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.
“My Only Swerving”:
An Explication of William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark”
In his blank verse poem “Traveling through the Dark,” William Stafford contemplates the intersection of technology and Nature, not suggesting a particular judgment but inviting us to “think hard” with him about the consequences of the kind of world we are creating.
The opening stanza sets the scene in a matter-of-fact tone: the speaker tells us he came upon a dead deer while driving somewhere at night. Note the specificity: not any abstract place, but “on the edge of the Wilson River road.” People familiar with the area (Stafford lived most of his adult life in Oregon) will immediately visualize it, but those of us who have no idea where he’s talking about get an immediate sense of a true narrative, something that really happened in a specific place, to which we should pay attention. We get at least the idea of a river running nearby; then in the second two lines he completes the setting by letting us know the road is narrow and lies along a canyon where the river runs. He doesn’t directly describe this, however; he instead reveals it in a rather detached way while remarking on how to take care of the problem the deer’s body presents: it might cause other drivers to swerve to avoid it and die in hitting the mountainside or careening over the cliff. We note too that this is hardly an unusual occurrence – it is “usually best,” he informs us, to roll the body into the canyon. Probably the speaker has himself performed this service more than once; it seems mundane to him, almost clinical.
The second stanza moves the speaker into action. He stops his car just past the deer’s body and “stumbles” back to it – it’s dark, hard to see, the shoulder of the road narrow and rough. He has left the car running, the lights on to help him perform his task and to warn any other motorist who might be on the road. He sees by this dim light that the deer is a doe; although she is stiffening and “almost cold,” there is enough warmth in her body to tell him she was hit recently. He begins his task, dragging her further from the road to the canyon’s edge, noting that her belly is enlarged. The tone remains distanced, someone merely recounting a common story; the speaker seems thus far entirely unaffected by this “heap” that he must dispose of.
Note that part of this tone is created by the sounds of the words the poet chooses. There are many hard consonants in these stanzas – d’s, hard c’s, b’s slow the reading and make it seem a bit cold: deer, dead, best, canyon, glow, car, doe, cold, dragged, belly, stumbled, road, stiffened, already, found. There are several short clauses in the two stanzas, creating the clipped tone of a documentary: “That road is narrow”; “I dragged her off.” The setting and the language intrigue us, but we are wondering by now why the story is important, and the “big belly” of the doe finally suggests to us the direction the poem will take.
The third stanza confirms our guess: the speaker touches the doe’s side and feels the warmth of the unborn fawn who will now inevitably die with its mother. The tone warms as the speaker contemplates the fawn “waiting, / alive, still, never to be born.” (Note too how the sounds help to create this new warmth: more l’s, w’s, r’s, and s’s – side, reason, warm, fawn, waiting, alive, still, hesitated.) For the first time we sense the speaker’s engagement; he is no longer a detached narrator but part of a situation bigger than the one he had anticipated. Till now, he’s been a man going about a mundane task to complete it as soon as possible – but the discovery of the waiting, doomed life within the dead body of the doe causes him to hesitate as he stands at the side of this dangerous mountain road.
The fourth stanza creates a tableau: the car, the man, the deer momentarily frozen in the glow of the taillights. The first three lines focus on the car: the parking lights – lowered to avoid blinding any approaching motorist – are aimed ahead; its engine, “under the hood,” is “purring” steadily. These images suggest a great deal: the forward movement of technology, yet the car is also personified – it has a heart, it seems, under the hood, purring, waiting his return, as the unborn fawn waits, its heart beating steadily, in the deadening womb of its mother. But the speaker is standing behind the car, not in the white light of the headlights, but in the “glare” of the taillights turning the polluting mist of the exhaust a dull red and casting their glow over the entire scene. Here then is the “group”: a man, a dead deer, a waiting fawn, a purring car. As he stands he hears “the wilderness listen.” One cannot, of course, hear someone (or something) listen. But when silence surrounds us, we may have the feeling of some unseen presence listening, waiting to hear what we will do or say. Here, the “wilderness” listens: Nature – the river, the canyon, the mountain and all they contain – anticipates his reaction.
The final stanza is a couplet, emphasizing its content by its differing form, ending the poem similarly to a sonnet and probably intended to evoke that similarity. It does not tell us what the speaker thought as he stood hesitating in that listening silence. He only tells us “I thought hard for us all” before completing his task by pushing the deer over the canyon edge into the river. But the poem suggests that his thoughts must have to do with the tension between man’s technology and Nature. The deer – and her fawn, and many other deer – would be alive if man had not made the cars and the roads where such accidents happen, if he had not encroached on the wilderness with his speed and powerful mechanisms. The convenience of our technology comes with a cost – but a cost we often do not consider.
Yet Stafford does not seem to be saying “down with technology!” The speaker makes no judgment that man is evil; his momentary contemplation does not make him think or act as though Nature is more important than mankind. He pushes the deer into the canyon, sad perhaps for the fawn which will die, but accepting the responsibility to make sure no person dies because of the deer. The deer has died because of man; but we do not let a man die because of the deer. The speaker’s “only swerving” is not one of indecision but only of thought, and Stafford invites us to think with him, to at least consider the cost, perhaps to wonder if the benefits of our technology are always worth that cost, perhaps suggesting we should give more thought to that cost before we have to make the inevitable choice of man over Nature.