Comparison between Purpura and Kay .pdf

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Author: Alex Miller

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“Comparison of Style Between Purpura and Kay”

A poet’s choice in how to utilize line, vocab and subject in their poems has a dramatic effect on
the outcome of the poem. While some poets, such as Walt Whitman, utilize long lines to really create a
visual scene. Other poets like Lia Purpura and Kay Ryan use short lines to add a specific effect to their
poems. In Purpura’s poem “History,” she utilizes short lines, specific line breaks, particular vocab and
overall subject to create a feeling and impact on the reader. However, while Ryan uses similar
techniques to Purpura, she uses them to create a very different effect.
In Purpura’s “History,” she uses short lines with some consisting of only a single word. This
effect makes the reader slow down while reading the poem, forcing readers to take in every word and
allow it to soak in their minds. By reading each word slowly, it allows her to create unique line breaks
that would otherwise gone unnoticed. In lines three and four, she writes “but the need to say it, / very
intense, the flames.” By having such short lines, having the reader dwell on each word, she can then
make very effective use of the line break between these lines. It causes a kind of duality with the words
“very intense” at the beginning of line four – it is both the notion that the “need to say it” is very
intense, while at the same time, it is a description of the “very intense [flames].”
By having only one word in a line, such as line fourteen, it can then encompass the whole feeling
of the poem. Line fourteen consists of only the word “disbelief,” which ties into not only her choice of
vocabulary, but also her subject matter. She uses this one solitary line to capture the essence of the
poem – the disbelief of the house burning down. By using just one line, that word has all new
connotations in the narrative of the poem and beyond.
As mentioned, her vocabulary is very important in this poem. She deliberately uses more
colloquial, conversational words. This references not only the story behind the creation of the poem (a
friend telling her that their house had burned down,) but she deliberately uses more common words to
relay the human element in the poem – the fact that this is not some kind of one-time, divine event.
Rather, this was a common event that can happen to anyone. Her use of the word disbelief in line
fourteen is even more important in this regard, as it encompasses not only the feeling of the speaker in
the poem having lost everything, but also the reader hearing about the tragedy.
Her subject, the tragedy, is used to show the passing of time and how the poem exists as a
mode of both destruction and creation. While the poem is about the burning of a house and the loss of
everything within, the final two lines: “a story at least / to pass on to the kids” give a sense of creation –
the creation of the story of the house burning. The subject also ties into the title with these final two
lines, in how tragedy becomes disbelief, how disbelief becomes acceptance, and eventually, a story – a
Kay Ryan in her poem “We’re Building a Ship as we Sail it,” uses many similar techniques.
However, instead of her using short lines to slow the reader for accepting the disbelief and giving time
to process the tragedy, she uses the slow lines to create the effect for the reader surrounding the
construction of the titular ship as a slow process, and a hard-working period of “making.”
However, Ryan’s use of vocabulary is very different and more willing to stretch the reigns on the
vocab. Her use of the word “unflatten” instead of something along the lines of “bend” is intentional,
and I believe goes back to the need to work. It is a need to put in extreme effort and force something,
rather than something bending, which carries none of those connotations. It also gives the essence of
the world, as people moved forth from looking at maps, a flat object, to looking at the world and seeing

it for themselves. The other piece of vocabulary she uses is “in extremis,” a Latin term. This not only
gives the notions of difficulty and time, but its definition adds to the direness of their situation. In
extremis, meaning either “in extreme scenario” or, more importantly, “on the brink of death,” gives a
foreignness and a more direct, needed definition of the feeling of the people aboard this ship.
Lastly, the subject on the surface is all about creation, contrary to Purpura’s poem “History.” It is
about persistence, working, and “making,” not only in the construction of the ship in their attempts to
“unflatten” but also in their attempts of “making things / more gracious.” It focuses on creation among
dire circumstance, as if there was some kind of destruction, while Purpura focuses on the destruction,
but ultimately, leaves a message of creation. These two poems mirror each other in their construction,
subject and imagery, using fire in “History” and water in “We’re Building a Ship as we Sail it,” while using
similar techniques to produce very different effects.

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