- Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. T. S. Eliot
- Poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers. Yevgeny Yevtushenko
WRITING AN ESSAY ON POETRY at High School 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 on poetry?
What’s the Point of Writing An Essay?
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.
There are two key questions to this:
- So, why would your teacher give you such an assignment?
- What are the benefits of learning to write analytical 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.
- 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.
This isn’t a skill that is just important in academics by the way, but a life-long one! High School writing prepares you for university life. More so, lawyers, politicians, and journalists, as well as in your adult life; often find that you will need to make use of similar skills.
READ THE POEM all the way through at least twice. Read it aloud. Listen to it. Poetry is related to music, so the sound is important. You listen to your favourite CDs many times; the principle is the same. It takes time to fully appreciate and understand a work of art. Make a note of your first impressions or immediate responses, both positive and negative. You may change your mind about the poem later, but these first ideas are worth recording.
A POET IS LIMITED in the materials to use in creating his/her works: all s/he has are words to express his/her ideas and feelings. These words need to be precisely right on several levels at once:
- they must sound right to the listener even as they delight his ear.
- they must have a meaning which might have been unanticipated, but seems to be the perfectly right one.
- they must be arranged in a relationship and placed on the page in ways that are at once easy to follow and assist the reader in understanding.
- they must probe the depths of human thought, emotion, and empathy, while appearing simple, self-contained, and unpretentious.
Fortunately, the English language contains a wide range of words from which to choose for almost every thought, and there are also numerous plans or methods of arrangement of these words, called POETIC DEVICES, which can assist the writer in developing cogent expressions pleasing to his/her readers. Such poetic devices help you in analyzing a poem.
By Grade 11/Year 11/Form 4 you should be familiar with most of the terms used in this post.
What style should I use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing not only a poetry assignment but a literature essay in general.
- It is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs.
- You must learn to use 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.
While this isn’t common in High School, unless you are carrying out a research paper on poetry, there are some teachers who ask for outside criticism of the poem as well, this means you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. Furthermore, it entails you to cite both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources.
TYPES OF POETRY
Blank Verse – Unrhymed iambic pentameter, often resembling the rhythms of ordinary speech. Blank verse is found in much of Shakespeare’s work.
Narrative Poem – A poem that tells a story. Ballads and epics are types of narrative poetry, eg: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Lyrical Poem – A poem that is usually short, and expresses a speaker’s personal thoughts and feelings, eg: “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth.
Ballad Poem – A fairly short, simple poem that tells a story. Ballads were often meant to be sung, and are one of the earliest forms of literature.
Elegy – A dignified poem mourning the death of an individual, eg: “O Captain! My Captain!” is Walt Whitman’s elegy to president Lincoln.
Ode – a serious, sincere poem written in praise of something or someone.
Parody – a poem written that mocks the subject, structure, or format of another poem.
Epic – a long poem on a heroic subject
Dramatic Monologue – a speaker, who is explicitly someone other than the author, makes a speech to a silent auditor in a specific situation and at a critical moment.
Occasional Poetry – It is written for a specific occasion, a wedding.
Descriptive and Didactic Poetry – Both lyric and narrative poetry can contain lengthy and detailed descriptions (descriptive poetry) or scenes in direct speech (dramatic poetry) which primarily is to teach something.
Dramatic Monologue – A poem in which an imaginary character speaks to a silent listener. This poem is in the form of a speech or narrative in which the speaker unconsciously reveals certain aspects of his or her character during the description of a situation or certain events.
Sonnet – A poem consisting of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. There are two popular forms of sonnets:
- Italian (Petrarchan) Sonnet: It has two parts; an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines) usually rhyming abbaabba, cdecde. Often a question is raised in the octave that is answered in the sestet.
- Shakespearean (English or Elizabethan) Sonnet: It consists of three quatrains (four lines) and a final rhyming couplet (two lines). The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg. Usually the question or theme is set forth in the quatrains while the answer or resolution appears in the final couplet.
- A volta – It is the turn of thought or argument occurring between the octave and the sestet in the Italian sonnet and in the English sonnet, it occurs before the final couplet.
SOME KEY POETIC DEVICES
Below is a list of poetic terms that can help you interpret, critique, and respond to a variety of different works of poetry. This list is by no means comprehensive, but instead offers a primer to the language frequently used by students when tackling and analyzing a poem. This list and the terms included in it can help you begin to identify central concerns or elements in a poetry that might help facilitate your interpretation, argumentation and analysis.
Poetic Devices are techniques used by poets to give their writing style, emphasis and meaning.
Figurative Language is an expression in which words or sounds are arranged to achieve a particular effect.
Literary Devices are techniques that add texture, energy and excitement to the writing, grip the reader’s imagination and convey information.
Diction refers to an author’s choice of words.
|The Sound Devices are: Alliteration, Assonance, Consonance, Onomatopoeia, Sibilance, Euphony, Cacophony, Repetition, Rhyme and Rhythm|
|Repetition of initial consonant sounds in a group or words close together||It emphasises words and ideas, making descriptions more vivid. It unites words and concepts together.|
|Repetition of a vowel sound||It helps create tone and effects rhythm, e.g. a, o, and u can slow down a line making it sound sad and weary and it can speed up a line. It also gives a sense of continuity.|
|Repetition of a consonant sound||It helps create tone and effect rhythm, e.g. ‘s’ sound is slow/soothing.|
|Onomatopoeia||The use of words which imitate sound||It emphasises words and ideas, making descriptions more vivid.|
|Sibilance||A consonant characterized by a hissing sound (like s, sh or z). The repetition of this sound to create an effect is know as sibilance.||The most common sibilant consonant is, ‘S’ sound, and also Z, SH and ZH (as in ‘azure’ or ‘measure’). It’s silent, hushing and sensual.|
|Euphony||It is a pleasant combination of sounds; smooth-flowing meter and sentence rhythm||These are lines with a high percentage of vowel sounds in proportion to consonant sounds which tend to be more melodious, or “euphonic”.|
|Cacophony & dissonance||The use of harsh sounding words OR the use of words to evoke a harsh or unpleasant image.||It is used by writers to give their writing a special effect; dissonance is the arrangement of cacophonous sounds in words or rhythmical patterns.|
|Repetition||The purposeful re-use of words and phrases.||It reinforces words and ideas, making them memorable and leaving a lasting impression. It makes a poem more contained.|
|Rhyme||The use of words with matching sounds. Can be internal or at end of lines.||It makes it memorable by driving forward the rhythm. It also unifies the poem and adds structure.|
|Rhythm||The pace or beat of the poem – can vary from line to line||It is chosen to achieve a particular effect, e.g. to mirror pattern of natural speech or the pace of walking, etc. may be fast, lively, slow, regular, irregular, awkward, tense, brisk, flowing, smooth|
|Imagery||Words that appeal to the senses||It creates vivid mental pictures and evokes ideas, feelings and atmosphere by appealing to the senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound).|
|A comparison between two unlike things using like or as.||It enhances descriptions, expanding reader’s understanding of what the poet is trying to convey, and clarifying meanings.|
|A direct comparison between two unlike things, stating that one is the other or does the action of the other.||It can uncover new and intriguing qualities of the original thing that we may not normally notice or even consider important. It helps us to realize a new and different meaning by making it more interesting to read.|
|Personification||Giving human qualities or characteristics to animals or inanimate objects: eg The days crept by slowly, sorrowfully.||It makes the objects and their actions easier to visualize for a reader. It also makes the poem more interesting and achieving a much more vivid image.|
|Symbolism||A word, phrase or image which stands for something.||It enables the writer to convey images directly to the mind of the reader – it serves almost like an emotional short-cut.|
|Rhetorical question?||A question which does not expect an answer.||It plants a question in the reader’s mind and then guides them towards the answer they want them to reach. It makes a deeper impression upon the reader than a direct statement would.|
|Colloquial language||Non-standard English, slang.||It makes it sound realistic, part of speaker’s identity, can indicate pride in roots, shows a relaxed and casual attitude.|
|Lines with no regular structure, rhyme or rhythm.
Blank verse is a type of poetry written in a regular meter that does not contain rhyme
|It allows the poet’s creativity. It can imply freedom, flexibility, and fluidity. The long lines may suggest excitement or a passionate outpouring, whereas, short lines may break the flow and add emphasis.|
|Couplet||A pair of lines, usually rhymed||It keeps a tight structure. It can also help conclude a poem.|
|Enjambment||A line ending in which the syntax, rhythm and thought are continued into the next line.||It draws the reader from line to line and verse to verse and makes poetry flow quicker by making it less blocky. It makes end rhymes more subtle. It may also indicate excitement, anger or passion.|
|Caesura||A natural pause or break in a line of poetry indicated by punctuation||It stops rhythm becoming predictable. It mirrors natural speech with lots of pauses, thus, slowing the pace of the poem. It may also make you pause abruptly, drawing attention to that idea.|
| Semantic field
|It is a set of words grouped by meaning referring to a specific subject. A general description is that words in a semantic field are not synonymous, but are all used to talk about the same general phenomenon.||When a text has a topic or subject that a group of words relate to, for example if a passage of writing included the words “heart”, “flower”, “music”, “passion” the semantic field would most likely be considered ‘love’.|
ESSENTIALLY when analyzing a poem and then carrying out an answer to a question, you will have been tackling three key issues:
- What purpose does this poetic/literary device serve?
- How does the author communicate his or her purpose through this device?
- Why do readers have this response to the poetic device?
This is a skill you need to harness at High School. It is not easy but with practice you will get the hang of it. To do so, I have two important posts I have done to help you achieve a top grade in English Literature essays. Please access them here on:
- Essential Skills For Academic Writing Style In English@High School
- Amazing Ideas On Writing A Good To Excellent Essay In English Literature
AGAIN, all these strategies require commitment and dedication, so PRACTICE AND PRACTICE MORE!!
Good luck in all your endeavours.