Author’s note: The work below is based on the 11th and 50th-anniversary edition of Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, by Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. In my piece, I draw on rhetoric surrounding my high school’s new and much-resisted policy requiring all students to wear identification cards. Don’t regard the views I present too seriously, though, for I wrote this in a moment of poetic rashness. In no way do I intend to express my actual feelings, nor those of my teacher, nor those of the legions of suffering English students who agree with me.
“But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
The modern academic world is cluttered with dozens of meaningless fields of study. Anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art, chemistry, earth sciences, economics, geography, history, law, life sciences, linguistics, literature, logic, mathematics, philosophy, physics, political science, psychology, religion, sociology, statistics—these domains attempt to answer our deepest questions about life and experience and existence, yet all of them fail tremendously when compared to the field dealt with here.
That field is poetry. Although often initially obtuse, poetry proves with time to pervade the daily grind, delineating the heart of the human condition—anxiety, fear, struggle, hopelessness, delusion, and death. It follows, then, that the poet bears the most sophisticated understanding of just how bad life gets, and that he, upon profound reflection (and a lucrative offer from his publisher), should decide to wring his rue on readers in the form of a text—on poetry, no less.
Among the most powerful applications of writing is the packaging of complex depth in concise verse. No poem exemplifies this better than the dramatically titled “Untitled,” by celebrated slam-poet and philosopher I. M. Wright.
Read the poem below one or two hundred times, pausing between words to allow Wright’s message to sink into your soul. If you are of typical intelligence, you might not grasp the full force of this work; but fear not. By the end of this reading, you will, with incredible luck, have progressed negligibly in your ability to appreciate refined rhetoric, and through it, what little a poetic life has to offer.
WEAR YOUR ID!!!
―I. M. Wright (born -∞ BCE)
POETIC ANALYSIS IN ITS FINEST FORM
Initial insight should be gained from this poem’s brevity. Shakespeare’s enjoyment-length theorem states that the degree to which one enjoys a poem varies inversely with the length of the poem, so at a glance readers see that “Untitled” will be a relatively painless read.
Further enlightenment derives from attention to Wright’s syntax, through which she strategically builds emotion. “WEAR,” the poem’s heavily connotative opening word, immediately sparks mystery and suspense, so that by the time readers have comprehended the four letters, they yearn to know just what they are being exhorted to wear. A rough sweater? A scarlet letter “A”? A crown of thorns? Dramatic effect is heightened still further by a profound biblical allusion: The four-letter permutation “WEAR” is found no fewer than 155 times in the King James Bible.
The poem then advances to its second word, “YOUR.” Far from allowing suspense to slacken, “YOUR” reinforces the already tremendous excitement wrought with the word preceding it and then augments that excitement by pointing attention directly to readers themselves. The clothing to be donned, Wright warns readers, is their own, and is thus as inescapable as death, taxes, and creative writing.
All comes to bear when Wright reveals that which her readers are to “WEAR”: a small plastic rectangle marked with unintelligible writing, a crude photograph, and a series of dark lines—an “ID!!!” Wright’s use of abbreviation, coupled with easy-to-see capital letters, simplifies her message for her largely blind (literally and figuratively) audience.
Up to this point, readers may perceive a halting harshness in Wright’s “Untitled.” This impression is most definitely invalid, for to fully appreciate this poem readers must not only understand its syntax and diction; they must feel its musicality. Examine the graphic scansion below.
, , , ,
WEAR YOUR ID!!!
Obviously, Wright takes immense care to follow the age-old tradition of spondaic dimeter. Her poem’s two feet evoke images of hapless two-footed creatures—chickens, turkeys, poets—laying readers with soft, warm verse. Her impeccable avoidance of harsh consonance sounds too fosters this benevolent air, as does her utter lack of befuddling internal and slant rhyme.
Wright further develops a pleasant tone through parallelism. “WEAR”—a four letter word—is followed by “YOUR”—another four letter-word, creating a pleasing visual rhythm. Additionally, Wright exactingly arranges three exclamation points after the three words of her poem (“!!!”). A wise reader (that is, me) recognizes the absolute perfection of these patterns and heeds their calling: to spread the good news of the repeated three-part parallel structure to all who wander the earth.
But what does it all mean? What is one to take away from “Untitled?”
With three simple words, Wright bears down benevolently from her throne of poetic righteousness, ordering a deep decree to the commoners far below. Using the universally recognized symbol of the “ID,” she kindly commands her subjects to reveal their identities for what they truly are: a smudged photograph, a misspelled name, a crooked bar code. Transformed readers will wallow in appreciation of the wisdom Wright has unloaded—a gift for all, to last the ages.
One final note about poetry and its pedagogy. In discussing a poem, one must never be overconfident of his abilities, lest he produce text so confounding, contradictory, and contrived as to dissuade students from seeking one of the plentiful popular, prosperous professions to be had in poetry. Further, woe to him who reads such material, sees it for what it is, and attempts to satirize it: for without doubt, his will be the crudest curse: excessive alliteration, erroneous exaggeration, verbal ostentation, stretched rhythmication… I bemoan his fate.
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