Monday, February 8, 2010

A Bird Came Down the Walk--or, How Poetry Analysis Can Work

Emily Dickinson's poem (see below) is one I recently gave to my AP students to analyze.

I like to use this particular poem because, on its surface, it doesn't appear to be about all that much.

As a teacher, you can imagine the sighs of a student: "Great, a poem about a bird and ew, a worm. And more about the bird. And a weird final stanza. Wait--what does that even mean?"

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,--
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless, as they swim.

So we go through it. (I like to use the TP-CASTT system for poetry analysis. It works wonders):
  • T--Title (which doesn't really work here, however, as there is no actual title);
  • P--Paraphrase (which is just to help students process the poem in their minds. I don't want to see paraphrase in an essay);
  • C--Connotation (this is what it's all about, in my opinion. Students need to focus on diction, consider the images evoked by certain words and think, further, about what else is connoted. The bulk of the poem's meaning may be derived this way, I find);
  • A--Attitude, or Tone (I have students first determine if a poem's tone is positive or negative and then find apt adjectives that may be used to describe the tone--e.g., capricious, whimsical, brooding, funereal, philosophical);
  • S--Shift (does the poem shift in tone, content, style? This can change the entire meaning of a poem);
  • T--Theme (the messages or main points of the poem. Students can start with simple words such as Death, Loss, Love and then revise their ideas to reflect more complex thoughts and formulate theses that sum up, with insight, the entire point of a poem);
  • and finally, T for Title again (in case the meaning of the title has morphed in the student's mind, after all the analysis work.
I won't get into all the details of my students' analysis, but I will say that they typically (as do all students, I am sure) struggle with Connotation (which is where the motherlode of ideas lies, I think).

With "A Bird Came Down the Walk," I showed the students how certain words--particularly the diction that deals with watery or nautical images, in the final stanzas, "oars, rowed, ocean, banks, plashless, swim"--tie together the ideas of the bird flying and the thoughts the speaker has of being in or on the water.

We discussed how humans long to fly, how swimming/sailing is peaceful and freeing, and yet--how flying and being in the water are both exhilarating and frightening. Both are joyous and yet also connected with dying and death, particularly rather violent ends.

This idea, suggested by the final lines of Dickinson's poem seems to indicate--to me, at least--that the speaker is fascinated by the simple life and beauty of the bird, and yet s/he doesn't, or shouldn't, long for its life, because it is one of danger and hardship. (Note the bird's "rapid eyes," described as "frightened beads." Wild animals always have to worry that they will be hunted, don't they?)

There is more to say, of course, but I'll leave it there. Poems are for discovery--but the point is that students shouldn't feel afraid, as wild animals do. They don't have to fear for their lives when it comes to analyzing a poem. It's not quite that difficult.


  1. Ha, oh so funny...just got a comment that read, "Douche, explain it properly." Charming!

    It IS explained properly. You have to read it and then you have to do the work. That's called life in school, or even just life.

    Happy TP-CASTTing!

  2. This was supremely helpful. Thanks for being so snazzy!
    Love, Morgan and Madison

  3. Thank you for explaining the TPCASTT a bit more throughly. I was able to complete mine just fine. And it is true, we as students shouldn't be afraid to analyze a poem. We just have to think. Thanks again! (:

  4. Really helped me and my partner on our presentation of the poem,, thanks.