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Tips For Writing Poetry Essays

Writing About Poetry

Summary:

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.

Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]

If you are writing a poem because you want to capture a feeling that you experienced, then you don’t need these tips. Just write whatever feels right. Only you experienced the feeling that you want to express, so only you will know whether your poem succeeds.

If, however, your goal is to communicate with a reader — drawing on the established conventions of a literary genre (conventions that will be familiar to the experienced reader) to generate an emotional response in your reader — then simply writing what feels right to you won’t be enough.  (See also “Poetry is for the Ear” and “When Backwards Newbie Poets Write“)

These tips will help you make an important transition:

  • away from writing poetry to celebrate, commemorate, or capture your own feelings (in which case you, the poet, are the center of the poem’s universe)
  • towards writing poetry in order to generate feelings in your reader (in which case the poem exists entirely to serve the reader).
  1. Know Your Goal
  2. Avoid Clichés
  3. Avoid Sentimentality
  4. Use Images
  5. Use Metaphor and Simile
  6. Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words
  7. Communicate Theme
  8. Subvert the Ordinary
  9. Rhyme with Extreme Caution
  10. Revise, Revise, Revise

Tip #1 Know Your Goal.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you get there?

You need to know what you are trying to accomplish before you begin any project. Writing a poem is no exception.

Before you begin, ask yourself what you want your poem to “do.” Do you want your poem to explore a personal experience, protest a social injustice, describe the beauty of nature, or play with language in a certain way? Once your know the goal of your poem, you can conform your writing to that goal. Take each main element in your poem and make it serve the main purpose of the poem.

Tip #2 Avoid Clichés

Stephen Minot defines a cliché as: “A metaphor or simile that has become so familiar from overuse that the vehicle … no longer contributes any meaning whatever to the tenor. It provides neither the vividness of a fresh metaphor nor the strength of a single unmodified word….The word is also used to describe overused but nonmetaphorical expressions such as ‘tried and true’ and ‘each and every'” (Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction and Drama, 405).

Cliché also describes other overused literary elements. “Familiar plot patterns and stock characters are clichés on a big scale” (Minot 148). Clichés can be overused themes, character types, or plots. For example, the “Lone Ranger” cowboy is a cliché because it has been used so many times that people no longer find it original.

A work full of clichés is like a plate of old food: unappetizing.

More creative writing tips.

Clichés work against original communication. People value creative talent. They want to see work that rises above the norm. When they see a work without clichés, they know the writer has worked his or her tail off, doing whatever it takes to be original. When they see a work full to the brim with clichés, they feel that the writer is not showing them anything above the ordinary. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this paragraph is chock full of clichés… I’ll bet you were bored to tears.)

Clichés dull meaning. Because clichéd writing sounds so familiar, people can complete finish whole lines without even reading them. If they don’t bother to read your poem, they certainly won’t stop to think about it. If they do not stop to think about your poem, they will never encounter the deeper meanings that mark the work of an accomplished poet.

Examples of Clichés:

  • busy as a bee
  • tired as a dog
  • working my fingers to bone
  • beet red
  • on the horns of a dilemma
  • blind as a bat
  • eats like a horse
  • eats like a bird

How to Improve a Cliché

I will take the cliché “as busy as a bee” and show how you can express the same idea without cliché.

  1. Determine what the clichéd phrase is trying to say.
    In this case, I can see that “busy as a bee” is a way to describe the state of being busy.
  2. Think of an original way to describe what the cliché is trying to describe.
    For this cliché, I started by thinking about busyness. I asked myself the question, “What things are associated with being busy?” I came up with: college, my friend Jessica, corporation bosses, old ladies making quilts and canning goods, and a computer, fiddlers fiddling. From this list, I selected a thing that is not as often used in association with busyness: violins.
  3. Create a phrase using the non-clichéd way of description.
    I took my object associated with busyness and turned it into a phrase: “I feel like a bow fiddling an Irish reel.” This phrase communicates the idea of “busyness” much better than the worn-out, familiar cliché. The reader’s mind can picture the insane fury of the bow on the violin, and know that the poet is talking about a very frenzied sort of busyness. In fact, those readers who know what an Irish reel sounds like may even get a laugh out of this fresh way to describe “busyness.”

Try it! Take a cliché and use these steps to improve it. You may even end up with a line you feel is good enough to put in a poem!

Tip #3 Avoid Sentimentality.

Sentimentality is “dominated by a blunt appeal to the emotions of pity and love …. Popular subjects are puppies, grandparents, and young lovers” (Minot 416). “When readers have the feeling that emotions like rage or indignation have been pushed artificially for their own sake, they will not take the poem seriously” (132).

Minot says that the problem with sentimentality is that it detracts from the literary quality of your work (416). If your poetry is mushy or teary-eyed, your readers may openly rebel against your effort to invoke emotional response in them. If that happens, they will stop thinking about the issues you want to raise, and will instead spend their energy trying to control their own gag reflex.

Tip #4 Use Images.

“BE A PAINTER IN WORDS,” says UWEC English professor emerita, poet, and songwriter Peg Lauber. She says poetry should stimulate six senses:

  • sight
  • hearing
  • smell
  • touch
  • taste
  • kinesiology (motion)

Examples.

  • “Sunlight varnishes magnolia branches crimson” (sight)
  • “Vacuum cleaner’s whir and hum startles my ferret” (hearing)
  • “Penguins lumber to their nests” (kinesiology)

Lauber advises her students to produce fresh, striking images (“imaginative”). Be a camera. Make the reader be there with the poet/speaker/narrator. (See also: “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell“)

Tip #5 Use Metaphor and Simile.

Use metaphor and simile to bring imagery and concrete words into your writing.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a statement that pretends one thing is really something else:

Example: “The lead singer is an elusive salamander.”

This phrase does not mean that the lead singer is literally a salamander. Rather, it takes an abstract characteristic of a salamander (elusiveness) and projects it onto the person. By using metaphor to describe the lead singer, the poet creates a much more vivid picture of him/her than if the poet had simply said “The lead singer’s voice is hard to pick out.”

Simile

A simile is a statement where you say one object is similar to another object. Similes use the words “like” or “as.”

Example: “He was curious as a caterpillar” or “He was curious, like a caterpillar”

This phrase takes one quality of a caterpillar and projects it onto a person. It is an easy way to attach concrete images to feelings and character traits that might usually be described with abstract words.

Note: A simile is not automatically any more or less “poetic” than a metaphor. You don’t suddenly produce better poems if you replace all your similes with metaphors, or vice versa. The point to remember is that comparison, inference, and suggestion are all important tools of poetry; similes and metaphors are tools that will help in those areas.

Tip #6 Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words.

Concrete words describe things that people experience with their senses.

A person can see orange, feel warm, or hear a cat.

Poets use concrete words help the reader get a “picture” of what the poem is talking about. When the reader has a “picture” of what the poem is talking about, he/she can better understand what the poet is talking about.

Abstract words refer to concepts or feelings.

“Liberty” is a concept, “happy” is a feeling, and no one can agree on whether “love” is a feeling, a concept or an action.

A person can’t see, touch, or taste any of these things. As a result, when used in poetry, these words might simply fly over the reader’s head, without triggering any sensory response. Further, “liberty,” “happy,” and “love” can mean different things to different people. Therefore, if the poet uses such a word, the reader may take a different meaning from it than the poet intended.

Change Abstract Words Into Concrete Words

To avoid problems caused by using abstract words, use concrete words.

Example: “She felt happy.”

This line uses the abstract word “happy.” To improve this line, change the abstract word to a concrete image. One way to achieve this is to think of an object or a scene that evokes feelings of happiness to represent the happy feeling.

Improvement: “Her smile spread like red tint on ripening tomatoes.”

This line uses two concrete images: a smile and a ripening tomato. Describing the smile shows the reader something about happiness, rather than simply coming right out and naming the emotion. Also, the symbolism of the tomato further reinforces the happy feelings. Red is frequently associated with love; ripening is a positive natrual process; food is further associated with being satisfied.

Prof. Jerz belabors Kara’s point:

Extension: Now, let’s do something with this image.

She sulked in the garden, reticent...hard; Unwilling to face his kisses -- or unable. One autumn morn she felt her sour face Ripen to a helpless smile, tomato-red. Her parted lips whispered, "Hello, sunshine!"

OK, the image has gotten embarrassingly obvious now, but you can see how the introduction of the tomato permits us to make many additional connections. While Kara’s original example simply reported a static emotional state — “She felt happy,” the image of the ripening tomato, which Kara introduced as a simple simile to describe a smile, has grown into something much more complex. Regardless of what the word “tomato” invoked in your mind, an abstraction like “happy” can never stretch itself out to become a whole poem, without relying on concrete images. –DGJ

Tip #7 Communicate Theme.

Poetry always has a theme. Theme is not just a topic, but an idea with an opinion.

Theme = Idea + Opinion

Topic: “The Vietnam War”

This is not a theme. It is only a subject. It is just an event. There are no ideas, opinions, or statements about life or of wisdom contained in this sentence

Theme: “History shows that despite our claims to be peace-loving, unfortunately each person secretly dreams of gaining glory through conflict.”

This is a theme. It is not just an event, but a statement about an event. It shows what the poet thinks about the event. The poet strives to show the reader his/her theme during the entire poem, making use of literary techniques.

Tip #8 Subvert the Ordinary.

Poets’ strength is the ability to see what other people see everyday in a new way. You don’t have to be special or a literary genius to write good poems–all you have to do is take an ordinary object, place, person, or idea, and come up with a new perception of it.

Example: People ride the bus everyday.

Poets’ Interpretation: A poet looks at the people on the bus and imagines scenes from their lives. A poet sees a sixty-year old woman and imagines a grandmother who runs marathons. A poet sees a two-year old boy and imagines him painting with ruby nail polish on the toilet seat, and his mother struggling to not respond in anger.

Take the ordinary and turn it on its head. (The word “subvert” literally means “turn upside down”.)

Tip #9 Rhyme with Extreme Caution.

Rhyme and meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed words) can be dangerous if used the wrong way. Remember sing-song nursery rhymes? If you choose a rhyme scheme that makes your poem sound sing-song, it will detract from the quality of your poem.

I recommend that beginning poets stick to free verse. It is hard enough to compose a poem without dealing with the intricacies of rhyme and meter. (Note: see Jerz’s response to this point, in “Poetry Is For the Ear.”)

If you feel ready to create a rhymed poem, refer to chapters 6-10 of Stephen Minot’s bookThree Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. 6th ed., for more help.

Tip #10 Revise, Revise, Revise.

The first completed draft of your poem is only the beginning. Poets often go through several drafts of a poem before considering the work “done.”

To revise:

  • Put your poem away for a few days, and then come back to it. When you re-read it, does anything seem confusing? Hard to follow? Do you see anything that needs improvement that you overlooked the first time? Often, when you are in the act of writing, you may leave out important details because you are so familiar with the topic. Re-reading a poem helps you to see it from the “outsider’s perspective” of a reader.
  • Show your poem to others and ask for criticism. Don’t be content with a response like, “That’s a nice poem.” You won’t learn anything from that kind of response. Instead, find people who will tell you specific things you need to improve in your poem.

26 May 2000 — originally submitted by Kara Ziehl, as an assignment for Prof. Jerz’s technical writing class
01 Aug 2000 — modified and posted by Jerz
30 Nov 2001 — minor edits by Jerz
21 July 2011 — minor refresh
22 May 2013 — added intro before the tips.
24 Dec 3017 — minor formatting tweaks

See Also:

Handouts > Creative Writing > Poetry Tips

Poetry is for the Ear —Whatever poetry you write or read, learn to listen with the ears of your audience. Pay attention to the sounds the words make, even if you write in free verse.

Getting College Credit for your High School Poems –Poems that perfectly record how you felt about events in your life probably won’t work as submissions for college writing classes. Most professors will expect you to revise in-progress poems.


About This Page
Kara Ziehl, a UWEC creative writing major, compiled these tips in order to help students in my English 110 (“Introduction to College Writing”) class. I have fine-tuned and expanded her text somewhat, but I think she did an excellent job — this is now required reading for budding student poets in my classes. –DGJ