Poetry Explication and Analysis Essay Paper

Poetry Explication and Analysis Essay: “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less” by Rita Dove

Part I: Scansion and Analysis

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Rita Dove’s “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less” is a poetic slap in the face to politeness and manners. She makes no apologies and no excuses. Her words resound with the lyrics of Nina Simone who sang similarly in her songs about being independent and doing as she pleased. Dove echoes that sentiment in her poetry, admitting that she has “a wild, thatched soul” (Dove 8).

The meter used by Dove in “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less” is somewhat random, almost like a jazz rendition: it proceeds at whatever pace the poet prefers, jumping about haphazardly or resting and allowing the words to roll out leisurely. The meter is not consistent throughout, but the rhythm does pick up and move at a quick clip, with barely 3-4 beats per line in the middle of the poem.

There is also no rhyme scheme in the poem. Dove essentially tells that reader that she is not going to try to please anyone but herself and she is certainly not going to describe herself in under three words. She talks at length, without rhyming her words, and then she tells the reader straight up at the end of the poem that she has even forgotten all about him. The poem does rely on traditional punctuation, but the beginning of each new line is not capitalized—only the words that start a new sentence are capitalized. The poem is divided essentially into three stanzas, the first with 8 lines, the second and third with 7 lines. In the first stanza, Dove describes herself as being “itchy and pug-willed” (Dove 5). In the second stanza, she describes her “boats” which symbolize her spirit and how she lets it roam free at night. In the third stanza, she describes her environment and how she takes ownership of everything around her and how she does not need the reader’s approval to be happy.

The poem is grammatical; syntax and diction are used appropriately and Dove does follow English conventions. The poem is basically free verse and not really metrical, though it does have a poppy kind of rhythm to it. The feet are not consistent throughout, some lines with only 3 feet, others with 6 or more. The poem is organized from the inside out. First, Dove describes herself, then she describes her spirit as she lets it out, and finally she describes her surroundings and how she possesses everything around her: “You are mine” (Dove 16). The poem has no special form or mode unless one were to call it an ode to herself.

Part II: Explication

The poem’s main idea is that Dove, the subject of the poem, is not one who bows down or submits to others. She does not yap or bark or sing praises for money or for any other reason. She states that she is a like a pugnacious dog: she likes to quarrel rather than love. The larger themes that are hinted at in the poem are ideas of freedom, a non-judgmental approach to life (she states that she does not ask where her “boats” have been, and since these “boats” symbolize her spirit she is saying that she does not criticize her soul for what it wants). The poem is, in this manner, rather social and serves as a commentary on what others might do or say when someone lives a lifestyle that does not correspond with their values.

There are no allusions to other poetic works, though the attitude and tone of the poem echo the attitude and tone of Nina Simone very much. The lyric situation indicates that the poet was inspired by the ridiculous instructions that one sometimes receives to describe yourself in two or three words—as though anyone would really want to do that. Dove is asserting herself in many several words and showing that she has no interest in summarizing herself in only three words. She will take as many words as she wants to show who and what she is—and it is nobody’s business if she wants to take more. Moreover, she only sings her poem because it pleases her. She is not doing because she has been asked. She does not care if she has a reader. She already has everything in the world she could have. She is at peace with herself and confident in her person.

The poem does use a few poetic devices. In the second stanza, she writes “Each night I set my boats to sea / and leave them to their bawdy business” (Dove 9-10). The “boats” refer to her spirit, her desires and the sea is the world in which her soul does its “bawdy business.” “Boats” may also symbolize her friends, her entourage, her people. In poetry, it is not necessarily to assign a single meaning to any one term. Oftentimes terms can take on numerous meanings (Wimsatt). The “manicured spider” to whom Dove sings is oddly described (why would a spider have a manicure?) but it is an image that sticks in the mind and it indicates that Dove is operating on another plane: she is at one with her surroundings. She is not frightened by a spider but rather appreciates its grace and beauty. The tone of the poem is sassy, like a Simone song, but it is also lyrical in a way: its use of alliteration, consonance and assonance helps to make words run smoothly: “maddened, moon-rinsed” and “bawdy business” all repeat the same sounds over and over, hypnotizing the reader.

The overall theme of the work is a song to the self—like Whitman’s poem. The meaning of the work is that people should celebrate themselves and not apologize for their eccentricities. The poem essentially says, “Be eccentric—be you!”

Works Cited

Dove, Rita. “Describe Yourself in Three Words or Less.” Structure and Style.


Wimsatt, William Kurtz. The verbal icon: Studies in the meaning of poetry. University

Press of Kentucky, 1954.



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