See It In Writing and Basic Principle

See It In Writing<

Your U.S. poetry class has been writing arguments about love poetry, including W. S. Merwin's poem “Separation.” The poem reads:

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

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For an upcoming paper, you’ve written two outlines to show your instructor. Which do you predict that she will prefer?

A. Claim: Though “Separation” by W. S. Merwin seems to be about loss, it is actually a poem that demonstrates that absences can be defining.

Reason: The first line sets the stage by talking about an absence.

Reason: The enjambment that connects the first and second lines highlights the poem’s focus on a haunting non-presence.

Reason: The metaphor of color in the final line—which often indicates personality and presence—shows how absence structures subjectivity.

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B. Claim: Though “Separation” by W. S. Merwin seems to be about loss, it actually demonstrates that absences can be defining.

Reason: Formally, the poem employs a number of techniques to illustrate how a lack of presence can structure subjectivity.

Reason: In terms of rhythm, the parallelism in the first two lines, paired through enjambment, climaxes in the end-stopped second line, which places a literal punctuation point upon a loss.

Reason: Compressed into three lines, the brief poem's minimalist language embodies the theme of compelling absence.

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Weighing the two versions, most instructors find paper B's outline clearer and more interesting. This isn’t, though, just because version B offers better reasons; it’s because instead of just touring the poem line-by-line, version B is organized by the major terms of its argument. In this lesson, you’ll learn strategies for arranging your reasons to advance an effective argument.

In a Nutshell<

When ordering your reasons, consider your overall argument. Order reasons to reflect the main themes of your claim, not the chronological order of the narrative or the order of lines in the poem. When you base your argumentative structure upon the order in which things happen in the work of literature in question, you imply that the work is in control of your claims, rather than the other way around.

Here are three possible strategies for ordering your reasons based on the kind of argument you want to make:

  1. Parallel reasons<: If your reasons are all similar, they won’t necessarily depend on a logical sequence in order to make sense. In this case, you’ll want to order them based on what you think are your strongest reasons, or your most controversial reasons. If you put your least contestable reasons first, you may persuade your reader to follow your argument until you get to your most contestable or controversial reasons. On the other hand, if you start with a particularly unusual or provocative argument, you may draw your reader into your argument more easily.
  2. Stacked reasons: If your argument depends on a logical train of thought, you want to make sure you present your reasons in an order that makes logical sense. For instance, if you are arguing that a certain decision will lead to harmful consequences, you want to show the chain of events that will result in those consequences.
  3. Point-counterpoint-synthesis: If your argument depends on synthesizing two or more sets of seemingly incompatible reasons, consider presenting the sets of reasons in succession, then showing how you synthesize them at the end.

The Basic Principle<

Below is an outline of a paper about Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” The speaker of the poem is a man of dubious mental stability who recounts how he murders the woman he loves when she comes to visit his cabin in the woods. The poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue, which is a long poem or speech by a single speaker (similar to the soliloquy in drama), in which the identity of the speaker of the poem is obviously distinct from the personality of its author.

Claim: On the level of plot, Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is a poem about a madman who murders a woman who supposedly loves him. However, the poem also enacts the dramatic monologue as an expression of insanity; the desire to be the only speaker or to speak on behalf of others is a form of monomania.

Reason 1: At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is already interpreting Porphyria’s speech for her. She says that she loves him, but he asserts that she cannot give herself to him entirely because of “pride” and the inability to dissever “vainer ties.”

Reason 2: The speaker is more interested in ventriloquizing Porphyria’s thoughts than in hearing what she thinks. In the middle of the poem, he says “I knew / Porphyria worshipp’d me.”

Reason 3: In the moment of murdering her, the speaker assumes he knows what Porphyria feels, asserting twice to emphasize his certainty: “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain.”

Reason 4: In the final line of the poem, the speaker reaches the height of hubris when he presumes that his interpretation of events is infallible, and not subject to divine judgment: “And yet God has not said a word!” he says.

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While this version of an outline does ultimately build a case supporting the claim, it does so by recapitulating the order in which things happen in the poem. This means that the student misses opportunities to make larger points about the poem’s structure and themes, and to comment on things like the poem’s formal qualities, rhythm, and scansion.

Now consider this revision of the paper’s reasons:

Claim: On the level of plot, Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” tells the story of a madman who murders his supposed paramour. However, the poem also enacts its form, that of the dramatic monologue, as an expression of insanity. The desire to be the only speaker or to speak on behalf of others is a form of monomania.

Reason 1: The speaker of this poem exemplifies the solipsism of the dramatic monologue form by demonstrating his belief that his interpretation of events is conclusive and not subject to criticism.

Reason 2: The beautiful woman in Browning’s poem is named Porphyria, which is a physical ailment with symptoms that include psychiatric disorders. The narrator’s obsession with Porphyria could therefore be read as a form of mental illness.

Reason 3: Throughout the poem, we only hear the speaker’s voice. Not only is the woman in the poem silent, but the speaker insists that even God has not said a word. These formal aspects of the dramatic monologue underscore its ability to silence interested parties and those otherwise considered omniscient and all-powerful.

Reason 4: Literary critic M. H. Abrams writes that one of the key aspects of a dramatic monologue is that the speaker “addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker” (A Glossary of Literary Terms, 2005).

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In some ways, this outline is an improvement on the last one. Reasons 1 and 3, for instance, clearly relate to the themes outlined in the main claim. Still, at least one of the reasons seems irrelevant: though it’s interesting to note that Porphyria is a psychiatric disorder, that does not clearly relate, at least at it is currently stated, to the claim about the form of the dramatic monologue.

The main problem, though, is one of order: the reasons are organized in such a way that crucial information is delayed and some of the points seem irrelevant. M. H. Abrams’ definition of dramatic monologue, for example, would be helpful if it came earlier. Similarly, the climactic point that the speaker of the poem “exemplifies the solipsism of the dramatic monologue” would have more impact if it followed logically from points made earlier, and if it came at the end of the outline, where it would serve as a culmination of earlier rhetorical moves.

Take a look at one more revision of the outline, one that excises certain points, revises others and rearranges the reasons. How does this outline compare to the earlier ones?

Claim: On the level of plot, Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is a poem that tells the story of a madman who murders his supposed paramour. However, the poem also enacts its form, that of the dramatic monologue, as an expression of insanity. The desire to be the only speaker or to speak on behalf of others is a form of monomania.

Reason 1: Throughout the poem, we only hear the speaker’s voice. Not only is the woman in the poem silent, but the speaker insists that even God has not said a word. These formal aspects of the dramatic monologue underscore its ability to silence interested parties and those otherwise considered omniscient and all-powerful.

Reason 2: The dramatic monologue epitomizes the solipsism of poetic forms in which all actions are filtered through the consciousness of a single speaker. “Porphyria’s Lover” contains no quotations of direct speech from any other characters, so readers only have access to the speaker’s perspective on events.

Reason 3: The dramatic monologue also brings the reliability of the speaker into question. Since the reader only knows of Porphyria’s feelings through the speaker’s interpretation of them, and his mental stability is dubious, the reader is free to question the credibility of the speaker’s statements.

Reason 4: The extreme actions of the speaker contrast with his calm and cheerful manner of recounting of those actions. The disjunction between objective and subjective views of these actions demonstrates the extreme self-involvement of the dramatic monologue form, and its ability to represent aberrant human psychology and behavior.

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This outline is an improvement on the first outline because instead of merely recapitulating the plot of “Porphyria’s Lover,” the third outline delves into the implications of the generic conventions of the dramatic monologue in order to illuminate the use of these conventions in this particular poem. And unlike the second outline, the writer structures her reasons based on the kind of argument she wants to make, rather than ordering them based on the order in which things occur in the poem. This writer uses an example of stacked reasons, in which each reason depends on or develops out of the previous reasons. The writer also pays attention to formal elements of the poem, such as its adherence to the conventions< of the dramatic monologue. Remember that an educated reader of literature will show his or her awareness of the conventions that shape different genres, and the ways in which authors of literary texts utilize or subvert those conventions.