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.
The critical essay paper
The introductory paragraph
The introduction should not be too long and detailed and it should focus on the question right from the start.
- Identify the text and author
- Use words from the beginning of the question and show why the text is an appropriate one
- Refer to words from the second part of the question that set the task
- Indicate the topics/aspects that the rest of the essay will discuss in depth
In a sense, the introduction should be a summary of the whole essay – later paragraphs should not change the direction of the argument or introduce new and unexpected topics.
Expanding the paragraphs
The PEER approach:
Ensure you make frequent links back to the key phrases from the question, not only in the introduction but in topic sentences at the start of paragraphs.
The main body of the essay should be developed with a combination of statements and evidence.
Many teachers recommend the PEER structure:
Point (topic sentence)
Example (often in the form of a quotation)
Explanation / analysis
Respond in a way that is Relevant to the task
Here is an example of how to use this in a poetry essay:
This question suits Seamus Heaney’s poem Blackberry Picking well, as Heaney uses the poem as a means to reflect on how growing up naturally changes how we see the world. His experience of childhood summers spent picking fruit - only for the vast amount of it to rot - serves as a metaphor for life in general, where optimism and the focus on immediate pleasure are replaced by a natural conservatism and pessimism. There is a clear theme of change in the poem, as Heaney looks back on his younger self through the eyes of an adult, to see how life has changed.
Here is an example paragraph using the PEER structure that deals with the imagery in the poem:
(P) Heaney is convincing in his use of the extended metaphor, which brings to life his observation that childhood innocence must give way to adult realism. Just as the berries inevitably rot when picked from the bushes, we cannot escape the changes we go through when growing up. (E) After wildly picking every berry in sight, the persona and his friends return to the byre the next day, only to find the "glossy purple" berries have been transformed by a "rat-grey fungus". It becomes apparent in that moment that the berries are rotting and that in the children’s "lust for picking" they have failed to consider what might happen to the fruit. (E) By his use of the word "lust", Heaney is suggesting that the children pick the berries with a wild sense of abandon and that their desire to collect them in as vast a quantity as possible is almost uncontrollable. The berries have been transformed from "glossy purple" - connoting life, vitality and freshness - to "rat-grey" – a colour associated ultimately with decay and death. In the context of the poem, this experience clearly highlights the human condition itself, which can be summed up as the passage from innocence to experience. (R) It is only when the children have seen what has happened as a result of their efforts that they accept life isn’t always fair. Heaney leaves the reader pondering the fact that change – whether in terms of the berries or life in general - is inevitable, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time.