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Writing examples

Two examples

1 -"Robert Frost: Gentle New England Satanist"

To give you an idea of how this game can be played, let us dance through an example, not of the finished product but of the process of developing a paper topic.

Let's say you have been given the assignment to write about a poem. Let's make it one that every American schoolkid is familiar with, Robert Frost "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." And let's assume you have no idea yet what you intend to say. Begin your writing with a simple description of the generally obvious literal facts. Make it clear that you understand the literal meaning, that indeed you read the words. We professors, cynical bastards that we are, look for that. Tell me that "Stopping by Woods" is the picture of a person riding through woods in the wintertime and stopping to "watch the woods fill up with snow." Use brief phrases or significant individual words from the text as evidence. At the very least, this proves you read the poem. Imagine a working title, something hopelessly vague like "The Meaning of Frost's Famous Poem". This at least gives you something to begin with.

Once the literal facts have been described - a fairly easy task in this example - then begin your ascent. Step beyond the literal and ask, what else might be going on here? What is suggested? What can we learn that isn't obvious?

A popular English-major approach is to describe the poet's use of one or some of the standard poetic conventions, dissonance, assonance, meter, rhyme scheme, and so on. By itself such explication is merely clever. It reveals the writer's ability to identify these conventions and to handle the jargon. But it says nothing important about the work as literature. If you wish to follow this path, you must not only reveal your ability to identify the types, but you also must say how the use of the particular convention influences the meaning of the work, how the technical structure of the poem reflects or undercuts the meaning, literal and suggested, of the words. This is difficult and subtle; the undergraduate is probably safer in sticking with the meaning of the words and not digging too deeply into the subtleties of meter and rhyme. That this poem can be sung to the tune of "Hernando's Hideaway" is an embarrassment better left to talk-show hosts or Ph.D.'s in cultural studies and prosody.

Perhaps a word or phrase of the poem suggests something not clearly spelled out in the literal facts. A popular interpretation imagines that the "who" of "Whose woods these are" is God that "his house" in the village is the local church. If you apply this reading to the rest of the poem, it might lead to a moralistic interpretation of "miles to go before I sleep." Life, it seems, is a moral duty; if we faithfully do our moral duty, then we will be rewarded after the end. Is the poet perhaps on a pilgrimage of some sort? If so, then the literal pilgrimage of the poet's journey may stand for some other, more abstract, pilgrimage. Is life itself perhaps this pilgrimage? We must all trudge along and do our duty and not get distracted by an urge to go play in the snow. As a theme, this is pretty dull but at least possible.



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