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Johnston Writing Center
Clinton, NY 13323
WRITING ABOUT POETRY
by Seth DuCharme, '92
Writing about poetry c ...
Johnston Writing Center
Clinton, NY 13323
WRITING ABOUT POETRY
by Seth DuCharme, '92
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 fo
stage approach explained below. It should help you
become comfortable working with a poem.
Get to Know the Poem
you begin to organize your essay, read the poem aloud
times, noting its structure, meter, recurring ima
ges or themes, rhyme scheme
anything and everything which creates an effect.
the poem: Again,
you begin to organize your essay, make sure you
understand the language of the poem. Poetry, particularly from other time periods, often
ains 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.
is a good resource for defining difficult vocabulary.
How the Poem Works
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 aspe
ct 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
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 area
s 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
the speaker says and
he or she
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 su
ggest 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
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
align with your analysis will be
invalid. In the words of M. H. Abrams, editor of
the Norton Anthology of Poetry
is no one, right interpretation of a poem
but there is one which is
right than any of
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
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
Constructing Your Paper
Review your notes. Look for patter
ns 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, f
or 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.
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 you
r 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 focu
s 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 ex
ample, 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 st
anza. 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 argum
ent 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 othe
r 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 th
e poem. That's fine, as long as you make your argument clear and
keep your thesis in sight.
Each paragraph should consist of a point which is credible, relevant to
your thesis, and analytical. Remember that you are arguing for a certain po
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 con
evidence. The effectiveness of your argument depends heavily on how well you
incorporate evidence into your paragraphs.
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 par
ticularly 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
Be sure to cite your evidence properly. Citing from a poem is different fro
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 a
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).
nclusions 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
usion should flow naturally from the body of your paper.
1) If you have the choice of which poem to write about, pick one you like.
2) Read the poem aloud. Your ear will notice things your eyes miss.
3) Notice the way the poem looks o
n the page. The form of the poem may reveal
something about the way it works.
4) 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
about the speaker that the poem itself does not suggest.
5) Let your interpretation follow your analysis
avoid making unsupported assertions.
6) 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
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
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 spec
opportunity to interact with a work of art.
Copyright 2014 The Trustees of Hamilton College. All rights reserved.
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