Standardized Test Preparation: The Literature Subject Test Part III

Posted by Manoah Finston on 6/10/13 9:37 AM

Hello faithful readers! I hope that the cliffhanger SAT II question I gave you last time hasn’t troubled you too much. But don’t worry, I’m back with the answers and explanations for our second example question concerning the analysis of the John Crowe Ransom poem “Blue Girls.” Here’s the poem again, and here’s the question we started working on in the last post: 

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward 
Under the towers of your seminary, 
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary 
Without believing a word. 

Tie the white fillets then about your hair 
And think no more of what will come to pass 
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass 
And chattering on the air. 

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail; 
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish 
Beauty which all our power shall never establish, 
It is so frail. 

For I could tell you a story which is true; 
I know a woman with a terrible tongue, 
Blear eyes fallen from blue, 
All her perfections tarnished -- yet it is not long 
Since she was lovelier than any of you. 

                                                                        (1927)

 

2. The poem is primarily concerned with

     (A) the importance of beauty

     (B) the lesson to be learned from the past

     (C) the fleeting nature of youth

     (D) telling a story for the girls’ benefit

     (E) the permanence of death

 

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In the last post, we talked about how to make sure that we are ready to answer questions in their entirety by paying attention to each word in the question prompt. Feel free to review my last post to get back up to speed with the best method for reading questions. Once you’re ready to attack this question, read on! 

OK: Let’s work the list of answer choices from the bottom up. Is the predominant theme in the poem “the permanence of death?” Remember, we are not being asked to simply identify things that are in the poem, but rather, to identify the thing that is in the poem the most. Let’s quickly scan each stanza for explicit or figurative (metaphor, simile, allegory, etc.) signs of death. The first stanza is about girls in skirts ignoring their teachers in seminary. No death there. The second stanza is about being carefree and living like the bluebirds. I see nature and life but not death. The third stanza is about the frailty and impermanence of beauty—this could sort of imply death, but we’re already more than halfway done with the poem and even this connection looks a little iffy. Is this really what the poem is “primarily” thinking about? And then in the fourth stanza we’ve got a cautionary tale about a mean old woman who used to be young and beautiful. Maybe there’s a little hint of her impending death here, but it’s not super obvious. So we can safely say that “the permanence of death” is definitely not the biggest theme in the poem. Cross it out.

Moving along, what about “telling a story for the girls’ benefit?” In some sense, we can immediately appreciate that this is what the poem is doing. It is called “Blue Girls” and it is speaking directly to the “blue girls” as we can see in stanza three. And we know from our reading (covered in my last blog post) that the speaker of the poem is urging the girls to enjoy their youth and beauty while they still have these things, and that certainly seems to be an exhortation made for their benefit. OK, so are we done? Do we have our answer? Nope! Let’s read the answer choice again carefully. In full we have “telling a story for the girls’ benefit.” We agree that the poem is indeed addressed to the girls’ benefit, but what about “telling a story?” Is the poem’s primary concern telling a story? A quick scan of the poem reminds us that we don’t really get to any kind of story until the fourth stanza, when the speaker explicitly says, “For I could tell you a story which is true…” So, we narrowly escaped a trap set for us by the test-makers. We glommed onto the word “benefit” and saw that yes, the poem is dealing with benefits. But we weren’t careful enough with “telling a story” in light of the question’s own word “primarily.” What we can say for sure is: this poem does tell a story for the girls’ benefit, but it is still not the primary concern of the poem; that is, it is not what the poem is speaking to the most.

OK, so what is the poem really speaking to the most? We know from our previous reading that the poem is more or less meant to warn the “blue girls” about the fact that they won’t always be young and beautiful, that one day soon, they will be like the “woman with a terrible tongue” in the fourth stanza. Let’s keep this in mind as we approach the next answer choice: “the fleeting nature of youth.” Ah—the “fleeting nature of youth” means the impermanence of youth, the notion that it will only last a short amount of time. This is definitely a big theme in the poem, but is it the biggest? Let’s quickly scan the stanzas for evidence. We know that the third and fourth stanzas talk about this explicitly, although the word used there is “beauty,” and that the first two stanzas imply it via the imperatives that the speaker directs to the blue girls. But is the poet using “youth” and “beauty” interchangeably? This answer would be a slam-dunk if it was “the fleeting nature of beauty.” But instead, it talks about youth. Still, we know that youth and beauty go together, especially in poetry. Nevertheless, we need more convincing. This is a strong possibility for our answer, but we should read the other choices to be sure.

What about “the lesson to be learned from the past?” Well, how much does the poem talk about the past? Almost the entire poem is speaking about the present, except for the story of the mean old woman in stanza four, where we see a reference to the past in the concluding lines “yet it is not long since she was lovelier than any of you.” So, there’s some mention of the past in the text, but does this meet our criteria in the question as being the primary concern of the poem? It doesn’t look that way. Let’s strike it.

The final possibility is “the importance of beauty.” Uh oh. This feels right. Doesn’t the poem talk about beauty from start to finish? Aren’t the girls being commanded to enjoy their beauty while they have it? And in stanza three, doesn’t the speaker make much of the fact that beauty is frail and impossible to protect forever in language? Yes—all these things are true. But let’s granulate down to each word in the answer choice: “the importance of beauty.” We’ve got the beauty part covered, but what about importance? In all of the above pronouncements, is the speaker in the poem talking about how important beauty is, or is he doing something else? He is definitely suggesting that it is important to value your beauty while you have it, but that is not the same as saying outright that beauty by itself is important. He is not analyzing the importance of beauty in his society or culture, and he’s not writing about what happens if you are young without beauty. Rather, he’s writing about what happens when you grow old and find that your beauty is gone. This is not a thesis about how important beauty is, but rather, how important it is to value what we have before we lose it. So, another trap narrowly avoided. Half of the answer choice made sense, but the other half didn’t quite fit. That won’t do—there will always be an answer that gets the question entirely correct, even if there are other answers that get the question partially correct.

So let’s review. We axed “the permanence of death” right away. We decided “telling a story for the girls’ benefit” is definitely in the poem but is not the biggest thing. We like “the fleeting nature of youth” because it is present in every stanza, and it works with our impression of the poem as being a warning to young women, but we’re still unsure about the youth v. beauty thing. We eliminated “the lesson to be learned from the past” and we decided that “the importance of beauty” was a seductive possibility but ultimately only a partial answer to the question. This leaves us with (C) the fleeting nature of youth as our final answer.

At this juncture, it is worth taking a moment to acknowledge that this is still an imperfect answer. As we saw above, the really perfect answer would look more like “the fleeting nature of beauty” than “the fleeting nature of youth.” The test-makers have constructed the questions in a way that suggests that beauty and youth are roughly synonyms in this poem, and that is a move that is neither exactly fair, nor precise. If we were writing an essay about this poem in which we had the resources to perform multiple close readings, we likely would have to consider why beauty and youth are not exactly the same in this poem! So, how can we rationalize our choice of (C) as the right answer even when we know that the language used in the answer is incomplete?

The short answer is, sadly, welcome to the SAT II. Remember that this test is always only 60 minutes long and comprises 60-63 questions. This comes out to an average of one question per minute. There is not time to lament the vagaries of the language but there is time enough to recognize that the language is often deliberately misleading. Another thing to remember is that even if we disagree as individual readers with the test’s own assumptions about literature, the test is ultimately just a system to be hacked: it is not the final word about poetry, about prose, about English literature or really about anything else. What matters most is that you learn how to tackle the limited number of problems that will be thrown your way so that you can get to the right answers quickly and efficiently. In the above analysis of this question, we can clearly see that the question is meant to be tricky, and that even the right answer is not a perfect fit. This is all part of the noise built into the exam by its architects. The most important thing we learned from the above, however, is how to use the precision of language as our greatest weapon. We did a close reading of the question, which enabled us to view the answer choices critically, and make selections based on that view. We also did a close reading of the answer choices, and that helped us to eliminate partial answers and isolate the answer selection that satisfied all of the criteria set forth in the question. And we also learned that we can follow that method and still be dissatisfied with where we end up. However, that is also part of the “fun” of this test—learning to separate our feelings about it from the sheer experience of doing it and getting it out of the way. If you stick to the methods described in these posts and elsewhere on the blog, and if you bring your highest attention to all of the language of the test, you will whoop this thing, even if you disagree with how it is constructed. Perhaps a bittersweet conclusion, but a conclusion nonetheless.

Stay tuned for some analysis of questions from the SAT I verbal section (!) coming up soon from me, an NYC SAT tutor. And as always, enjoy!

 

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Tags: literature SAT subject test