- Read and annotate “Alabanza”
- Read “Literary Analysis: Close Reading” lecture notes
- Select 2 moments from “Alabanza” and using the information from the lecture notes, please analyze these moments using your literary devices.
- In a few sentences, please tell us what you believe is the theme of “Alabanza.”
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Literary Analysis and Close Reading
Figurative language vs. Literal
Literal language – When artists use plain (or fancy) words to convey what they mean in concrete terms. For example: I am upset. I am in love. The dog died.
Figurative language – When artists use figures of speech to be more effective, persuasive, or impactful. For example: I see red. My love is like a red, red rose. The dog walked over rainbow bridge.
- metaphors, similes, allusions go beyond literal meanings to give readers new insight.
- alliterations, imageries, onomatopoeias appeal to the senses of the readers.
In our first reading of the semester, Martin Espada tells a story of 9/11 in his poem “Alabanza.” As a poet, Espada has done his job by crafting this poem, but it is up to the reader (us) to decide what it ultimately means. And, unlike the math textbooks of my younger days, there is no answer on page 527 at the back of the book to let us check to see if we got “the” answer right.
Before you continue, please enjoy a musical interlude.
I do not want to give you the impression that interpreting a text is without challenge because part of interpreting a text is convincing your readers to accept your interpretation. And this can be tricky. Think of the case of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” Some have interpreted this song and have argued that not only does it fall into the Country genre, it should have been considered for the Country Music Charts. Others vehemently disagree. To make their case, each side might analyze not only structural elements such as beat, rhythm, and tempo but also content or lyrics.
In other words, their analysis and ensuing argument is highly organized. Much like these Lil Nax X fans, when we analyze literature, we are also trying to get at what something might mean, and we do so using some pretty specific methods.
To arrive at a particular meaning, we keep moving back and forth between understanding small points and the ways in which the small points build (even when they contradict) to create an overall point.
- Small moments – a small moment may be a line, word, character’s name, an exchange between characters, among other elements that hold additional meaning. For example, what does it mean that in the third stanza, the protagonist (speaker/narrator) insists that some anonymous person can’t tell them “nothing” (Line 13). By considering this assertion that no one can tell the main character anything about who they are at the start of this poem, we are reading this text very closely – or engaging in “close reading.” To fully analyze these small moments, we use literary devices (see below) to help us dig deeper.
- Larger meaning – as analysts, we pay attention to these small moments because they help us decide what an overall meaning for the text might be. You should know that even after we have decided what a text might “mean,” it is highly dependent on what we are feeling at that particular time. Think about those times when you have just have your heart broken and then you hear a particular song that you have heard hundreds of times. But on this particular day, as you wipe away your tears, you think to yourself, “yes, this is exactly how I feel.”
Author vs. Narrator vs. Characters vs. Literary Analyst
Author: The author is the creator/writer of the text (poem, short story, play, novel, painting, song, and so on).
Narrator: This is the person or people who are telling the story. As noted above, there are different types of narration – and some of those narrators are untrustworthy.
Characters: The people who exist in the text.
Literary Analyst: This is the person who analyzes a text and who makes a particular argument. The literary analyst will look at words and/or images and listen to sounds and then make the argument that something is a metaphor .. or a symbol ..or contributes to a theme.
- “Incorrect”: Poe’s use of metaphor in this particular scene means that the casket is a subconscious burden felt by the protagonist.
- Better: Here, the buried casket represents a subconscious burden that is felt by the protagonist.
Alliteration – when a group of words all have the same first sound.
Allusion – brief, indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea that creates additional meaning. To “riff.”
Anaphora – deliberate repetition of words and phrases from the first part of a sentence.
Antihero – A protagonist who has the opposite attributes of a hero.
Assonance – repetition of internal vowel sounds in nearby words that do not end the same – for example: “asleep under a tree” or “each evening” or “asleep in the deep.”
Catharsis – the release of the emotions of pity and fear by the audience at the end of a tragedy.
Character, characterization – a person presented in a dramatic or narrative work, and characterization is the process by which a writer make that character seem real to the reader.
Conflict – The struggle within the plot between opposing forces. The PROTAGONIST engages in the conflict with the ANTAGONIST, which may take the form of a character, society, nature, or an aspect of the protagonist’s personality.
Connotation – Associations and implications that go beyond the literal meaning of a word, which derive from how the word has been commonly used and the associations people make of it. I.e.: red = blood/danger; eagle = freedom. These are cultural constructions.
Denotation – The dictionary meaning of a word.
Didactic poetry – Poetry designed to teach an ethical, moral, or religious lesson.
Elegy – A mournful, contemplative lyric poem to commemorate someone who is dead, often ending in consolation.
Epiphany – When a character suddenly experiences a deep realization about him or her or their self.
Foil – A character in a work whose behavior and values contrast with those of another character in order to highlight the distinctive temperament of that character.
Foreshadowing – The introduction early on in a story of verbal and dramatic hints that suggest what is to come later.
Form – The overall structure or shape of a work, which frequently follows an established design.
Genre – “Type” as in type of literature. Some examples are poetry, fiction, drama, and essays.
Hyperbole – exaggeration such as “I am dying of shame.”
Imagery – using figurative language to appeal to a person’s senses.
Irony – words are used in a way that the intended meaning is different. This speaks to the difference between appearance and reality.
- dramatic irony – characters are unaware of some important information, but the audience is aware.
- situational irony – characters and audience are unaware of implications of the reality of a situation.
Metaphor – implicit, hidden, or implied comparison with two unrelated things.
Narrator -The voice of the person (not the author!!) telling the story.
- First-person narrator: The “I” in the story presents the point of view of only one character. The reader is restricted to the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of that single character.
- Omniscient narrator – all-knowing narrator who is not a character in the story and who can move from place to place and pass back and forth through time, slipping into and out of characters as no human being possibly could in real life.
- Limited omniscient – when a narrator is restricted to the single perspective of either a major or minor character.
- Neutral omniscient – Narration that allows the character’s actions and thoughts to speak for themselves.
Onomatopoeia – A word that imitates the natural sound such as “gushing” stream or “whisper.”
Oxymoron – two opposite ideas are joined to create an effect such as “cruel kindness.” This typically happens between just a few words.
Paradox – something that is contradictory but true. Paradox is close to oxymoron but happens on the sentence level. Consider Orwell’s writing: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” (Animal Farm)
Personification – thing, idea, or an animal given human attributes. This gives the reader the ability to look at something as a human, which many argue helps us to understand the idea, thing, or animal better.
Point of view – this refers to who tells us a story and how it is told.
- Third-person narrator: he, she, they. Narrator does not participate in the action.
- First-person narrator: I
Protagonist – The main character of a narrative; its central character who engages the reader’s interest and empathy.
Resolution – The conclusion of a plot’s conflict and complications. This is also known as “falling action” following the climax.
Sarcasm – to speak bitterly.
Simile – A comparison using “like” or “as”.
Subject – big idea of the text.
Symbolism – an object that is itself and something more.
Theme – main idea – or the thing that is being captured.
- Subject = War; Theme = A writer’s feelings about how war is a curse for humanity.