Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“Compass rose” is a cartographic term, referring to a visual device which is an aid to navigation and a help to travelers. Found on maps, the rose is a circle divided into thirty-two points, the longest of which aims toward true, or magnetic, north, while the others determine the points of the compass. In many maps, especially those from earlier times, the compass rose is often elaborately ornamented with fantastic designs, making it both pleasing and useful. Yet above all else, it determines direction.

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Evan Connell’s choice of title was apt, for Points for a Compass Rose is built upon the structure of a voyage of discovery and exploration. In Connell’s case, however, while the voyage is both external and internal, it is primarily within the hearts and minds of human beings, and the discoveries are the heights of nobility and the depths of baseness to which human ability can reach.

Points for a Compass Rose is classified as poetry only for want of a more precise term. In fact, it is a book which does not fit in any established genre, and to call it poetry is misleading. In form, the text has the look of free verse, but Connell’s lines lack the rhythmic signature and the economy of expression that distinguish poetry (even the freest free verse) from prose. In its organization, however, the book resembles many a modern poem, shifting rapidly from subject to subject. It is given unity by certain recurring themes and concerns which obsess the first-person narrator. These key themes are few, but they are capable of almost endless elaboration and explication: the nature and corrupting effects of power upon individuals and nations; the mysteries of nature; the relationship between science and magic; and, above all, human history and its impact on cultures and the individual. Connell does not arrange these themes in any consistent pattern, but allows them to flow together by association, one topic suggesting the next, then a third arising to comment upon the earlier subjects, and so on.

Points for a Compass Rose is essentially a personal meditation in quasi-poetic form, and in addition to the motifs which recur, certain structural devices help tie the work together. These are the repeated use of nautical imagery, particularly navigational coordinates; interspersed notations from chess games; historical references, most often to the Holocaust and the United States’ involvement in Vietnam; and the first-person narrator. Together, these elements help provide some coherence and unity.

The first three elements relate to Connell’s themes; the fourth provides a more personal aspect. The narrator is a person who has not one name, but many, and whose character continually changes. He provides much information about himself, but it is misleading and contradictory. He adopts the persona of such figures as the astronomer Johannes Kepler, the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, and the alchemist Paracelsus. In this fashion, Connell manages to connect his work with a single voice yet underscore the point that this work is a view not of one man but of entire cultures and civilizations.


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Last Updated on May 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Bach, Bert C. Review in Library Journal. XCVIII (March 15, 1973), p. 874.

Dillard, Annie. “Winter Melons,” in Harper’s Magazine. CCXLVIII (January, 1974), p. 87.

Edwards, T. R. “Surprise, Surprise,” in The New York Review of Books. XX (May 17, 1973), pp. 35-37.

Fahey, James. Review in Best Sellers. XXXIII (June 15, 1973), p. 136.

West, Paul. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXVII (April 29, 1973), p. 7.

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