicity in the judgment that will follow. “As though” should be “as that”: otherwise, the student has destabilized the sentence’s syntax.

Any of these weaknesses could legitimately be pointed out to the writer, but I generally try to give priority to the lapses that actually undermine the meaning and overall effectiveness of the sentence.

And here the highlight is the interpreted stance itself, presented (by means of the “and”) as two positions but most likely only one: against it, and strongly against it.

Now, we might entertain the possibility that the writer is trying to create emphasis here: Mather is not merely “against” witchcraft; he is strongly against it. Perhaps the repugnance in the general population is a given, and Mather’s goes beyond it.

Well, perhaps. But I really think this is just one more sentence where the writer got lost…and to which he never returned with a proof-reading eye. Just as he typed “and,” did the phone ring, or a dinner date arrive, or a sudden brief coma descend? Then, on returning to task, to room, or to consciousness, did he simply pick up where he had left off, going forward from “and” without looking back to see what had already been said?

In any case, he offers this as an interpretation of Mather’s unstated stance. Here’s what I hear: “Mather never really tells us how he feels about witchcraft, but I can make a good guess: he was against it. And I interpret ‘against’ to mean ‘against’—in fact, ‘strongly against.'”

If I’m right about this student, then he wouldn’t be the first who, asked to “interpret” something, merely rephrased it. Or restated it.

Alas.

Himself, looking for witchcraft (which, by the way, he’s against). Image: widely available; here, Wikimedia Commons.


“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair…”

The plural “gods” suggests (accurately) that he was writing about the Greek and Roman gods, who certainly did play a part in humans’ affairs, and frequently were the humans’ affairs. Zeus in particular was pretty busy in the affair department. Less literally, many of the other gods took sides in human conflicts and manipulated events to suit themselves, or their adherents (or whoever had provided the most fragrant barbecue).

Readers who admire Hector and have little sympathy for Achilles in The Iliad tend to feel strongly about the gods’ meddling. They are probably inclined to find it unfair.

My student isn’t just taking sides, though; he has a good reason for his opinion:

“Gods play a part in humans’ affairs, which I think is unfair because they are inevitably immortal and won’t be affected.”

I agree with him! Intervening in a situation in a way that is sure to victimize—perhaps severely and irrevocably—one side may sometimes be justified; but when the intervenor knows all along that he or she cannot be harmed in the process or as a consequence, “unfair” is a word that can reasonably come to mind.

What gives a reader pause here is the word “inevitably.” Perhaps my student meant “invariably”? Actually, if the lore, legends, and teachings are to be believed, not all gods are immortal. Pan dies. Nietzsche even proclaimed of the great Western god (although he and countless thinkers since have made the statement far more nuanced and complex than it sounded), “Gott ist tot.” Ragnarök gets rid of them wholesale. So, depending on the god or gods one chooses, that immortality may not be “inevitable.”

And usually when we say “inevitably,” we imply that efforts have been made or could be made, all in vain. So have any gods tried to avoid being, or stop being, immortal? We might mention Jesus here, but his death was the precondition for his resurrection and therefore although painful, risk-free. Yes, death certainly affected him in the moment, and changed his physical being; but it didn’t alter his immortality.

Would my student yell “NO FAIR!” at someone who claimed to “have God on our side”? Should we recall all those championships and medals won, according to their winners, “with God’s help”? Didn’t they have an unfair advantage?

Next time some god shows up at your house wanting to kibbitz, should you tell him or her to move along and stay out of the affairs of mortals, “go back to your own kind”? Well, being human, I’d probably feel that my side was the right side, and welcome the aid of the divine to make sure things turned out “right.” That would be only fair.

Worked for Achilles.


“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other…”

Since my student must have known the Wife of Bath was an Englishwoman (the course was British Literature I), he should also have known he didn’t need to specify “one after the other” about the husbands: polyandry was not practiced in England, at least as far back as we have literature or legends.

He may have meant that as soon as one husband died she was on to the next, which is true—in fact she had #5 lined up at the time of the funeral of #4. So I’m not really going to quibble over whether the “one after the other” was necessary to the sentence.

One of the most colorful and memorable characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife is a great combination of lustiness and propriety, passion and calculation, sincerity and mischief, romance and cynicism. She debates biblical passages with some of the clerical pilgrims, arguing eloquently—if not fully in keeping with Church doctrine—that God intended human beings to engage in sexual activity, and to do so for pleasure as well as procreation, and that therefore chastity may be admirable but isn’t appropriate for the non-perfect and is furthermore a waste of the organs of generation. She is confident that multiple marriages are acceptable with God, citing the many wives of Solomon and Abraham; but she complains that the Bible isn’t clear about exactly how many husbands a woman may have, since Jesus scolds the Samaritan woman at the well for having five husbands but doesn’t say she shouldn’t have had four. (The 5-husband question is her misreading of the biblical story, but let that go.)

At any rate, my student wasn’t going to stop his statement before providing an explanation. Here’s the whole sentence:

“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other, in order to have consistent sex in life.”

Now, first of all, I can say with certainty that that “in life” is unnecessary: Chaucer makes no hint of necrophilia or heavenly copulation.

I also generally try to discourage students from writing “in order to” when a simple “to” will do, and this is one of those cases.

But the real gem in the sentence necklace is that “consistent.”

Yes, the Wife enjoys sex, and her sex drive is one of the impelling agents in those marches up the aisle. But if we look at her husbands one by one, as she invites us to do in her Prologue, we learn that the first three husbands were quite old (and rich), and in those marriages she withheld or awarded sex to get what she wanted from each: personal liberty, nice things, and the upper hand. Husbands 4 and 5 were young men, 5 the youngest. But #4 kept a mistress and could only be managed by making him believe his Wife was also sleeping around, and #5—whom she married for love—lectured her about holiness in women and then beat her. She finally tamed him by accusing him of trying to murder her for her money (ah, that money that she had married her way into…).

Tell me, is this “consistent” sex? He probably meant that she wanted nonstop access to sex and therefore had to keep a husband in her bed; but by her own report she deployed her sexuality strategically, and that would at least imply an ability to tolerate dry spells. “Consistent”  is most commonly used to mean “free from irregularity, variation, or contradiction,” and hardly applies to the quintuple Husbands of Bath.

I wish my student had been content to write “The Wife of Bath had five husbands” and then go on to comment on her general sex drive (she was, Chaucer reports, gap-toothed, a sure sign of lecherousness!) and her ability to manipulate men by way of it. He would have been more efficient, more clear, and more accurate.

Of course he would have deprived me of some delicious moments picturing a conveyor belt leading to the Wife of Bath’s bed, and on that conveyor belt five rampant gentlemen, as alike as gingerbread boys, being carried to her for her consistent pleasure.


“Achilleus is pist.”

This statement antedates spellcheck, or at least the spellcheck feature that underlines dubious words. The writer is clearly oblivious not only to his spelling error but also to his error of diction, or tone.

With great energy, simplicity, and confidence, my student is writing about The Iliad, that stately epic poem about war, glory, and loss. Together with The Odyssey, it defines the epic—not only its form and subject but also its stature. Heroic, that’s what an epic is supposed to be, in every dimension.

So my student reads about the rage of Achilleus that follows on Agamemnon’s autocratic and self-centered distribution of the spoils of war—and of Achilleus’ “prize” woman in particular. This anger is so great that despite his hunger for glory in battle, and despite his supposed loyalty to the Greek confederation that has come to Troy to take back Helen, the kidnapped wife of Menelaus, Achilleus sits stubborn in his tent and refuses to join the battle even when the tide turns against the Greeks and everyone pleads with him.

Admirers of Achilleus and those sympathetic with his need for respect would say he’s in high dudgeon, or in a towering rage. Those readers who prefer Hektor’s brand of heroism (of which I am one) would say Achilleus is throwing an heroic temper tantrum, or having a big sulk.

My student makes a different choice. Is it some perverse delicacy of mind that keeps him from spelling out “pissed,” or does he think there are two different words depending on whether there is urine involved or only spleen—or does he actually think that’s how the (single) word is spelled?

At any rate, even “royally pissed” would have more dignity than my student has allowed this “hero”: he has managed to trivialize Achilleus, or infantilize him, or unclass him, in a single stroke. All that might be epic is piddled away.

Next time you’re feeling pissed, picture my student’s word. Tell yourself you’re pist. It will probably tickle you so that you cheer right up.

On this amphora, posted at http://www.miscellanies.org/eng3993/weeknine/bookone.html, you can see the pist Achilleus at center, next to the hanging helmet.


“Dorothy Wordsworth was very intuned with the natural setting around her…”

Ah, was she now.

Here we have the phrase “in tune with,” an image musicians understand well and many people use with ease, and the word “attuned” (which needs “to,” not “with”), a term that means pretty much the same thing as far as Webster is concerned (“to attune: to bring into harmony with”) but that is also used by competent speakers to mean something like “alert to” or “quick to resonate with,” or even “sympathetically attentive to.” “In tune with” suggests more the idea of harmony or consonance. I for one wouldn’t use the two terms interchangeably, but I wouldn’t get too fussy with people who do.

My student isn’t using them interchangeably, however: he’s using them simultaneously. That’s what happens to writers whose hearing vocabulary is much larger than their writing or reading vocabulary. My student is likely one of that population.

For him, “intuned with” may go farther than resonance and consonance, though, as the rest of his sentence implies:

“Dorothy Wordworth was very intuned with the natural setting around her, she seemed to be in some sort of a daze. A daze that made her think everything was alright around her.”

To dispense quickly with the flat-out mistakes here: run-on sentence (call this one a comma splice if you must), followed by a sentence fragment. Then there’s that “alright.” I’ve been reading so much student prose that I really have to check to see if this is a “proper word.” Webster’s lists it, but gives its definition simply as “All right.” There is then an example from Gertrude Stein, not necessarily the guide to orthography.

I like the passage because it bears out an observation of mine that I have come to believe is very true: when the thinking is sloppy, the grammar comes tumbling down. Everything ceases to be alright.

And then to tweak a bit: I wouldn’t bother with “around her” after “setting”—simply redundant. Actually, though, Dorothy didn’t write as much about “setting” as about the features of the landscape. Well, let that slide…the first time. The “around her” that ends the fragment could stand if we deleted the one that modifies “setting”; but really, he can’t have both and probably needs neither.

Of course what stands out most gloriously here is that daze. A daze he then feels he needs to explain.

I don’t think either of the Wordsworths would like the idea of Dorothy spending the Grasmere days in a daze. The close observations she recorded in her journal, full of detail and delight, are not the sorts of things one associates with dazes. William, tramping the fields and lanes and feeling strong emotions that he would later recollect in tranquility, would neither claim to be in a daze himself nor appreciate a daze in Dorothy.

Does my student believe that everything was not all right around Dorothy, that the daze was a kind of hypnosis that disguised a far less pleasant reality? Where is his evidence for such an assumption? (If I were looking for something that was not all right, I’d point to William’s poem about daffodils, to which he proudly signed his name upon publication, and note its similarity with Dorothy’s [unpublished] journal entry on the same subject….Well, brother and sister were very close….)

I believe my student meant that Dorothy Wordsworth was so attuned to the simple beauties around her at Grasmere that she was suffused with contentment and general well-being. I don’t think he was picturing her sitting stoned and happy in the midst of a muddy natural setting. These were, after all, the Grasmere Journals, not the Woodstock Musings.

If he proofread at all, I guess he thought everything was alright. He, not Dorothy, must have been the one in a daze.


“The Puritans in that time frame are known today as Seventh Day Adventence.”

Once upon a time I was teaching remedial-level freshman comp at a Catholic Church-related university. In a class session devoted to topic development for a short (7-page) research-based argument paper, one student said he planned to write on the topic of “Protestants.” I asked him to clarify his central question, and he replied, “You know, who are they, where do they mostly live, what do they believe.” It took me nearly a minute (tick…tick…tick…) to frame a question in reply—that is to say, a question that did not too obviously express its subtext of “What the F?!?!?!?!

And I don’t mean “once upon a time” to imply that things have changed. I’m teaching now at another Catholic Church-related university, for instance, and I’m constantly amazed at how little my students (most of whom claim to be Catholic) know about major concepts and even holidays in their own religion, let alone other religions. At my “other” school, culturally more of a mixed bag, the situation is no different: most students will say that religion is important to them, but most of them are pretty hazy on the major beliefs or texts of any particular religion.

In a truly secular society this might be understandable (although, in literature classes, no less frustrating and saddening), but American society seems to become more vocally and dogmatically “religious” with each passing day—or so at least it seems in the media and in politics. The main problem with ignorance about religion, and religions, is that it is frequently accompanied by gullibility and especially a willingness to believe the worst. This is the case with ignorance of any kind; and, discouragingly enough, although most kinds of ignorance can be remedied by a little research, doing a little research seems to be the last thing that occurs to anyone.

All of this is merely prologue to today’s Horror.

Here was a student in my American Lit (first half) survey. The course is subtitled “Beginnings to Civil War,” meaning that the assigned readings cut off around 1865, or more accurately, the course closes with writers who “fl“ed around 1865. So we begin with the Puritans. (Interspersed are Native American readings, but dated according to when they were written down, not when the words or thoughts may have first been uttered.) Lately I’ve been arranging the syllabus according to themes (religion, the idea of America, slavery, women’s rights, “toward an American art”), with each theme’s readings arranged chronologically. Students are responsible for integrating the readings into a master chronology (which the anthology pretty much does for them), but reading thematically we can focus on the ways in which specific kinds of ideas emerged, evolved, battled, faded. At least my theory is that we can do that.

My student does understand that “the Puritans” flourished in a “time frame”: that is, they’re not still around—their writings and influence are time-specific, and even the changes the Puritan community underwent occurred within a specific period. But then she’s trying to associate the Puritans with today, for some reason: to make their beliefs clearer to her readers? to feel more closely related to them? to reassure herself that nothing truly disappears? to indicate to me that she understands more than she actually does?

The course never addresses Seventh Day Adventists. That sect wasn’t officially established until 1863, for one thing. (For another, the course doesn’t attempt to address all religions present in the United States at any given time.) So their presence in a paper written for the course is, shall we say, unexpected.

My suspicion that she doesn’t know much about the sect is deepened by the reasonable assumption that it’s only something she’s heard of, not something she knows anything about: how else to explain “Adventence” for “Adventists”?

What would “adventence” even be? “Advent” is arrival, the culmination of a process that leads to inevitable emergence or appearance. The advent of Spring. The Advent of Christ. Ad + venio, I come to; advenio, I arrive after a journey. Well, in English the suffix -ence or -ance adds “instance of an action or process, instance of a quality or state.” “Adventence,” then, might mean the condition of having arrived. The blooming daffodils confirmed the adventence of Spring. Would then the Seventh Day Adventence be the state of having arrived on the seventh day? Did the olden-day Puritans re-arrive in our midst seven days ago?

Yes, the Puritans were conservative and strict in their personal behavior, and so are Seventh Day Adventists supposed to be. Yes, both advocate a God-centered life, spiritual and personal humility, and the basic tenets of Christianity (and its Jewish roots). There are a few less-general beliefs they also share. But there’s no reason to think of one as an earlier (or later) version of the other…unless you’re a student with fuzzy notions about both and a desire to make something clear to readers that isn’t clear to yourself.

Verbum sap: Never claim more than you can support.

Never try to explain something you lack the means to understand. Look up what you don’t know. Think.

The late Stanley Crane, dearly beloved and deeply missed former Head Librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, was once bemoaning to me students’ dependence on Cliff Notes. (This dependence has only grown, now on Spark Notes and other easily-accessed computer crutches as opposed to those yellow-and-black Caution-striped books that actually cost money.) “Why,” he asked, “do they feel they have to copy down and then parrot ideas that they don’t even understand? Why are they willing to take the Cliff version of a story rather than reading it for themselves?” And then his point: “Why don’t they have the courage to use their own beautiful minds?”

I agreed with, agree with, him. Courage, wisdom, or energy—why don’t they use their own beautiful minds? Teachers (and librarians) continue to believe in the eventual adventence of these minds, a flowering or flourishing of that Inner Student. Oh, let it be.


“The rhyme scheme is scattered throughout the poem.”

I’m sorry, but if it’s scattered, it ain’t a scheme.

The two words may actually occupy the same page of a dictionary (they do in my Webster’s), but, despite Zelda Gilroy’s belief, propinquity does not make a relationship.

“A systematic or organized framework; a plan” is how Webster’s defines “scheme.” All the other definitions, dependent as they are on context, still share that central idea of planning and structure (even when the planning is “crafty or secret,” as in “The brokers devised an investment scheme crafted entirely of regulatory loopholes…”).

“To scatter,” on the other hand, means “to fling away heedlessly; to distribute irregularly; to sow by casting in all directions; to divide into ineffectual small portions; to occur or fall irregularly or at random.” You can scatter chopped pecans over the apple-pie filling, but that lattice crust is a scheme.

I evidently set my students up for failure when it comes to talking about poetry. They would like to cut to the chase, starting right off with pronouncements like “I think what the poem is trying to say is to never give up!” But I insist that they begin the discussion of any poem by noting its title, its length, and its structure—the way a musician takes note of the clef, key, and meter before launching into the concerto. I know they’ve had lessons on rhyme and meter in high school, but I scrupulously review those things, and also present examples of the major traditional forms. I review definitions. I even have a little game I play with them to try to get them to hear different metrical forms. And still I have a number of students who can’t even tell the difference between “rhyme” and “rhythm” (okay, they look alike, but so do “Mother” and “Mothra” and I’ll bet most people don’t confuse them), let alone “meter” and “rhythm.”

So what’s going on here is that my student is conscientiously looking for a rhyme scheme but isn’t quite sure what that means.

She may be looking at a piece of blank or free verse, in which case she’ll never find that scheme. Or perhaps it’s a poem by Dylan Thomas such as “Poem in October,” where rhymes may be pure ( turning/burning), or in some way imperfect (heaven/heron/beckon; wood/rook/foot; chapels/parables), or very nearly perfect (snail/tales). Or, heaven help her, she may be looking at a regularly-rhymed poem (Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example). She just isn’t sure what it is, or how to hear it. But, she assures us, there’s rhyming going on somewhere.

When I decided in the ninth grade that I would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my poetry (still waiting, by the way, Oslo!), my notion of poetry was guided to a great extent by my then-favorite poet, e.e. cummings, and my sketchy understanding of what he was doing. My words were all lower-case, and the words themselves were “scattered” all over the page. If they were willing to behave in a more pedestrian manner, as sometimes happened, they were still simple and beautiful (no fancy vocabulary or references to mundane things like cars or school or airplanes). But, although cummings frequently rhymes, I cast that off with the ankle socks of childhood (all my poems rhymed when I was a child, but I was determined to put off childish things). And of course, everything I wrote was actually a soul-spill, heart-cry, my endlessly fascinating adolescent emotions making their way onto paper the way I would walk: one foot after the other, one word after the other. I had not yet fallen in love with structure, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in, or curious about, it.

Most of my students seem to think that writing is largely a matter of one word after the other, and they want to start with the first word and stagger ever forward. What happens in the course of writing, then, has a certain random, or at least ad hoc, quality, and they assume that’s the way it is for everyone. No surprise, then, to find them stating that “the themes of love and death are littered all over the work” or “an example of how there is no rhyme scheme can be found anywhere.

It’s all chance. Maybe if you plan to rely on chance, the result is a scattered scheme?