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Commentary Samples from Exam 1, May 2001

Higher Level

Stephen Edgars The Secret Life of Books is about the nature of reading and
the power of literature to affect the reader. The poem personifies books, imagining
how they silently plot to draw in their readers, and then moves to a discussion of how the readers are changed
by their reading. Edgar structures his poem to illustrate the nature of this relationship between literature and
its readers.
The Secret Life of Books is divided into five stanzas, each six lines in length. A lyric poem, it is a brief
commentary revealing the speakers emotions on its topic. Within such a brief length, Edgar has developed a
specific structure to each stanza. Of the six lines in a stanza, the first is long (10-12 syllables), the second is
short (3-5 syllables), the third and fourth are long, the fifth is short, and the sixth is long. The second and sixth
lines of each stanza rhyme, or come close to rhyming, as do the third and fifth. This structure is consistent
throughout the entire length of the poem.
The first stanza introduces the idea of books after-hours scheming, and describes how they influence the
outside world: they do their work through others/ . . .by the twisting of heart. The stanza is consistent in voice
and character. Each sentence has they referring to books as its subject: They have... They know they do
their work... They have turned the world. However, the stanza also employs a contradiction to illustrate its
theme. On the one hand, the dominant image of books in the stanza is that produced by the simile in lines 3
and 4: Like invalids long reconciled /To stillness. Books are incapable of movement and seemingly inactive:
they cant move. On the other hand, the stanza describes their effects using language which suggests
movement: They have turned the world/ By the twisting of hearts. This contrast between images of stasis
and kinesis emphasizes the paradox of the poems theme: how can inanimate objects produce change?
The next stanza directly raises this question: What do they have to say and how do they say it? How
can a book speak? This question is not answered directly. Instead it introduces whimsical images of books
plotting in the library/ At night or the sun room. The stanza also introduces the use of the second person:
something is going on,/ You may suspect... For the first time in the poem interplay exists between they
(the books) and you (the reader). However, such interaction is only mental-suspicion. The reader has not yet
opened the book and begun to read. The stanza is mainly preparatory - it describes the setting (library or sun
room), introduces a second character, and, most importantly, creates tension in the poem by bringing up an
unanswered question. This quality of unfinishedness is emphasized by Edgars use of an incomplete sentence
at the end of the stanza. Completion, he suggests, will come later.
The third stanza begins by completing the sentence that ended the previous stanza: Yet they/ Need
you. The use of Need to begin the stanza establishes its dominant idea, that a book needs a reader to
become complete. In this, the central stanza of the poem, the reader (you) picks up one of them and
begins to read. Another question is raised: Why this one? The answer has been provided by the previous
two stanzas set-up: the books stratagems have drawn you in. The stanza contains images of determinism,
the selfish gene, alluding to science as an attempt to answer our questions. But the author seems to disagree
that a selfish or other gene causes our choice of reading matter; he prefers his capricious idea of books
secret midnight strategy sessions. Literature itself is what draws the reader in and it is addictive: already the
blurb/ is drawing in/ Some further text. To demonstrate this, Edgar again leaves his final sentence of the
stanza unfinished, showing how one word leads to the next.
The fourth stanza continues the idea of one book leading to another, an atlas or gazetteer, for example,
to look up unfamiliar place-names. But in the fourth stanza Edgar moves on from the idea of addictive reading
and begins to answer the question posed in stanza two: how do books speak? The answer he provides is that
they use the reader, by prompting discussion or provoking thought. In a poem spare/As a dead leafs
skeleton, the reader must provide the words that the author left out. Edgar uses the metaphor of relations
between the sexes to describe his idea of how a poem or other work of literature speaks. A piece of literature

From IB training materials, Riga, Latvia, summer 2002 page 1

provides us with a script, but just as lovers never hear the script passed through the sexes, the reader may
never realize that his ideas stem from a book he has read.
This idea is developed further in the final stanza, bringing the poem to its conclusion. When the reader
comes to think, to tell, to do, he ends up not thinking in an original manner, but becomes a model of what he
has read. In the end they have written you; their thoughts become yours. Structurally, this stanza connects to
the first stanza. It is self-contained, neither beginning nor ending with part of a sentence. In addition, the
phrasing of the first line, They have you, echoes the poems opening: They have their stratagems too.
What exactly are the books plotting? The parallel structure at the poems end resolves this question. They
were plotting to have their ideas become part of us.
The title of the poem is extremely significant. It is the only time in the poem that the word books is used,
and thus the readers only clue to the identity of they used over and over in the poem. The phrase secret
life carries the connotation of glamorous and exciting dual identities, lending the poem a touch of whimsy. It
echoes sensationalist tabloid headlines, leading the reader to suspect exciting and surreptitious goings-on in
the library at midnight.
Any poem that describes literature to such an extent as this one lends itself to being read as self-
referential. In this case, the author seems to be acutely aware that this poem will be analyzed, and some of
his lines suggest that he is directly speaking to the analyzer. The question: What do they have to say and
how do they say it? is a classic prompt when analyzing a poem or other piece of literature. The irony in this
poem is that, like the books it describes, it will become part of its readers mind; it will write us, so to speak.
The inherent irony within the poem makes Edgars use of a light tone appropriate; were he to write an
extremely serious piece on this topic, it would seem that he had failed to understand that his own work was
part of the process he describes, instead, he is fully aware that the quotation marks we are caught between
may be his own.
Although The Secret Life of Books has a light, or whimsical tone, it provides serious insight into the
relationship between author and reader. Just as a composer needs musicians for his art to come to life, an
author needs readers, or his work has no more worth than lines on a page. At the same time that the author
needs the reader, the reader needs literature, needs the ideas it contains for they help him to form opinions
and expose him to new ideas. We are what we read, Edgar suggests, but this is not necessarily a bad thing;
this transformation must occur for authors to turn the world.

Commentary Marks from Exam 1, May 2001

Higher Level
This is an example of an excellent commentary. The first paragraph gives a concise introduction to the
main ideas in the poem and relates the ideas to the structure of the poem. After an analysis of line lengths,
which is accurate but not enlightening, the candidate proceeds to discuss the poem stanza by stanza. This
works for this poem because of its logical progression which the candidate clearly understands. He does not
always use the correct terms but, more importantly he can discuss effects, as he does for the enjambment
between stanzas 2 and 3, and 3 and 4. He has an excellent understanding of voice, does not avoid the difficult
metaphors (see comments on dead leafs skeleton) but refrains from translating the obvious. The candidate
was one of the few who realized that the poem was humorous. There are plenty of detailed references to the
text and the language is correct and usually concise. Score: 55555 for a total of 25.

From IB training materials, Riga, Latvia, summer 2002 page 2