Other components which are very important in understanding poetry's power to express include "tone" (the poet's attitude toward the subject); "theme" (what statement is the poet making regarding the subject being embraced?); and "structure" (the format through which the poem is present).
The Unknown Citizen: Wystan Hugh Auden, the author of the poem, was not at all an unknown citizen. He became a very well-known and highly respected poet, in fact. He was born in England in 1907, published his first book of poetry at age 21, and his first noted work, Poems, published in 1930, "established him as the leading voice of a new generation," according to Justin Erenkrantz, University of California at Irvine author and lecturer (www.erenkrantz.com).
Auden was once deeply steeped in socialism and Freudian psychoanalysis but after becoming an American citizen, "his central preoccupation became Christianity and the theology of modern Protestant theologians," Erenkrantz writes.
The poem seems on the surface to be a cleverly written description of bureaucracy gone to extremes. This is a poem written by someone in government - or maybe the government itself somehow writes these biographies - about a state which only recognizes its citizens by ID numbers on his health card and did everything else correctly, even if there was nothing unique or creative to say about him. And in the end, the question as to whether he was happy or free is "absurd" because if he had been in any kind of trouble, "we certainly would have heard," the poet writes.
The "Poetry Explication" project asks, "What is being dramatized in The Unknown Citizen?" The answer: the de-personalization of citizens in the American society. Who is the speaker? Answer: the government is speaking in unemotional, bureaucratic tones. What does the speaker say? Answer: The speaker says the unknown citizen did nothing wrong and followed all the rules, and that is why he is "unknown" because he never did anything to challenge the stereotype or upset the system. What happens in the poem? Answer: Nothing happens, except a recap of his ordinary life. He didn't stand for anything, the audience learns, because "when there was peace, he was for peace, and when there was war, he went." He was robotic, reliable, and loyal to what the government expected of him. When does the action occur? Answer: After his death. JS/07 M. 378. Where is the speaker? Answer: the "speaker" is the typewritten eulogy (e.g., the bureaucracy) on the gravestone. Why does the speaker feel compelled to speak? Answer: the "unknown citizen," like the "unknown soldier," must have recognition at the time of his passing.
Why does the poet choose one word over another in each line? Answer: The poet chooses all the words that combine to make the "unknown citizen" sound cooperative and obedient. He was "normal"; "sensible"; he held "proper opinions"; he "satisfied" his employers (but didn't dazzle or disappoint them); he "never interfered" with his children's education (but did he contribute to their education?); there was "no official complaint" (he was nondescript and stayed out of trouble with the law).
My chosen poet: Langston Hughes. His poem, "I, too, am America."