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Writing about poetry can be difficult. A poem does not affect its reader in quite the same way that a work of prose does. To be able to understand and write about the way a poem works, you need to spend some time thinking analytically about the poem before you start your draft. Then, when you begin to write, you are better able to select appropriate evidence and construct a convincing argument. Professor Ivan Marki of the English Department encourages the four-stage approach explained below. It should help you become comfortable working with a poem.
Get to Know the Poem
Describe the poem: Before you begin to organize your essay, read the poem aloud several times, noting its structure, meter, recurring images or themes, rhyme scheme – anything and everything which creates an effect.
Paraphrase the poem: Again, before you begin to organize your essay, make sure you understand the language of the poem. Poetry, particularly from other time periods, often contains confusing syntax or vocabulary. Put into your own words those lines or phrases which are especially difficult. Resist the temptation to brush over the lines or phrases which seem unintelligible; these can be the most crucial parts of the poem. The Oxford English Dictionary is a good resource for defining difficult vocabulary.
How the Poem Works
Analyze the poem: Since your analysis should make up the bulk of your essay, approach it with care. Knowing that you will not be able to address every aspect of the poem, select the elements which work together to create special effects. Look beyond the surface meaning of the words and start to think about how the techniques used in the poem add depth to its meaning. How do the elements work together? Do they complement each other, do they create tension, or both? Think in terms of cause and effect and look for relationships within the poem itself. For example, if you see a pattern of imagery which suggests something about the speaker, look at other areas of the poem for more evidence along the same lines. In poetry, form and content are inseparable, so you must not overlook the relationship between what the speaker says and how he or she says it.
Interpret the poem: Using your analysis of how the poem works as your evidence, interpret the poem – answer the question, "So what is this poem all about?" In the interpretation, you bring together your analysis of the elements in the poem and show what they mean to the poem as a whole. You may suggest an interpretation of the speaker's state of mind, the poem's subject, or the nature of the experience which the poem creates. For example, does Poe's "The Raven" describe a dream? A drug-induced hallucination? A recollection? Why do you think so? What evidence, from your analysis, supports your idea? The main argument of your paper should begin to take form as you struggle with this process.
You have great freedom in interpreting a poem, provided that your assertions are solidly linked to your evidence. Interpretation that does not align with your analysis will be invalid. In the words of M. H. Abrams, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, "There is no one, right interpretation of a poem – but there is one which is more right than any of the others."
The multi-faceted nature of poetry demands that you know where you are going before you begin to construct your written argument, which is why the description and paraphrase stages are so important. Your selective analysis emerges from them in the form of an argument that is limited to a manageable set of ideas. After you have thought through these stages and taken good notes, you should be ready to begin writing your essay.
Constructing Your Paper
Thesis: Review your notes. Look for patterns and themes. Formulate a thesis statement that will allow you to explain the relationships and the effects of elements in the poem. If you can, indicate in the thesis the areas or features of the poem important to your argument (a pattern of imagery, for instance, or a series of crucial lines). Remember, your thesis statement must argue a point; instead of simply saying that a poet uses certain poetic devices, you must give some indication in your thesis as to how those devices work and what they do to the poem's meaning. You do not need to go into elaborate detail in your thesis, but do show the relationship between the poem and your argument.
Introduction: Your first paragraph should make your reader comfortable with the poem by identifying the poet, offering a brief, general description of the poem and, most importantly, leading into the thesis and development of the argument by narrowing and limiting the subject. It may be helpful to imagine the introduction as a funnel, initially appealing to your reader from a wide perspective and then swiftly directing him or her into the body of your essay. Avoid sweeping, abstract statements or statements which you cannot concretely link to your thesis. The more quickly you get away from the general and focus on the specific, the sooner you will engage your reader.
The Development of Your Argument: The approach you undertake in your thesis determines the organization of the rest of the essay. Some arguments lend themselves to a linear presentation. For example, if you choose to trace the development of the speaker according to the recurrence of an image throughout the poem, you might want to go through the poem chronologically to show how that image changes in significance from line to line or stanza to stanza. You need not limit yourself to such a presentation, however. Many poems are difficult to explain chronologically; some poems are better suited to a non-linear argument which reflects cycles or other patterns in the poem. If you organize your argument according to the patterns you choose to address, your argument might move through the poem several times, according to the instances of the images and their contextual significance. For example, one word may have a formal relationship to numerous other words in the poem. The word "snow" has a relationship to the word "flow" in that they rhyme, and to the word "ice" in that they are both associated with winter. To discuss the significance of these relationships, you may find yourself jumping around the poem. That's fine, as long as you make your argument clear and keep your thesis in sight.
Paragraphs: Each paragraph should consist of a point which is credible, relevant to your thesis, and analytical. Remember that you are arguing for a certain position and need to convince your reader of that position. At the beginning of each paragraph, tell your reader the focus of your argument in that paragraph by starting with a topic sentence. The rest of the paragraph should address the assertion with convincing evidence. The effectiveness of your argument depends heavily on how well you incorporate evidence into your paragraphs.
Using Evidence: You cannot create a compelling argument without evidence to back it up, but you must present that evidence in the context of your own argument. Merely including a line or a passage in your paper without linking it to your argument will not be convincing. Try incorporating your evidence into a "sandwich" of information which will allow your reader to receive the full impact of the lines. Before the quotation, describe the evidence in terms of the poem. Where is it located in the poem? Is it part of a pattern? Let your reader know what he or she should be looking for. After the quotation, if the passage is particularly difficult to understand, you should explain problematic syntax or vocabulary. Then, you must analyze the quote and show how that quote supports the claims you are making in your thesis. This is the most important part of your paper; it is where you make your interpretation clear to the reader and where you prove your thesis. Don't assume that the quotation will speak for itself—it is your job to explain it.
Citation: Be sure to cite your evidence properly. Citing from a poem is different from citing from a prose text. Because the line form of poetry is so important, you must indicate where lines end by separating them with a slash mark "/". If you are quoting more than three lines, single space the passage, indent, and present the passage as it appears in the poem. Follow the quotation with the appropriate line numbers enclosed in parentheses (see English Department handout on use of quotations and citations, available from the department office and the Writing Center).
The Conclusion: Conclusions take many forms. In your conclusion you can emphasize crucial ideas, raise questions about the poem, or connect the poem to other literary works or experiences. This is where you can offer your interpretation of the poem, which by now should be convincing to your reader since you have presented your evidence in the body of the paper. You may raise new ideas in a conclusion, provided that they are solidly linked to the development of your argument. Remember, you have flexibility, but your conclusion should flow naturally from the body of your paper.
- If you have the choice of which poem to write about, pick one you like.
- Read the poem aloud. Your ear will notice things your eyes miss.
- Notice the way the poem looks on the page. The form of the poem may reveal something about the way it works.
- Be careful to make a clear distinction between the poet and the speaker. Even in poems that are written in the first person, you should be careful not to assume anything about the speaker that the poem itself does not suggest.
- Let your interpretation follow your analysis – avoid making unsupported assertions.
- Be selective with your evidence. Limit the length of your quotations to a workable size. Passages longer than a few lines will be impossible to explain in a single paragraph.
Enjoy the Poem!
Poems are artistic expressions that demand that you appreciate them before you begin to reduce them to something explainable. Often, the most brilliant elements in a poem are very subtle and will be felt before they are understood. Remember, you are not just explaining what a poem does, you are explaining what it does to you. You are the medium in which the poem comes to life. Writing about poetry offers you a special opportunity to interact with a work of art.
by Seth DuCharme '92
Despite what your grade-school teacher might have told you, poetry isn’t all hearts and flowers, especially not when you have to analyze a poem in an essay. When you delve into the realm of poetry, you’re much more likely to stumble into madness and decay, especially if you are reading Edgar Allen Poe or Charles Bukowski!
Okay, I’m exaggerating (a little). Poetry can be fun. And full of puns. Like this one.
Regardless, don’t lose your head just yet–I have some tips on how to analyze a poem in a way that doesn’t bring doom and gloom to your grades.
Choosing a Poem to Analyze
The vast majority of the time, your instructor will tell you which poem to analyze. However, on the off chance that you have to choose a poem yourself, choosing the right poem can make learning how to analyze a poem much, much easier.
When you are choosing a poem, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you like the poem?
- Do you have notes from class that could help you start your essay?
- Do you understand the language in the poem?
- Could you summarize the poem in your own words?
- Are there resources online that you could use to understand the poem better?
- Does the poem have obvious literary elements (rhyme, meter, metaphor, etc.)?
If you answered “yes” to many of those questions, then the poem you have will likely work great for your analysis.
What Is a Poetry Analysis?
Before you can really start writing your analysis, you need to know what your instructor expects of you. A poem analysis is much like any other literary analysis, but it caters more specifically to poems. For instance, since poems are typically short, the analyses are also often short. Few instructors will make you write a poetry analysis for more than about 3-5 pages. Whew!
However, the shorter length doesn’t let you off the hook. With your poetry analysis, you need to focus on two main aspects of the poem you choose: theme and the literary elements that proves that theme. Your thesis statement needs to contain both of those aspects, and you’ll spend your body paragraphs discussing examples of the literary elements and how they relate back to the theme.
Now, let’s get into more detail.
Summarizing and Paraphrasing a Poem
Learning how to analyze a poem gets a lot simpler when you start by summarizing or paraphrasing the poem and figuring out what the heck the poet is even talking about. I’m going to use “Desert Places” by Robert Frost to help you understand what I mean.
(And, no, I will not use “The Road Not Taken”! Frost did write other poems, people!)
Here’s “Desert Places” in case you aren’t familiar with it:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
WIth no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places. (Frost)
Frost, Robert, and Robert Hunter. “Desert Places.” Poemhunter.com. Web. 30 June 2015.
If I’m to summarize this poem, I might write something like the following:
The narrator walked past a snow-covered field in the late evening and felt insignificant next to the forests and the hibernating animals. The narrator becomes lonely and expects to become lonelier. As the narrator looks up at the stars, he or she realizes that nothing could feel as empty as he or she feels inside.
Note that you would not use the above summary in an essay. However, putting a poem in your own words can really help you understand the feeling of the poem and what the author is trying to convey.
If you wanted to go further in depth with your understanding, you could paraphrase the poem, which basically means rewriting every line in your own words rather than condensing the information.
Choosing a Theme to Write about
Once you understand what the poem is trying to say, you need to come up with a theme. A theme is a central idea in a poem. In “Desert Places,” Frost talks a lot about loneliness, and since the narrator in the poem is alone, I can say that loneliness and isolation are main ideas or themes in the poem.
When you are searching for a theme in your poem, look for concepts or notions that seem to pop up several times. Think about the feeling the poem might be trying to convey. That will often lead you straight to the theme.
If you can’t think of a theme, you can either talk to your instructor about it or look online to see what scholars say about the themes in the poem. Resources such as Sparknotes.com can also help you get on the right track.
Choosing a Literary Device or Element
To complete your essay topic, you need to choose one or more literary elements the poem uses to point toward the theme you chose. Here are some examples of literary devices you could be looking for:
There are many more literary devices to choose from; see a longer list here. I would suggest choosing one or two devices for most essays. Make sure that you can relate them back to the theme you chose.
If I were to write a poetic analysis of “Desert Places” specifically on the topic of loneliness and isolation, I would choose rhyme as one of my literary devices.
Rather than a traditional a/a/b/b or a/b/a/b rhyme scheme for his quatrains (stanzas with four lines), Frost chose an a/a/b/a rhyme scheme. Since one of the words in each stanza does not rhyme with anything, it could be said that the poet has isolated one word in each stanza, which demonstrates the loneliness the speaker talks about in the content of the poem.
Mark where the literary device occurs in the poem and keep those notes for later. You can use them as examples for when you start writing your analysis.
Writing Your Thesis Statement
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: having a good thesis statement means that the rest of your paper will be a breeze. Essentially, a good thesis statement becomes a one-sentence outline of your paper.
Here’s what my thesis statement for my “Desert Places” analysis might look like:
In “Desert Places,” Robert Frost uses an unusual rhyme scheme, specifically an a/a/b/a rhyme scheme, to demonstrate the narrator’s isolation and loneliness.
This would be a great thesis statement for a short poetry analysis (1-2 pages). For a longer poetry analysis (3-5 pages), you might want to choose two or three literary devices that explicate your theme.
When you write your thesis, you might find this template helpful:
In [poem’s name], [poet] employs [literary devices] to demonstrate [theme].
Here, it is important that you are specific. In my example, I made sure to specify how the rhyme scheme was unusual rather than just leaving it at that. Make sure you do the same.
For more help building out a winning thesis statement, see Kibin’s thesis statement builder!
Analyzing a Poem in Body Paragraphs
Though writing your introduction and thesis statement is certainly half the battle, you need to win your audience over with your supporting body paragraphs. Think about it this way: your head wouldn’t do you much good without all the organs and systems that comprise your body.
(Didn’t think you were going to get an anatomy lesson in a poetry post, did you?)
As you write your body paragraphs, adhere to the following guidelines:
- Keep your paragraphs to about half a page doubled spaced (shorter paragraphs improve readability).
- Start your paragraph with your topic sentence, which should relate to everything you are going to say in the paragraph (think of it as the paragraph’s thesis statement).
- Use only one piece of evidence per paragraph, either a quote or a paraphrased example from the text.
- Always end a paragraph in your own words and make sure to include analysis (why the evidence supports your thesis statement) at the end of each paragraph.
By following those guidelines, you’ll set yourself up for an essay that knocks your instructor’s socks off.
A Few More Tips on How to Analyze a Poem
Though you have learned how to analyze a poem, I haven’t really mentioned how you can sound smart doing it. Now, this doesn’t mean that you should go crazy and throw in a bunch of fancy synonyms (see How to Become a Better Writer: Don’t Use Words that Sound Smart). What it does mean is using vocabulary that is appropriate for poems.
I already gave you a list of literary terms and their definitions, which should catapult you to greatness in your analysis already, but here are some important tidbits to remember when you write a poetic analysis:
- Don’t assume that the poet and the speaker/narrator in the poem are the same person. Instead, refer to the person in the poem as “he or she” or just “the speaker” or “the narrator.”
- Don’t use words like “obviously” or “clearly” in your poetic analysis. If it were so obvious, you wouldn’t have to write an essay about it.
- Don’t spend time summarizing the poem in your essay. Assume your reader has already read the poem.
- Don’t worry too much about working through the poem line by line or in order. Use the evidence that best supports your claim in the order that makes sense for your argument.
- Don’t forget to cite your poem according to MLA formatting. Any quote you use should have an in-text citation.
Check out these examples of poetic analyses written by students like you for more inspiration and ideas.
Make Sure Your Paper Is Polished before You Turn It in!
If you are still stuck or nervous about writing your analysis, that’s okay. Sometimes, just getting something out on paper will give you the courage you need to keep going and revise what you’ve written to fit the above-mentioned guidelines.
As you’re revising, I highly recommend reading your analysis out loud. Doing so will help you find awkward or confusing areas so you can pinpoint what still needs work. You can also get a friend, family member, or professional editor to look your paper over. At Kibin, our editors are ready to polish your essay at any time of day or night.
Whether you need some advice on what you’ve written so far or want our talented editors to polish your essay into analytic gold, our editing services can help you!
Now that you know how to analyze a poem, put your skills to the test on your own essay!
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