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.
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.
That which lifts the spirit above the earth, which draws the soul out of itself with indescribable longings, is poetry in kind, and generally fit to become so in name, by being 'married to immortal verse '.
Nevertheless, if the masses were conceivably to ask for avant-gardeart and literature, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin would not hesitatelong in attempting to satisfy such a demand. Hitler is a bitterenemy of the avant-garde, both on doctrinal and personal grounds,yet this did not prevent Goebbels in 1932-1933 from strenuouslycourting avant-garde artists and writers. When Gottfried Benn,an Expressionist poet, came over to the Nazis he was welcomedwith a great fanfare, although at that very moment Hitler wasdenouncing Expressionism as . This wasat a time when the Nazis felt that the prestige which the avant-gardeenjoyed among the cultivated German public could be of advantageto them, and practical considerations of this nature, the Nazisbeing skillful politicians, have always taken precedence overHitler's personal inclinations. Later the Nazis realized thatit was more practical to accede to the wishes of the masses inmatters of culture than to those of their paymasters; the latter,when it came to a question of preserving power, were as willingto sacrifice their culture as they were their moral principles;while the former, precisely because power was being withheld fromthem, had to be cozened in every other way possible. It was necessaryto promote on a much more grandiose style than in the democraciesthe illusion that the masses actually rule. The literature andart they enjoy and understand were to be proclaimed the only trueart and literature and any other kind was to be suppressed. Underthese circumstances people like Gottfried Benn, no matter howardently they support Hitler, become a liability; and we hearno more of them in Nazi Germany.
The poet’s relationship to her poetry has, it seems to me—and I am not speaking only of Emily Dickinson—a twofold nature. Poetic language—the poem on paper—is a concretization of the poetry of the world at large, the self, and the forces within the self; and those forces are rescued from formlessness, lucidified, and integrated in the act of writing poems. But there is a more ancient concept of the poet, which is that she is endowed to speak for those who do not have the gift of language, or to see for those who—for whatever reasons—are less conscious of what they are living through. It is as though the risks of the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.
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 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 on the subject.
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.
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:
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.
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 .
True, the first settlers of bohemia -- which was then identicalwith the avant-garde -- turned out soon to be demonstrativelyuninterested in politics. Nevertheless, without the circulationof revolutionary ideas in the air about them, they would neverhave been able to isolate their concept of the "bourgeois"in order to define what they were not. Nor, without the moralaid of revolutionary political attitudes would they have had thecourage to assert themselves as aggressively as they did againstthe prevailing standards of society. Courage indeed was neededfor this, because the avant-garde's emigration from bourgeoissociety to bohemia meant also an emigration from the markets ofcapitalism, upon which artists and writers had been thrown bythe falling away of aristocratic patronage. (Ostensibly, at least,it meant this -- meant starving in a garret -- although, as wewill be shown later, the avant-garde remained attached to bourgeoissociety precisely because it needed its money.)
For years I have been not so much envisioning Emily Dickinson as trying to visit, to enter her mind, through her poems and letters, and through my own intimations of what it could have meant to be one of the two mid-19th-century American geniuses, and a woman, living in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of the other genius, Walt Whitman, Dickinson wrote that she had heard his poems were “disgraceful.” She knew her own were unacceptable by her world’s standards of poetic convention, and of what was appropriate, in particular, for a woman poet. Seven were published in her lifetime, all edited by other hands; more than a thousand were laid away in her bedroom chest, to be discovered after her death. When her sister discovered them, there were decades of struggle over the manuscripts, the manner of their presentation to the world, their suitability for publication, the poet’s own final intentions. Narrowed-down by her early editors and anthologists, reduced to quaintness or spinsterish oddity by many of her commentators, sentimentalized, fallen-in-love with like some gnomic Garbo, still unread in the breadth and depth of her full range of work, she was, and is, a wonder to me when I try to imagine myself into that mind.