Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ecstasy of Analysis


I am writing a paper about a John Donne poem. I won't tell you the poem or my thesis, because this might end up being a grad school sample. But I'll tell you a little about the process of writing about poetry.

I have to analyze the poem using formalist methods. Put simply, that means you look at nothing outside the text. Only words and structure -- word choice, metaphor, irony, paradox. You consider neither the author's time nor place, and certainly not his biography.

Many literary scholars use other methods of analysis that look at influences outside the text. Contextualism, for instance, places a work on a historical timeline and considers its relationship to social climes, political upheavals of the day, etc. While this type of criticism has its merits (it makes understanding history a whole lot easier for me), I don't like to do it. I feel like I'm studying to be a sociologist or something, once I stray too far from the words on the page. And I can't stand sociologists.

So I photocopied my Donne poem and blew it up big so I could write on it, in preparation for the formalist paper. I thought I might make some underlines and a circle or two.

The photocopy is now completely covered in criss-crossed underlines, circles and arrows, colliding blocks of notes, and exclamation marks -- all about the words themselves. I needed a separate page to make notes on the structure.

Once the tide of analysis ebbed a little, I went back and numbered the fourteen lines of the "Holy Sonnet" (so I can cite line numbers in the paper). Writing those tiny numbers, pressing hard so they could be seen through the haze of scrawl on the page, I felt a kind of euphoria.

I'm in for a lifetime of this sort of stuff. And I'm ecstatic to know it can bring me this kind of satisfaction.

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