Writing About Poetry
Contributors: Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2018-02-21 12:51:36
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format.
It seems that reading and analyzing poetry is something like transcribing old languages? I feel you, but don’t you worry, after reading this post you will learn to speak those languages!
What is the purpose of Poetry Analysis?
So, to put this into simple words, we can compare a reader who analyzes a poem to a mechanic who takes apart a car to figure out how its mechanisms work. So, a reader investigates a poem’s structure, form, content, semiotics, and history behind its writing to have a better understanding of this work of art and to help others understand and appreciate it better too.
Why write these papers?
Poetry itself can have many different forms hence there are different reasons for undertaking a poetry analysis. A reader may analyze a poem to gain a better understanding of author’s thoughts and see what this work had to offer or dive into the context to know how to communicate what he/she learned to others, or to master his own skills. For me, it is like looking at pictures by Raphael, for instance. You can hardly appreciate his art not knowing the historical context, who Raphael is and how and why he decided to draw this exact situation.
What skills do you need to do the analysis? Everything is simple. You are required to have reading and writing skills, nothing unusual. Steps on how to analyze poetry, a little guide for you on where to start and what to write about you will find in the next paragraphs.
What can you write about?
Sometimes teachers give their students an opportunity to choose a poem by themselves while others have pretty strict rules on what you should write about. So if you do have a choice and do not know what to choose, the best advice I can give you is to pick the one that “speaks to you”.
Do not make such mistakes like choosing a short one, because sometimes they can be way harder to analyze; do not pick something that is too easy, because you will not have much to write about and this will not make you any good - you will not understand the full strength and the point of the analysis and your paper will be weak and not convincing at all. It’s like if you have a choice to describe a banana, a mango, and Pandanus. The first one is too easy, the second one is pretty difficult but doable, and the third one..you don’t know what that is? Exactly.
So, just pick something that you understand or can relate to the theme if it and do your best.
How can you get there ( about writing process).
Before you start:
- Silently read a poem. Note what you feel, what some lines or words make you think about, for example, if you see a word “beret”, does it make you think about France or maybe it brings back some memories about your travels? Note what you like or dislike. This will help you to understand what an author tried to convey through his work. All the lines that you did not understand you should be read again.
- After that read a poem out loud, paying attention to all the stops, listen to the sound and tone of it. Read it couple times more, make sure you understand the literal meaning of it. Get some background on the poet. Now try to find figurative How noticeable are the differences in reading out loud and silently? All commas and points should be taken as pauses. The poet uses punctuation for a reason: it is entrusted with an important mission. Each line break, spaces or omissions between words and lines should be understood as pauses. Slow down the tempo of reading and make short stops. If the poem is popular enough, then try to find the audio recordings of this verse. Listen to it and follow the text with your eyes. Do not rely solely on sound perception.
- Analyze the rhythm and the size of a poem. Are there rhymes used in the poem? Does the poet rhyme every last word in a line? Every other line? Analyze the scheme of rhyme to determine the form of the poem. It is the structure of rhymes that allows us to understand the form of the verse. For example, a blank verse does not have rhymes at all. There will be two lines with or without a rhyme in a couplet and a tercet will have three line stanzas also with or without a rhyme.
- Take a look at stanza structure or style of a poem. There might be free verses, so it’s okay if you don’t find one. What kind of division is used, if there is one at all? The poem can be divided into stanzas (for example, a stanza of four lines) or simply consist of a certain number of lines ordered by rhyme or size.
- Identify the speaker. Remember that it doesn’t have to be a human only. It may be an animal, object, or something abstract like anger, love, hate etc.
- Now take a look at literary devices. In the context of the form of the poem, poets use various literary techniques that allow you to put a deeper meaning in the verse and create more detailed images. Popular literary devices are rhymes, onomatopoeia, alliteration, assonance and consonance, hyperbole, personification, alliteration, metonymy and synecdoche. Analyze all the literary devices and think what effect they have on the general meaning of the poem.
- Rhymes are a repetition of the final sounds in words (for example, "cat" and "sat"). This technique can be used both within a single line and at the end of two separate lines.
- Onomatopoeia is when the word’s pronunciation mimics its sound (for example, "buzzing" of a bee).
- Alliteration is the repetition of the beginning consonant sounds (for example, "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.").
- Assonance - the repetition of vowel sounds in any part of the word (for example, "Hear the mellow wedding bells").
- Consonance is the repetition of a vowel sound at the end of several words (for example, "It will creep and beep while you sleep").
- Metaphor is the comparison of objects or phenomena in a figurative sense ("the curtain of night").
- Simile - comparing one thing to another using “like” or “as” (for example, "Her cheeks are red like a rose").
- Identify the form of the poem. After analyzing the size, structure and scheme of rhyme, identify the form of the poem. There are various poetic forms: elegies, acrostics, cinquain, epic poems, sonnets, ballads, haiku, limericks, blank verse, sestinas and villanelles. It is important to determine the form of the poem in order to better understand the text and to grasp the poet's intention. Read examples of different poetic forms so you will not make a mistake in the definition. You can also explore the distinctive features of a particular form.
What it looks like (outline).
- Write an attention-getter, in other words, some question, fact or quote.
- Name an author and a title of the poem you chose.
- Write a thesis statement that will name the key elements of the analysis.
In main body mention:
- Literal and figurative meaning and about the theme of the poem.
- The tone of the poem. Who is speaking, what are his feelings, what are the proofs that he feels this way?
- Figures of Speech. What they compare, reveal, why did a poet decide to use those?
- Sound Effects. What are they and why are they used?
- Find the symbols and identify what they represent.
- Repeat what you wrote in the thesis but in different words.
- Summarize main points.
- Tell if we can relate this poem to our lives, broader themes, what can we learn from it.
Poetry Analysis Help
In case you still feel lost here is a couple of some useful thing, that may help you
- If you can’t come up with a topic idea for your essay, I feel you here too, that is probably one of the biggest problems for me. I usually use Essay Topic Generator, that’s been saving me for quite some time now.
- To get a better understanding of the structure of the essay, you can go ahead and see some Essay Examples, but do not just rewrite from there.
- When you are done with the essay, take a few minutes to check it for plagiarism, fix style and readability level and correct text relevance to the essay question if needed.
- If you notice that your essay is not in its best form still, I can suggest you using Essay Editing Service. This way you will be a 100 percent sure that you have done everything you could and now your essay is just perfect.
- If writing an essay on a specific course is not your priority, check ou our Essay Writing Service. This will bring 500+ professional essay writers your way. You can talk to the ones you like and have your writing job outsourced.
So, I hope this post was interesting and, what is more important, useful. Now you know how to structure your poetry analysis paper and what to write about. I wish you luck in your future essays and I hope will get straight A’s!