Sunday, 11 December 2011

Connotations (and cut-up poems)

As I have said in other posts, I believe that understanding the idea of the connotations of words is central to understanding (and being able to write about) literature. Connotations are what give not only imagery but also alliteration, assonance and rhythm their power.

One way I have attempted to give students a clearer understanding of connotations is through an exercise I have called "cut-up poems." First, read Back in the Playground Blues, by Adrian Mitchell. Now read this little poem I made:

Playground in Summer
On the dusty ground
A small black chicken
Playing with a beetle.

With my back to the fence
In the lunchtime sun
I heard mother and father

Clearly, though my poem is not particularly good it has a very different atmosphere to Mitchell's. Having established this I ask students to find the link between the poems. It generally takes a while to work out that the second poem is formed exclusively of words taken from the first. The question then is, if all of the words in the second poem come from the first, how come the atmosphere in the second poem is so different? Initially usually someone suggests that I have only taken the nicest and least scary words from the first poem, but this is clearly not true. So how does it work?

The answer is of course to do with connotations and the range of connotations a single word can have. Take the word "sun", indeed the phrase "lunchtime sun", that occurs in both poems. The phrase has a very diverse set of connotations: think of High Noon or Gunfight at the OK Corral, or any of those other Westerns where the showdown on the main street always takes place under the pitiless noonday sun. Think of the burning, killing sun of the Sahara, from films like Ice Cold in Alex. On the other hand think of lazy summer picnic lunches, or sunbathing beside the pool with a lunchtime cocktail, or those endless sunny lunchtimes of childhood holidays.

Quite simply, the poet of Back in the Playground Blues has triggered the first set of these connotations, by associating the phrase with the image of the beetle on its back, facing death. The "poet" of Playground in Summer has triggered the second set by associating the phrase with sitting against a sun-warmed fence and hearing the low murmur of your parents' voices.

So that's how connotations work. Simple really, and I think once students "get it" they find focusing on connotations a powerful way in to all poetry.


  1. This is a really fascinating post. Have you ever got students to create their own poems from someone else's in the same way as you did?

  2. Yes indeed, and it unleashes tremendous creativity in the students. For students who “can’t write poems” the fact that these are not their words is somehow tremendously liberating. It also reveals the depth of the connotations of words they are actually subconsciously aware of themselves.