When students read and discuss a poem in class, they do not usually expect to analyze the poem’s grammatical construction. But quite often, grammar is the best place to start a close reading. Years ago, I read a fascinating article that changed the way I approach poems with students at all levels. In “Deformance and Interpretation” (originally published in New Literary History), but you can also find it here, Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann advocate for reading methods that can transform how readers engage with and contribute to a poem’s meaning. They suggest that we read poems backwards, from the last line to the first; isolate one part of speech at a time; and alter the layout of the poem in order to understand why the poet has chosen a particular typographical arrangement.
In what follows, I’ll focus on how reading for specific parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, can alert students to the preoccupations of the poet. Of course, one could begin class by asking students what each sentence of the poem “means,” and that could yield a great discussion. But if you focus first on parts of speech—especially nouns and verbs, which are the most powerful parts of any phrase or sentence—you’ll find that your most reticent students are able to form opinions on the poem even before they’ve fully analyzed it.
For my example, I’ve chosen Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”—certainly his most recognizable and frequently anthologized poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety, with an audio file of Kunitz reading the work. If you play the audio so that students can hear Kunitz’s brilliant, deeply moving delivery, they’ll understand the poem’s narrative right away: the speaker’s father has killed himself; the speaker’s mother cannot forgive him for doing this; and instead of telling her son what happened, she hits him when he tries to learn about who his father was. The poem is an incredible testament to the toll that such a trauma can take on a family.
First, ask your students to circle or highlight Kunitz’s nouns. The result should look like this:
Even before we’ve read the poem for its narrative, we can see that the poem’s first line features the mother and father; we know that the house plays a large role in the poem, with a focus on the attic (which is in fact the literal attic of the speaker’s childhood) and a reference to a cabinet (which is a metaphor for the mother’s heart); we see that Kunitz is attending to the time of year (spring) and time as a concept; and we can also see that Kunitz is concerned with the body—hand, moustache, eyes, cheek. From this reading of just the nouns, one can already sense that the story of the father’s suicide has deep, lasting effects that are attached to the memories of the house. We can also see that the child who wants to know something about his father learns that knowledge through the body—through the recognition of his father’s face and the slap on his own face that lingers in his mind for decades.
Next, ask your students to isolate the poem’s verbs:
By isolating the verbs, we can see the gothic terror at the heart of Kunitz’s poem. In this reading, Kunitz’s concern with forgiveness—his mother’s refusal to forgive the father—becomes the poem’s first action and tension. One sees, too, that the verbs are incredibly violent: killing, thumping, ripped, slapped, burning. Of course, there are three agents of action in the poem—mother, father, and son—and each of them performs one or more of these actions. In this reading, the poem is reduced to the physicality of its actions, and is already quite exciting. Kunitz wants this to be a hot poem, one that leaves us feeling singed by that “burning” in the final line. Memory, then, is not a cerebral or abstract entity, but one that is visceral, a mark that stays with us forever.
Not every poet will use such verbs of violence and assault; not every poet will use nouns that allude to the time of year or body parts. But that’s precisely the point of the exercise. By charting a poet’s obsessions with language, and with parts of speech specifically, students will be able to think more critically about how and why poets have stylistic differences that are deliberate, unique, and transformative.