The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

“For a Freshman Reader” is a poem of twenty-two lines divided into eleven un-rhymed couplets. The poem is exemplary of syllabic structure; each line is precisely seven syllables long. While the syllabic form may seem restrictive, each line achieves the naturalness and fluidity of speech. This poem creates a particular tone and cast to the speech of its narrator. In the first person, the speaker directs comments to those present—listeners, readers, disciples, pupils—as in a dramatic monologue. One does not hear the responses to the poem. The voice, however, is seamless and provides a miniature but complete portrait of the speaker.

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The epigram’s reference is to the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger who, writing in the decades immediately after the World War II, rebuked any inward turning as a sign of the conditions that led to the rise of Nazism and the persistence of the underlying prewar conditions after the war. Donald Justice adopts the severe tone of Enzensberger’s poetry to warn of history’s lessons.

The title suggests a proposal for a textbook, course of study, curricula, or anthology to introduce a beginning reader into something beyond literature, as the ominous opening couplet suggests: “Don’t bother with odes, my son./ Timetables are more precise.” This opening couplet establishes an ironic tone that implicitly condemns those who believe in timetables rather than odes or those who put more value in precision than what may be discovered in odes or poetry. The poem is composed as a list of warnings and bits of advice administered with a certain amount of ironic self-appraisal: “Learn to be anonymous,/ Learn more than I did: to change/ Your identification.” The enjambment of these lines suggests a self-directed sarcasm, for it is not simply the ability “to change” that is advised, but more specifically “identification” is suspect. The speaker suggests that change might be politically convenient or self-serving, and he sarcastically provides advice on how to survive in times of political crisis. The speaker ironically recommends that anonymity is best, that timetables and not odes are more suitable since they are more precise, encyclicals are good tinder, and manifestoes are “handy/ For wrapping up the butter/ And salt given to victims.” All this is offered as a condemnation of the listener or reader who has compromised himself or herself morally or ethically.

In the poem’s final three couplets, the speaker warns that it will require more than anger to destroy the authority that has required such a circumscribed way of life. Patience is called for, but it is a “fine deadly powder/ Ground by those with the know-how.” The poem concludes with the speaker stating that those with the “know-how” are the “precisionists, like you.” The closing word, “you,” draws the reader into the drama, assuring that he or she be listeners—or pupils—of the narrator. The narrator’s descriptive terms, “precisionists” and “those with the know-how,” complete the poem’s ironic and condemnatory position. As “precisionists,” readers are returned to the beginning of the poem, with its phrase “Timetables are more precise,” and are fully exposed as morally corrupted.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

The two most significant aspects of “For a Freshman Reader,” as well as for many of Justice’s poems, are the voice and the formal structure of the poem. In “For a Freshman Reader,” the two are inseparable. This achievement suggests how complete the poem is, how it refutes critical or interpretive interventions because the poem is a thing unto itself, an entity whose elegance allows for nothing extraneous. Indeed, to be elegant, by definition, demands choice and selection; there is no place for the extraneous. This consideration is very much part of the poem’s demands of its form and voice.

The syllabic demands create a spare, balanced, and direct voice. The formal limits of syllabic composition provide, but do not necessitate, the sense of restraint in the voice. The voice commands and assumes a paternal air in such lines as the opening line or “Watch it, don’t sing.” The measured pace of the syllabic form suggests the speaker’s character is methodological and circumspect, yet also angry. The voice also carries within it a historical knowledge that allows the speaker to foresee the future’s possibilities: “The day will come when once more/ Lists will be nailed to the door.” The employment of syllabics conjoined with Justice’s ability to conceive of a dramatically whole voice gives the poem the quality of the inevitable. While syllabic composition can be used extravagantly, as in the poetry of Marianne Moore, Justice usually uses such formal demands to focus and contain the poem—to give each poem an invariable shape and presence.

The syllabic form also can compress and invoke an austerity in the use of language. This is certainly true of “For a Freshman Reader,” yet again it is also contingent upon the character of the speaker. In the imperative line “Learn to be anonymous,” the speaker’s character and the line’s syllabic form are seamless. Justice’s comments about the poetry of Weldon Kees pertain to Justice’s own work: “Kees is original in one of the few ways that matter: he speaks to us in a voice, or, rather, in a particular tone of voice which we have never heard before” (from Justice’s introduction to The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, 1960).

“For a Freshman Reader” avoids metaphor, allowing only the statement “Currents are changing” to generate, with grim humor, “Unroll/ The sea charts.” The penultimate couplet shifts to the allegorical with the fusion of abstraction with a physical object: “It will take patience to force/ The lungs of authority.” These are difficult lines, for they are not only imagistic but also establish the speaker’s position and his condemnation of the “you.” They also implicitly pose the question of the value of anger and expression in contrast to the precisionists’ patience. These lines are the only departure from the prosaic and concrete language used by the narrator. Their use of the trope prepares the reader for the poem’s closure that acts to name and include the reader.

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Themes