Monday, April 2, 2007

Explication of "Schoolsville" - Billy Collins

I presented this explication of "Schoolsville" in class today.

Schoolsville” depicts a teacher, most likely Collins, looking back and taking stock of his career. The poet imagines his place within this imaginary town, and his place in the universe is closely entwined with that of his students and profession (Editor's Note: I have described the speaker and occasion.).

Collins assumes a humorous tone towards his students and teaching, and this is achieved in a few different ways. First of all, the scene is he describes is absurd. He places his students in a variety of stereotypical situations based on exaggerated versions of their high school selves. The student who always aimed to please is a business owner and town leader. His description of him “always” having his hand up is a hyperbole. Another example of hyperbole is the description of the girl who “signed her papers in lipstick.” The girl did not really sign her paper in lipstick, but was so concerned with her appearance that it seemed like it. There are more exaggerations in the poem, such as the allusion to Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Obviously this is taking it to the extreme. (Editor’s Note: In this paragraph I have described how the author uses hyperbole, an allusion and stereotypes to achieve a humorous tone.)

Inherent in Collins’ humorous tone is a feeling of hopelessness. Although the speaker is describing the scene tongue in cheek (sarcastically), most of his characterizations of students are negative. Students are “sweat[ing] the final and, even after all these years writing “disorganized essays” and reading them aloud. They don’t walk with purpose but “zigzag”(diction). Collins compares the girl as “brushing her hair like a machine,” which suggests repetition and absence of feeling and emotion. The creative writing students have not found a purpose in life, and sit in a circle playing a “lute.” A student hands in a “term paper fifteen years late,” while others have trite questions about mundane things like double spacing. Even the one student who worked hard to achieve in high school, the hand raising pleaser, has been relegated to the job of clothing store owner and low level politician. No student has gone on to do great things, at least none that he mentions. (Editor’s Note: In this paragraph I have attempted to show that the tone is not simply humorous, but hopeless as well. This is achieved by the author’s characterization of his students, diction, a simile, and more hyperbole.)

It is too simple, however, to state that Collins dislikes his experience. He has nurtured his vision. He is not separate or condescending, because the speaker thinks himself just as absurd as his students. In the last two stanzas, the narrator shifts from talking about the students and starts to describe himself. His home is a stereotype of anywhere small town, USA. He lives in the traditional small village home, a “white colonial” at the corner of two streets that appear in every town across the country (Maple & Main). His house has ivy and a porch swing. However, this depiction of the picturesque existence of Schoolsville is disrupted by the action that sometimes takes place within the house. The speaker imagines himself as having lost his grip on reality, and is teaching to an absent audience. This image reinforces the hopelessness and absurdity of his actions. Not only is he teaching to no one, but he is doing things that carry negative connotation, such as lecturing, quizzing, and reprimanding. (Editor’s Note: In this paragraph I have described how the author shifts in the last two stanzas to describe his place, which helps convey the theme. He uses more stereotypes and imagery to characterize himself.)

This poem written mockingly, and probably does not reflect Collins’ consistent vision of the teaching profession. It more than likely captures him at a dark moment, and the poet used his usual humorous style to look back on his years teaching. This humorous tone and depiction of his students vs. his depiction of self helps helps cement the theme of the poem. Although the speaker has had little effect on his students, they certainly have made him lose his grasp on reality. (Editor’s Note: In this paragraph I try to tie it all together by capturing the theme of the poem in light of all of the devices. In the words of Ras the Exhorter, “This be my conclusion, mahn.”)

And here's my explication of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." This one is probably a little bit weaker, although it was easier to explicate.

In this poem Wilfred Owen is depicting the horrors of war. Owen died on the battlefield in World War I, so we can assume that he is the speaker. This is a poem of experience; the high level of imagery suggests that the poet experienced horrors such as this while at war. The theme of the poem is expressed in Latin in the title and repeated in the last two lines. Owen flatly says that people lie when they claim that it is sweet and fitting and honorable to die for your country.

Owen’s bitter tone starts off in the first stanza with his description of the conditions in which the soldiers lived. A typical soldier’s march is described. Owen employs multiple similes to describe the soldiers. The “old lie,” or romantic vision of war, would most likely depict jovial soldiers marching and chanting military songs. This scene is quite different. He describes the soldiers as “beggars under sacks” and “hags” and “drunk with fatigue.” All of these comparisons convey the wretched condition the soldiers are in. Owen’s bitterness is further conveyed by his description of the soldier’s movements. They are trudging “bent” and “knock-kneed,” “cursing.” They lack even boots and are marching “asleep.” These imagery suggests the pain and agony of the soldier experience. Beyond the relentless marching, they have to avoid seemingly sentient bombs. When the shells miss these soldiers the weapons seem “disappointed.” This detail, which is a peek inside the perception of the soldier, conveys the low level to which their spirits have sunk.

The horrific nature of war is further emphasized by the next final three stanzas. A soldier does not get his gas mask on in time to avoid mustard gas exposure, and is suffers its effects. Throughout the rest of the poem, this victim, this soldier, is described in inhuman ways. His body contorts as if “floundering like a man in fire or lime.” The author’s choice of the verb “floundering” calls to mind fish flopping on a deck, gasping for air. Later, Owen describes the grotesque effects of the gas on the soldier. His eyes “writhe,” a word usually reserved for snakes. His face is compared to a devil’s “sick of sin.” These inhuman comparisons continue. The noises emitted from the dying soldier are “obscene of cancer” and bitter as “the cud of vile, incurable sores.” The cancer comparison is obvious, and cud is the partially digested food a cow regurgitates for further chewing. These comparisons and descriptions are employed to further illustrate the graphic violence which disproves the ironic title of the poem.

Finally, the poet destroys the myth of romantic accomplishments on the battlefield by personalizing the experience and challenging the legions of people who still proclaim high military honor and glory. He addresses his reader directly, and bitterly mocks these people. Obviously a person who enthusiastically sells this notion of war is ridiculous, and anyone who exploits the natural tendency towards adventure that children and teenagers exhibit is pathetic.
Owens lived and died in the trenches of World War I. In “Dulce” he describes vividly and graphically the horrors of war in order to mock purporters of this lingering myth.