In the last few weeks both my UAB and my UOC students have been learning (English) poetry. To my dismay and that of my teaching colleagues, even though we have insisted that they should NOT produce text commentaries and we have provided them with samples of the kind of argumentative essay we want to see applied to poetry, the ensuing essays have been mostly text commentaries –resulting in many fails. So here’s a tutorial for both.

A text commentary is the kind of exercise taught in secondary school for dealing with poetry (among other texts). It is DESCRIPTIVE and, basically, it is a paraphrasis (or repetition in the students’ own words) of the poem’s content. My colleagues and I think that this is too limited for university students and, so we decided to use the argumentative model for all literary genres, poetry included.

The problem is that students are very much afraid of poetry and feel much more confident counting lines, stanzas and rhyme schemes than arguing a point, idea or thesis about a poem. For you to understand the difference, the text commentaries we have been marking are the equivalent of discussing, for example, a play by simply mentioning how many acts, scenes, lines of dialogue, characters, and settings it has and then offering a plot summary. Can you see the sense in that?

An argumentative essay argues a thesis statement about a particular topic, offering arguments in favour and against this thesis. We prefer this to the text commentary because the argumentative essay forces the student to ask him/herself a relevant (research) question about a text. The answer (= the thesis) must be solid and coherent, and the process of developing arguments to accompany it forces the student to THINK, which is NOT the case of the text commentary (by the way, an ARGUMENT is an idea open to agreement or disagreement).

Obviously, the main difference with the basic argumentative essay (“Are you in favour of the death penalty?”) is that in the argumentative essays we teach the writer MUST defend his/her thesis as convincingly as possible. Counterarguments (ideas that might contradict or invalidate your thesis) must be taken into account but this is never a simple case of ‘on the one hand/on the other hand.’ If you’re arguing that “Hamlet is a hero” you need to take into account the possibility that others disagree and call him a coward, but you cannot agree with them –you need to DEFEND your thesis.

With a short story, a play or a novel students feel more confident and they find it easier to ask a (research) question (“Is Hamlet a coward or a hero?”) and a thesis in answer to that question (“Hamlet is a coward”). With poetry, students have an enormous difficult to ask questions. Jenny Joseph’s “Warning” expresses the speaker’s wish to find freedom in old age –yes, but is the imagine of old age that the poem offers realistic? Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum” is a superb war poem –yes, but is the strategy to scare the reader with such violent images the best one to offer a pacifist message? John Agard’s “Half-Caste” is an anti-racist poem –yes, but is the argumentation that the poet offers, with all those allusions to non-racial issues, effective? Dylan Thomas’s “Do not Go Gentle into the Night” deals with the death of the poet’s father –yes, but does it make sense to ask anyone to rage against death rather than wish that they die peacefully? And so on…

If you need to inform us that a poem has three stanzas, or a abc abc rhyming scheme, this should only be done if it helps your argumentation. Imagine an essay in which you’re arguing that Jimmy Porter’s anger in Look Back in Anger is caused by the loss of his father and suddenly you inform your reader that this is a play in three acts with four characters. This would be absurd. Quite another matter is mentioning the fact that Thomas Hardy’s “On the Departure Platform” is divided into two parts of four and two stanzas each if you’re arguing that the pessimistic message of the poem, found in the second part, is exaggerated in view that the first part simply narrates the woman’s temporary departure and not her leaving for ever.

So this is it: a measure of description is always necessary in an argumentative essay but it should never replace argumentation. A strategy to get rid of the text commentary would be to write it first and then, on its basis, write a second argumentative essay, which is what you should hand in. Use the text commentary, if necessary, as a kind of preliminary exercise useful for a close reading of the poem, then start again: ask yourself a question about the text, answer it and voilà, here’s your THESIS. The rest will follow.

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  1. Perhaps a useful way of framing it is keeping in mind that these two questions are different:
    a) What does the text say? (Explication, description or commentary in the sense you refer to here)
    b) What do I say about the text—specifically about some aspect or issue in the text? I.e. what do I want to say about it that it does not say about itself?

    Although there is some grey ground between both questions, no doubt.

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