How does Bart Edelman use diction and tone in the poem "Chemistry Experiment"?

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edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Diction is word choice, and so naturally, diction informs the tone of a literary work. In "Chemistry Experiment," Edelman's diction creates a conversational tone in a poem that seems to be, until its final five lines, a recollection of an ill-fated chemistry experiment in an undergraduate classroom. Edelman's speaker uses the pronoun "we" to describe the dutiful approach the students had in conducting the experiment that their professor had prepared them to perform. The ensuing explosion unsettles the speaker and his classmates; the words "perplexing," "disillusioned," "retreated," and "shook us" describe their emotional state in the aftermath, and the poem's honest and confessional tone sounds like a person relating an upsetting experience to a friend or therapist.

However, the final five lines in which the speaker likens the explosion in the lab and his consequent loss of confidence to the loss of a significant person, likely a romantic partner, suggest a slightly different tone. When anyone asks about that person, the speaker gets "this sick feeling in [my] stomach" and wonders about the "elementary matter" that symbolizes the feelings they had for one another and what happened to them. 

The poem's overall poignant tone suggests a reflective state tinged with sadness over loss: the loss of confidence after a traumatic experience and the loss of a relationship. 

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tone refers to the author's feelings regarding the subject of a text. This particular text takes as its subject a chemistry student who seemed to do everything right during some experiment and yet still produced a horrifying result: an explosion that could have been so much worse than it actually was.

The poet seems to address this issue with a knowing tone, as though he is substantially less surprised than the speaker is. The speaker seems to be quite surprised at the result of his experiment, especially since he "listened intently" to instruction, pored over the textbook "twice," wore all the proper safety equipment, and "mixed the perfect" combinations of substances. The explosion that followed, then, was "perplexing" because the experiment should, logically, have been a complete success as a result of the speaker's study and care.

The author, however, presents this information in such a matter-of-fact tone, a tone that seems to acknowledge that we simply cannot control everything: even when we think we've done everything right. The tone is unemotional, almost clinical in its presentation of fact.

stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The language used in "Chemistry Experiment" is very straight-forward and factual, as would be the expectation for any scientifically-valid activity. There is no emotional influence during the description of the preparations and the actual experiment itself. The phrases are short and direct. "Read through the textbook twice, Wore lab coats and safety goggles, Mixed the perfect chemical combinations In the proper amount and order."

Even after the explosion occurs, the vocabulary of the poem remains rather stark. "the flash of light, The loud, perplexing explosion, The black rope of smoke" tells what happened but doesn't add any extra details.

In describing the aftermath, Edelman states that the individuals involved in creating the explosion "slowly retreated from each other" but doesn't deeply explore the thoughts and emotions experienced as they separately dealt with the potential, but unrealized, ramifications of what they had done. The narrator of the poem recognizes the traumatic impact of the event upon his life and the continuing reaction when he thinks of it, but does so without undue subjective emotion.