Essays Poetry

Writing About Poetry

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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 POETRY CROWD,” by Donald Hall
Poetry of American History, a Series of Essays by Leaders in the Literary Field

Forty years ago I wrote a poem in which I sat on a 707 next to a businessman who finished shuffling through papers in a briefcase (now he would have poked at a machine) and turned to me. "What are you in?" I told him I was in poetry, and he stared frantically out the window. With embarrassment he said, "My wife, she likes that sort of thing." A sharper fellow might have asked me, "Have you published anything?" Today on a Dreamliner the response would be different. "So’s my wife. So’s her sister. So’s my mother-in-law’s brother." Forty or fifty years ago, there weren't that many of us working at poems. Iowa had its Writers’ Workshop, and there were no MFAs. Only Yale had a prize for a first book. At some colleges, the English Department offered a course in creative writing, I suppose the start of poetic promiscuity.

Way back we didn't call ourselves poets, because it would have been pretentious. Poets were rare, and poets were great or they were nothing. When poetry began to spread through the population, I gave a talk that began, "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems." My talk went on to invent the McPoem, promoted by Hamburger University, and provided countless other bits of snottiness. I spoke out of the assumption of my generation. One poet friend—born the year I was, a winner of prizes, a Poet Laureate—wrote me a letter some years ago. It included a notion he had expressed to other friends. He said that he had failed at being a poet because he was not to become as good as John Keats. He would not equal Wyatt, Shakespeare, Milton, Herbert, Herrick, Traherne, Carew, Sydney, Marvell...

How many young poets, now, have spent much time with the 17th century, reading the best poets of our language? Do graduates of MFA programs read as far back as John Ashbery? Once I read a contemporary poet remarking that when he went to college one professor was a Pound man. Can you imagine, he asked his readers, that a professor could be a Pound man? Journalists still write pieces about the decline of poetry, the disappearing art. There have been such essays at least since Edmund Wilson’s in the 1930s. Maybe in the 19th century all middle-class families kept a volume of Longfellow—but they didn't read Whitman or Donne. In 1922 The Waste Land sold two hundred-odd copies; Stevens’s Harmonium was remaindered. Now a well-known poet may be published in a printing of 10,000 copies.

There are infinitely more self-identified poets than there were in the 1920s or the 1820s, or the 1620s. Poetry is global. Thousands more poems are published in hundreds more magazines. There are hundreds more books, thirty first book prizes. Add poetry readings, add open mics. Most poets are terrible, as most poets always are. Some are good, but globalization always begets Balkanization. The general reader has disappeared, who moved among history, fiction, biography, and poetry. Now we have the sci-fi crowd, the noir crowd, the romance crowd, the how-to crowd, the thriller crowd, the self-help crowd, the poetry crowd, and the literary fiction crowd. In the old days no one ever spoke about "literary fiction." Stories were good, stories were bad; a "literary novel" was redundant, like burning fire or white snow.

The poetry crowd is enormous. Many mother-in-laws have a brother who writes lines now and then, without revising or publication, and without reading other people’s poems. Although I am too high-hat to call them poets, I think that they should be counted in the crowd, because of the new necessity of the poetic endeavor. How or why did it happen? In the 1950s Dylan Thomas drew poetry listeners. Once after a prep school poetry reading a boy asked me if I liked Dylan. His familiarity surprised me but I answered that I liked his work as poetry more than as poems, and... "Bob Dylan," he explained. It was the first time I heard the name. Song lyrics began to include emotions and ideas. More people heard poetry’s possibility for the first time by listening to Bob Dylan’s guitar. Sung words let language loose, yet poetry enlarged for other reasons. When English departments disappeared into theory, only creative writing classes included literature. Now the same colleges grant MFAs, a postgraduate degree in writing that teaches by workshop. There are quite a few. A vulgar writers’ magazine listed in order the best one hundred MFA programs, and followed it with a list of the second-best one hundred MFA programs. MFAs have become a college cash cow, and a cash cow for the graduated MFAs who run the workshops in further MFA programs. For many students these programs are a literary summer camp. For two years or more they listen to readings, go to workshops, and make friends with people like themselves, who have cherished a dream of poetic splendor.

Why have so many people, in the last forty years, cherished this dream? Years ago I used a sentence that sounded fine and that I never understood: "Information is the enemy of art." Now maybe I know what I meant. The air around us is laden with electric facts, words not for reading but for providing wedges of detail, reducing language to numbers and touch screens. The poetry crowd’s rush toward creation is reaction to the technology that usurps the public air. A poet dedicates herself or himself to a universe of feeling not facts, to the pursuit of beauty not information. Whether the poets write well or not, they define themselves as seekers of the sensuous and emotional. Technology is metal, art is flesh. Technology is black and white, art is the palette of Matisse. Technology is speed. Art lingers, art is indolent, art takes naps.

About Donald Hall

Donald Hall (1928- ) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928. He received his degrees from Harvard College and Oxford University. Hall has published 15 books of poetry, including most recently White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006. Donald Hall received the Marshall/Nation Award in 1987 for his "The Happy Man"; both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1988 for "The One Day"; the Lily Prize for Poetry in 1994; and two Guggenheim Fellowships. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Photo Credit: Sarah Greene

Learn more about Donald Hall at The Poetry Foundation

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