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A beginner's guide to Walter de la Mare, literary forensics and poetic finger-printing.


 Clouded with snow
 The cold winds blow,
 And shrill on leafless bough
 The robin with its burning breast
 Alone sings now.

 The rayless sun,
 Day's journey done,
 Sheds its last ebbing light
 On fields in leagues of beauty spread
 Unearthly white.

 Thick draws the dark,
 And spark by spark,
 The frost-fires kindle, and soon
 Over that sea of frozen foam
 Floats the white moon.

Walter de la Mare

Kids love codes breaking and making

Take a look at Pig_Latin for an introduction to the world of Pig Latin, Obby Dobby and other fun ways of obfuscating language codes! The popular imagination also loves the idea of forensic science; can you recreate an extinct dinosaur from a milligram of its dandruff? Add to this mix the fact that the only Walter de la Mare poem anyone has ever heard of is 'The Listeners' and you have the makings of a different take on a sadly-neglected poet.

What do I mean by poetic fingerprinting?

I am talking about investigating the formal elements of a poem such as: rhyme scheme, syllabic and lexical patterning. Once you have established a poetic fingerprint, you can invite pupils to use it to 'clone' a chunk of a text which you have deliberately withheld. Here is an example of one I made earlier:

A teacher's guide to poetic fingerprinting Walter de la Mare's poem: 'Winter'

I begin by showing the prepared poem and discussing briefly the effects of the given words to tune them into the task. The task is to recreate the missing middle verse from the jumbled-up words and phrases. Then I show how to use investigative methods to arrive at a 'poetic fingerprint'. The key concept is that poets work through setting up consistent patterns of language and meaning. We exploit this fact when we investigate a poem. We then make use of the fact that the poem is in a sense 'predictable'.


How to find the poem's fingerprint through investigative methods

What rhyme scheme did the poet use?

I annotate each last word in a verse line, starting with 'a' and marking any rhymes at the end of other lines with 'a'. So, verse 1 has a rhyme scheme of a, a, b, c, b. I then check this with verse 3 to make sure the poet used a consistent rhyme scheme pattern, which he did.

How many syllables per line?

Next I look to check if the poet is using a consistent pattern of syllables in each line. Does each verse contain the same number of lines? In 'Winter', de la Mare uses five lines per verse. Then I count the number of syllables in lines 1 to 5 of verse 1. The pattern of syllables per line is 4-4-6-4. Is this the same pattern he used in verse 3? It is. So I hypothesise that he used the same pattern in the missing middle verse.

Sentence length?

Now I look at how many sentences the poet packs into a verse. The first and final verses each contain only one, so--once again--I hypothesise that he will be consistent and confine himself to one sentence in the missing verse.

Other punctuation cues?

Are there any other punctuation marks? Yes. The poetic gets the reader to pause at the end of the second line in verse 1 by ending the line with a comma. He does the same for verse 3 so I hypothesise that he will do the same for the final verse. I am correct. So once more I hypothesise that he will do the same in the missing verse.

Does the poem contain meaning clusters where separate 'cells' share common elements?

Again, I am looking for patterning, for predictable repetitions. In verse 1, I find 'cells' (words) to do with: the weather ('clouded', 'snow', 'cold winds'); nature ('bough', 'robin', 'breast) and light ('burning'). Can I find matches for these meaning clusters in verse 3? Weather words: 'frost', 'frozen'. Nature words: 'sea', 'foam', 'moon'. Light words: 'dark', 'spark' (twice); 'fires' 'white'. So I hypothesise that verse 3 will contain those three meaning clusters because this poet is using consistent and therefore predictable patterns of meaning.

How to use a poetic fingerprint to re-create a missing verse

I provide a copy of the incomplete poem. Where the poem has a 'hole', I drop in a results box and a thinking pad. I also provide the raw materials: the jumbled up text and the poetic fingerprint for 'Winter'. Figure 1 shows what my own working-out looks like. Figure 2 shows these materials with my scribbled notes. I provided a clue as well to make sure the process heads in the right direction. I then proceed in a sudoku-like manner, using a combination of trial-and-error together with the information given to get as close as possible to the poet's original.

Application of the fingerprint to the problem

(Try the task before you read my account of how I proceeded with the task.)

a) I begin by counting up the syllables in each 'bit' of jumbled up text. These are useful building blocks because I know that the poet used a consistent pattern of syllables per line.

b) I drop in the word 'sun' which the fingerprint tells me is the end word of line 1.

c) I know that the end word of line 2 rhymes with 'sun'. I find the two-syllable phrase, 'journey done', which fits the bill.

d) Because line 2 contains four syllables and 'journey done' is three syllables long, I know I need only one more syllable to complete the line. My three options are: 'sheds', 'the' and 'day's'.

e) The first word choice is ambiguous--is it a verb or a noun? I quite like 'day's' because it could 'own' the journey--so I'll pencil it in.

f) I need three more syllables for line 1. These cannot come from either 'ebbing light' or 'unearthly white'. Why? Because they rhyme so they must end lines 3 and 5.

g) Could it be 'rayless' because in verse 1 the snow-clouds are making it dull while by verse 3 the sun has been replaced by the moon. So a sun which has no power to produce rays makes sense. I'll try it.

h) I need one more syllable for line 1. What would go well in front of the noun phrase, 'rayless sun'? I'll try the determiner, 'the'. Line 1 is complete.

i) I read back what I've got. Two lines and no verb yet--lots of compacted noun phrasing. So line 3 could do with a verb. I've only got 'sheds' and 'spread'.

j) I've just discovered a bit more fingerprinting. Verses 1 and 3 are written in the present tense. Applying that bit of knowledge, shows that the missing verb must be 'sheds'. I'll try it.

k) So, line 3 reads 'sheds ....... ebbing light'. I still need two syllables to fill it. I've got two choices. I'll guess 'its last' because... it fits!

l) If 'ebbing light' is right for line 3 then line 5 must contain 'unearthly white'. That phrase is four syllables long--so I have the last line complete.

m) Only line 4 left, I will try the last three 'bits' for best fit.

n) I've finished, so I'll see how close I got to the poet's original verse!

Why use poetic fingerprinting?

This approach builds on 'Ways into poems' (Able, Gifted and Talented Learning in English by Frances Gregory and Bob Cox) which asks pupils to reflect on the strategies they use to help them interpret and give meaning to a poem when they first see it. To do this, they have to make a coherent poem from jumbled up words. It is an alternative to the familiar cloze passage where pupils have to suggest appropriate words deleted from a text. In my experience, while pupils enjoy solving the 'problem' of the missing words, they are less keen to articulate the strategies they used in finding the solution. Investigating the 'bones' of a poem to define its 'fingerprint' forces pupils to be much more up-front about its features. Then when they 'clone' the missing verse, they have to do something transformative with that knowledge; so it's more likely to 'stick'.


Why fingerprint the poems of Walter de la Mare?

A friend of mine pointed out recently, the only poem of Walter's most of us know is 'The Listeners'. Start with a copy of his Selected Poems (the Faber paperback edition edited by Matthew Sweeney) and you will discover what Auden described as 'the delicacy of his metrical fingering and the graceful architecture of his stanzas'. In other words, de la Mare's 'perfect ear and staggering technical assurance' are the perfect place for pupils to hone their poetic fingerprinting skills because his poems--while never predictable--do offer consistent patterning.


Some suggestions

Poems by Walter de la Mare (all page references are to Matthew Sweeney's edition published by Faber): 'The Fly' (p.4-5); 'Haunted' (p. 13-14); 'The Scarecrow' (p.22-3); An Epitaph' (p.30); 'Silver' (p. 48); 'Please to Remember' (p. 85-86); 'The Snowflake' (p.97- 98).

Investigative challenges for further poetic forensics:

'Can you decide on an investigative framework for building a poet's fingerprints?' In other words, what are the different ways in which we can study a poem?

'Can you recognise Walter de la Mare's poetic style by sorting out some of his poems from an anonymous collection which includes texts written by other poets?'

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Title Annotation:Secondary
Author:Burke, Adrian
Publication:NATE Classroom
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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