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.
One of the difficulties about academic study is that it is, well, academic. You are ducking your head into books that are full of facts and theories and proposals and ideas. It’s all so intellectual. No matter what your major, this is the time to do the theory. You’re learning the history and the background. You’re crunching the numbers and working with the data. You’re doing the research and writing the papers and doing the footnotes and end notes and paying attention to all that detail, all that logic, all that reasoning, all that head stuff.
Then you take a break and maybe you play football or lacrosse or softball or volleyball or maybe you just party until you drop. Then again, maybe you are a fine arts person and you are busy with the Broadway musical, the string quartet, stage crew, the tap dancing, the rock band, the folk singers, or the experimental drama group. Maybe you paint or sculpt or create huge batik wall hangings. Who knows what extracurriculars, hobbies or work you’re engaged in to have fun or pay the bills?
The one thing I’ll bet you don’t do is anything creative with your mind. You slam shut the books and get out of there.
That’s where the practicality of poetry comes in. Reading and writing poetry is good for you. It’s good for your mind. It stretches your linguistic faculties in ways that pay off later.
Read It Often
Here is why reading poetry is good for you:
First of all, poetry is emotional. It engages that organ which is most underused in academia—the heart. Reading poetry is not simply about understanding the rhyme scheme of an Alexandrian sonnet or being able to write a paper on the theological conceits of the metaphysical poets. A poem is first and foremost an expression of emotion. You have to engage your feelings when you read a poem or you haven’t read the poem. This is important because academia wants you to be objective and scientific all the time. The poet proclaims, “Forget the science already! We want passion, not pie charts!” While poetry engages your emotions it does so in a rational and structured way. Poetry is smart. It does a formal dance around the emotions and engages them while also engaging your brain. Emotion on its own is mere sentimentality. Emotion in classical poetry fuses the intellect with emotion in a high and noble human experience.
Second, reading poetry expands your linguistic capabilities. On the simplest level it will widen out your vocabulary, but more importantly, it will widen out the way you think. Poetry takes your thinking processes outside the box. You are forced to work out the meaning of complicated passages and puzzle over obscure references, such as when Eliot writes:
Lady the three white leopards sat under the juniper tree
in the cool of the day having fed to satiety
on my legs, my heart and my liver.
Figuring out such things is hard but rewarding work, and as you struggle, you discover that your mind is firing on cylinders you did not know existed. Your language skills are being stretched, your ability to understand and articulate is taking a huge jump, and that’s an exciting thing.
Third, reading poetry is good for you because it stretches your imagination. To get a poem you have to step outside your narrow little world and see the world from a new perspective. The poet makes connections that nobody else makes and to understand them, you must get your mind out of a rut and double check your understanding of reality. What did Emily Dickinson see when she observed, “A narrow fellow in the grass occasionally rides…”? Oh I see! It’s a snake. Or is it? As your imagination is stretched your perception of reality widens out. Things are not what they seemed. They are more than what you thought they were, and this shake up of your preconceptions is what education is all about.
The Rewards of Writing Poetry
Reading poetry is hard, but writing poetry is harder, and let’s get this free verse thing out of the way from the beginning. Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” It is the easiest thing in the world to write free verse. Seventh grade girls do it all the time. Just as you’re not allowed to be a hermit until you’ve been a monk for twenty five years, so you shouldn’t really write free verse until you’ve mastered all the different kinds of formal verse.
So write poetry that has rhythm and rhyme. Write sonnets and terza rima. Write a ballad and a villanelle and an ode or a sestina. Writing formal poetry is practical in three ways:
First, as in reading poetry, writing poetry puts you in touch with your emotions. You must write a poem about something you are passionate about. As you do, you are forced to examine your emotions and express them in a way which not only communicates a message, but also the emotion of the message. The final couplet or stanza should bring the reader to an “Aha!” moment in which enlightenment and emotion are fused. That’s hard to do, but as you learn to do it you learn to work with emotion and manage it, rather than simply being swept up by the emotions of the moment. Thus you learn that channeled emotions are far stronger, long lasting and effective than the mere sweep of overwhelming feeling. Emotions that are fused with an exercise of the intellect are most powerful of all.
Second, as you write poetry you are forced to think in creative and mind-bending ways. The poet is a person who makes unusual connections. Anybody can see a black dog in a white collar, but a poet sees a priest dressed in black wearing a white collar that binds him and liberates him all at once. He sees a black dog who serves a white God which is “dog” backwards and knows the priest is both a black dog and a backward god at once. This is why the poets were always also jesters. They were jokers. Like comedians, they saw connections nobody else saw, and as they made those connections the perceptions of their audience were opened up, “Aha!” and they saw the world, truth and beauty in a fresh and startling way.
The third practical reason to write poetry is that in the very process you will learn the flexible quality of language and the startling way that the forms of poetry do not lock you down, but open you up. What I mean is this: let us say you are writing a love poem about the girl you are going to marry and the fact that you are about to buy her an engagement ring. You are biting your pencil and scratching your head searching for a word that rhymes with “jewel”. You come up with “cruel”. Suddenly your imagination takes a leap into the dark! Perhaps this love so golden and so sweet is cruel? How is it cruel? Am I cruel? Is she cruel? Is love cruel? You see? The process of finding a rhyme is the very thing that makes poetry such a linguistically creative activity.
The Significance of Everything
The last thing is this: poetry uses metaphors for meaning. Reading and writing poetry helps you see that beneath the surface of everything there is a deeper meaning and significance. Poetry makes you dig for that meaning and helps you express that meaning. In a world that seems increasingly meaningless, poetry helps you dig deep.
Why is it worth it? Not because you will gain fame and fortune by writing poetry. (Poets starve.) Because if you are going to do anything with your brain in the future you will need to communicate, and if you are going to communicate you will have to use language, and if you use language creatively and with skill your abilities in whatever career you choose will be a step ahead of all those cretins who wasted their time playing video games.
Writing poetry will help you engage with your emotions in a smart way and that will help you know yourself and understand others. Writing and reading poetry will nurture your imagination and no matter what your career, a bright and active imagination will be a bonus. Finally, writing and reading poetry will widen out your experience, help you to see the big picture, help you find meaning in an chaotic world and make it seem like you actually know what life is all about.
Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest and the author of fifteen books. Among them is a collection of verse: A Sudden Certainty: Priest Poems. Visit his blog and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com
Complement with Gracy Olmstead on why you should read literature regardless of your major, Jessica Hooten Wilson on what Flannery O'Connor's stories reveal about American politics, and R. J. Snell on what a successful college career looks like.
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