Tag Archives: poetry

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Tortoise Tuesday: What Poetry Can Teach Us About Orienting

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. It feels somehow that poetry is the perfect antidote to this bananas time: brief yet emotionally satisfying. For just one moment I get to slip into someone else’s experience, be it a queen or a wild iris, and feel those feelings alongside my own unruly ones. When I try to explain my deep love for poetry, I’m often met with blank stares. Poetry can seem daunting and overwhelming, and sometimes it is truly obscure. But a good poem is one that is able to orient a reader to its subject, emotional urgency, and argument without sacrificing beautiful language. The same qualities that are necessary in a good paper.

One of my favorite poems right now is “Minimum Wage” by Matthew Dickman. It begins:

My mother and I are on the front porch lighting each other’s 

cigarettes

as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs

at being a mother and son, just ten minutes

In these four lines, I, as a reader, already know so much both about the physical reality of this poem and the emotional landscape Dickman has created. With very few words, I can already imagine what this mother and son look like. I know that they are standing on a porch smoking cigarettes. I know that they are both adults, both old enough to be working and smoking. I know that the relationship between the mother and son feels the way working a minimum wage job feels: transactional, exhausting, unrewarding. This poem gives me just enough information to feel the full emotional reality of this relationship. There is nothing extraneous here, no rogue details about other family members or the shape of the cigarette smoke. The poem is about the fraught relationship between this mother and son, and Dickman communicates this in the first four words of the poem by narrowing the focus of the poem to these two characters. When writing a paper, it’s helpful to keep this in mind, to share enough information for the reader to understand why the argument you are making is important without oversharing.

Often in writing center conferences, students tell me that they just don’t have enough space within their page limit to do the kind of orienting work that I feel their paper needs. Truthfully, in my own work I sometimes share this worry: wouldn’t it be better to use my space to make my argument rather than wasting it on background information? But it doesn’t take much space, or many words, to provide a reader with enough information to make sense of your argument. It’s always worth the extra sentence or two to orient a reader to the relevant information that makes your paper relevant and worth reading. Without the first line of  “Minimum Wage,” I wouldn’t grasp the emotional reality of this kind of transactional relationship between a mother and son — I wouldn’t be able to imagine these characters as they smoke on their front porch — and without that understanding, this poem wouldn’t make me cry every time I read it. 

— Malka Himelhoch, ’21

Works Cited

Dickman, Matthew. “Minimum Wage.” American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, selected by Tracy K. Smith. Graywolf Press, 2017, pp. 56. 

News

The Lexicon in Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite”

Pretty much every frosh, even those of us who ended up loving Writing Sem, has complained about it at some point. All those different types of motive start to get confusing, and if you find yourself scrambling to finish a D2 at three in the morning, you might wonder whether it’s worth it. But what if the lexicon isn’t just a tool to present your argument clearly and convincingly to readers in any discipline – what if it could help you enlist divine support to win over the object of your unrequited love?

That’s what the ancient Greek poet Sappho does in the poem known as the “Ode to Aphrodite.” The text isn’t just a lament for the girl Sappho loves; it’s also a well-structured argument to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, whose help Sappho hopes to enlist. (The speaker in the poem is explicitly identified as Sappho herself.) As she moves through her argument, Sappho deftly employs each part of the writing lexicon to get the goddess on her side.

Sappho begins by praising the goddess in the first stanza, her introduction. The description isn’t necessary for Aphrodite herself, who knows, after all, that she’s immortal, sits on a golden throne, and weaves wiles. Instead, this first stanza is Sappho’s chance to orient the situation for her listeners by introducing the main figures (like key terms) in her poem: the all-powerful Aphrodite and the helpless Sappho. In the final two lines of the first stanza, Sappho moves from orienting to the motive of her ode. Aphrodite has the power to help her, and Sappho’s supplication is motivated by the stark difference between their positions.

Sappho then states her thesis clearly at the beginning of the second stanza. Just as a good paper will present the thesis in the introduction, Sappho makes sure that we – and Aphrodite – know what she wants: “but come here.” Once she’s established her motive and thesis, Sappho begins to ply the goddess with evidence, pointing out that she’s helped her with unrequited love in the past. She links this evidence explicitly to her thesis in the second stanza: “come here, if ever before [you did the same thing].” When Sappho says “come to me now, too,” she’s analyzing her evidence to support her thesis. The seventh and final stanza acts as her conclusion, where Sappho reiterates her thesis and leaves Aphrodite to make her choice.

— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

Sappho Fragment 1, “Ode to Aphrodite” (my translation):

Immortal Aphrodite on your golden throne,
daughter of Zeus, wile-weaver, I beg you,
don’t crush my spirit, queen,
with anguish and pain:

but come here, if ever before,
hearing my cries from far away,
you left your father’s golden house
and came here

with your chariot yoked, and beautiful
quick-winged birds led you over the dark earth,
fluttering their fast wings down from heaven
through midair.

Soon they arrived, and you, blessed one,
with a smile on your immortal face,
asked me what had happened now and
why I had called you

and what I wanted more than anything to happen
in my crazy heart. “Whom should I persuade now
to love you? Who, oh Sappho, is
doing you wrong?

For if she runs now, soon she’ll follow,
and if she won’t accept gifts, soon she’ll give them,
and if she doesn’t love now, soon she’ll love you,
even reluctantly.”

Come to me now, too, and free me from cruel
cares, and do what my heart longs to
see done, and you yourself
be my ally.

Thesis

“If you will only”: The Presence of Loneliness in “Song of Myself”

In a Tortoiseshell: In this series of excerpts, the author’s process of developing a thesis is foregrounded. Excerpts 1 and 2 are taken from the introduction and conclusion of the original essay submitted to us, and Excerpt 3 is a revised introduction. Each excerpt includes the essay’s thesis, and as the author reiterates it his argument becomes more and more refined, improving significantly over the course of writing and revision.  Continue reading