1. Select one of the poems below and read it over carefully a few times.
  2. Write a 2-3 page critical analysis of the poem, typed and double-spaced. 
  3. Don't ask any questions and don't feel anxious; there isn't any "right" or "wrong" way to write this piece. Simply draw on whatever your understanding of "critical essay" may be. (The point of this "diagnostic essay" is to explore just what we all think a "critical essay" is. By the end of the term, your understanding will likely be very different, so this first essay will act as a touchstone and tell us where you started.)
  4. Please take no more than 40 minutes to write your essay.
  5. Include a title or header that identifies the poem you have analyzed, and don’t forget your name. 
  6. When finished, put the document in our Blackboard Digital Dropbox, with your name and "First Day Essay" on any subject lines.



The Anniversary


You raise the ax,

the block of wood screams in half,

while I lift the sack of flour

and carry it into the house.

I'm not afraid of the blade

you've just pointed at my head.

If I were dead, you could take the boy,

hunt, kiss gnats, instead of my moist lips.

Take it easy, squabs are roasting,

corn, still in husks, crackles,

as the boy dances around the table:

old guest at a wedding party for two sad-faced clowns,

who together, never won a round of anything but hard times.

Come in, sheets are clean,

fall down on me for one more year

and we can blast another hole in ourselves without a sound.







My Papa's Waltz


The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.


We romped until the pans

Slid from the kitchen shelf;

My mother's countenance

Could not unfrown itself.


The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step you missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.


You beat time on my head

With a palm caked hard by dirt,

Then waltzed me off to bed

Still clinging to your shirt.


—Theodore Roethke




Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand




Thumb, loose tooth of a horse.

Rooster to his hens.

Horn of a devil. Fat worm

They have attached to my flesh

At the time of my birth.

It takes four to hold him down,

Bend him in half, until the bone

Begins to whimper.

Cut him off. He can take care

Of himself. Take root in the earth,

Or go hunting with wolves.



The second points the way.

True way. The path crosses the earth,

The moon and some stars.

Watch, he points further.

He points to himself.



The middle one has backache.

Stiff, still unaccustomed to this life:

An old man at birth. It's about something

That he had and lost,

That he looks for within my hand,

The way a dog looks

For fleas

With a sharp tooth.



The fourth is mystery.

Sometimes as my hand

Rests on the table

He jumps by himself

As though someone called his name.


After each bone, finger,

I come to him, troubled.



Something stirs in the fifth

Something perpetually at the point

Of birth. Weak and submissive,

His touch is gentle.

It weighs a tear.

It takes the mote out of the eye.


—Charles Simic

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


—Robert Frost




Traveling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.


By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;

she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.


My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,

alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.


The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.


I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,

then pushed her over the edge into the river.


—William Stafford



To a Blossoming Pear Tree


Beautiful natural blossoms,

Pure delicate body,

You stand without trembling.

Little mist of fallen starlight,

Perfect, beyond my reach,

How I envy you.

For if you could only listen,

I would tell you something,

Something human.


An old man

Appeared to me once

In the unendurable snow.

He had a singe of white

Beard on his face.

He paused on a street in Minneapolis

And stroked my face.

Give it to me, he begged.

I'll pay you anything.


I flinched. Both terrified,

We slunk away,

Each in his own way dodging

The cruel darts of the cold.


Beautiful natural blossoms,

How could you possibly

Worry or bother or care

About the ashamed, hopeless

Old man? He was so near death

He was willing to take

Any love he could get,

Even at the risk

Of some mocking policeman

Or some cute young wiseacre

Smashing his dentures,

Perhaps leading him on

To a dark place and there

Kicking him in his dead groin

Just for the fun of it.


Young tree, unburdened

By anything but your beautiful natural blossoms

And dew, the dark

Blood in my body drags me

Down with my brother.


—James Wright



A Supermarket in California



          What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.

          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.

          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?

          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.

          We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.


          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?

          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)

          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?



Berkeley, 1955  


—Allen Ginsberg




The Lake Isle of Innisfree


I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet's wings.


I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.


W.B. Yeats




Adam and Eve



I wanted to punch her right in the mouth and that's the truth.

After all, we had gotten from the station of the flickering glances

to the station of the hungry mouths,

from the shoreline of skirts and faded jeans

to the ocean of unencumbered skin,

from the perilous mountaintop of the apartment steps

to the sanctified valley of the bed—


the candle fluttering upon the dresser top, its little yellow blade

sending up its whiff of waxy smoke,

and I could smell her readiness

like a dank cloud above a field,


when at the crucial moment, the all-important moment,

the moment standing at attention,


she held her milk white hand agitatedly

over the entrance to her body and said No,


and my brain burst into flame.


If I couldn't sink myself in her like a dark spur

or dissolve into her like a clod thrown in a river,


can I go all the way in the saying, and say

I wanted to punch her right in the face?

Am I allowed to say that,

that I wanted to punch her right in her soft face?


Or is the saying just another instance of rapaciousness,

just another way of doing what I wanted then,

by saying it?


Is a man just an animal, and is a woman not an animal?

Is the name of the animal power?

Is it true that the man wishes to see the woman

hurt with her own pleasure


and the woman wishes to see the expression on the man's face

of someone falling from great height,

that the woman thrills with the power of her weakness

and the man is astonished by the weakness of his power?


Is the sexual chase a hunt where the animal inside

drags the human down

into a jungle made of vowels,

hormonal undergrowth of sweat and hair,


or is this an obsolete idea

lodged like a fossil

in the brain of the ape

who lives inside the man?


Can the fossil be surgically removed

or dissolved, or redesigned

so the man can be a human being, like a woman?


Does the woman see the man as a house

where she might live in safety,

and does the man see the woman as a door

through which he might escape

the hated prison of himself,


and when the door is locked,

does he hate the door instead?

Does he learn to hate all doors?


I've seen rain turn into snow then back to rain,

and I've seen making love turn into fucking

then back to making love,

and no one covered up their faces out of shame,

no one rose and walked into the lonely maw of night.


But where was there, in fact, to go?

Are some things better left unsaid?

Shall I tell you her name?

Can I say it again,

that I wanted to punch her right in the face?


Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness.

As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.


—Tony Hoagland

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