Dealing with poetry
This week you’ll write the first draft of your poetry paper. In many ways writing about a poem is the same as writing about a short story. But there are enough differences to justify spending some time on the topic here.
The Main Difference Between Poetry and Prose
Just about everyone knows a poem when he sees one, but few can define it. What exactly is poetry? How is it different from prose? These are not easy questions.
All writing can be divided into one of these two categories. The lesson you are reading right now is prose. The nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is a poem. Easy. But why? What’s the difference between them?
Students who are asked this question are quick to suggest that poetry rhymes and prose doesn’t. But we all know that there are many poems – old poems and modern poems – that don’t rhyme at all. Poems are certainly more likely to rhyme and contain other sound devices like meter, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, and so on. But not all poems make use of such things, and you might find these characteristics in prose as well.
So what is the difference? The most reliable way of telling the difference between prose and poetry is the way they look – their appearance on the page. For example, if I write the words, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” you might wonder what I’m talking about, but you would know it is prose. If you arrange the words like this, however, you turn a prose sentence into a poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
This is, in fact, a well-known poem by William Carlos Williams. The one sure-fire way of telling poetry from prose is to look at how the words are arranged on the page. Poems are arranged in some deliberate, meaningful way. In the poem above, the poet himself decided to break the poem into four stanzas of two lines each with the first line containing three words and the second line containing only one. Why did he do that? I don’t know for sure. It’s a good topic for discussion, maybe even a good topic for a literary analysis paper, but it’s not important now. He did it for some reason – that’s all that matters.
In traditional poetry with rhyme and meter, like the poem by Wordsworth below, each line ends after a set number of syllables. The final word of some lines rhymes with the final word or words in other lines. There is a consistent, observable rule for where to end each line:
Three years she grew in sun and shower;
Then Nature said, “A lovelier flower
On earth was never sown;
This child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A lady of my own.”
Prose isn’t like that. Prose isn’t concerned about when to end a line. It starts on the left and when it hits the right margin, it drops to a new line. Prose broken into paragraphs to keep related sentences together, but that’s the only reason a work of prose wouldn’t fill the space from margin to margin. Prose writers aren’t concerned with the appearance of the words on the page. Poets are.
It’s that simple: in poetry, new lines start for a reason. In prose they don’t. There are other, more important differences between poetry and prose, of course, but nothing is more reliable and consistent than this simple visual distinction.
Poetry also tends to be less literal than prose, depending more on metaphor, symbolism, and imagery. Modern poetry, in particular, experiments with form, structure, and creative means of expression. In general, poetry is more evocative than prose, appealing less to logic and reason than to emotion, imagination, and intuition.
Poetry, generally speaking, packs meaning into a few words. Because of this, poetry tends to require analysis and explication. Often, good poems demand multiple readings and are open to various interpretations.
For all these reasons, a good poem is an excellent subject for literary analysis.
Different Types of Poetry
Poems come in many shapes and sizes. We’ll just go over a few common types here.
You don’t see much epic poetry these days. Great old epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost are still read, but few writers have attempted this kind of poem in recent centuries.
And no wonder. Epic poems are long – often hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of lines long. They tell sweeping tales spanning years with numerous characters including heroes, gods, and monsters. They are lofty, noble, dramatic works that typically express the values and characteristics of entire societies.
The good news is you won’t be writing about epics in this class. They are just too long. Stick to something short and manageable.
An epic is a type of narrative, but a particularly long and involved one. Any poem that tells a story is a narrative poem. That includes famous poems like “Casey at the Bat,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”
Just as common as narratives are lyric poems. Lyric poetry tends to be song-like, including rhythmic patterns – known as meter – and rhyme. Lyric poems are short and communicate ideas and emotions rather than plot and story.
Free verse poetry defies the rules. Like “The Red Wheelbarrow” above, free verse rarely rhymes or follows a predictable meter. Free verse poets experiment freely with sound and structure. They fix words on the page wherever they think it will enhance the meaning.
Sonnets are old poems that adhere to a very rigid structure. They are always fourteen lines long. They have a prescribed meter and follow one of two established rhyming patterns. Shakespeare’s sonnets are famous, as are those of Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. Sonnets are often, but not always, love poems.
An ode is a poem expressing praise or honor to a person, place, or thing. They come in many forms, though in Ancient Greece, where they were first written, they were rigidly structured.
A ballad is a type of narrative poem usually telling the tale of a hero or legend. Ballads almost always include a repeated refrain. They also tend to end tragically.
An elegy is sad poem mourning or honoring someone who has died.
There are other types of poems – haiku, limericks, and doggerel, for example – but this is a good start. Whichever poem you choose to write about, be sure you can identify what kind of poem it is. Such knowledge will help you understand the poet’s purpose. You’ll want to include that information in your paper.
What You Might Write About
Because poems have a different structure and purpose from prose, you won’t write about them exactly the same way. Even if you choose a narrative poem, we don’t recommend you write about elements like plot, setting, or conflict. It’s possible but unlikely that you will write about character either, since short narrative poems don’t allow for much character development to take place.
So what might you write about? The options are numerous, but you will likely consider two main areas: structure or content.
Because poetry is more concerned with form than prose, you’ll want to pay attention in your paper. By form or structure, we mean the way the poem is organized or the literary tools the poet uses to convey his or her meaning. We are talking here about the craft of the poem. In a structure-oriented poetry analysis, the emphasis is less on what the poem means and more on how the poet communicates the meaning.
You’ll get a better idea of what we mean by structure by looking at the kinds of concepts you might discuss in a paper. Below is a short list of structural terms you would likely include in this kind of poetry analysis. We hope in your study of poetry, these terms have already been made familiar, since we only have time to address them briefly here.
Meter is the term for intentional, predictable rhythm in a poem. That rhythm is created by an alternating pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. By arranging words with an awareness of their natural pronunciations, poets can create a variety of patterns.
A metrical foot is the pattern that is repeated in metered poetry. A foot typically contains a single stressed syllable and at least one unstressed one. There are five common types of metrical foot:
Iambs: An iambic pattern is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (She dwelt amonguntrodden ways).
Trochees: Trochaic verse is the opposite of iambic – a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (Tell me not in mournful numbers).
Anapests: Anapestic meter involves two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold).
Dactyls: A dactylic pattern is the opposite of anapestic – a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones (Half a league, half a league, half a league onward).
Spondees: A spondee isn’t so much a pattern, but a type of foot that a poet might insert to throw off the natural rhythm of a line. A spondee draws attention because it includes two or more consecutive stressed syllables (Break, break, break / On thy cold, gray, stones, Oh sea!)
It’s not necessary to talk about technical terms like iambs and spondees in your paper, but you should learn to pay attention to how the rhythm of the poem contributes to its meaning and effect. If you are able to use these terms intelligently, it will help your paper.
The metrical length of a poem is simply the number of feet per line. Remember, terms like this apply only to metered poetry. It won’t work with most free verse poems.
Poems written in trimeter have three feet per line:
And the sound | of a voice |that is still
Tetrameter has four metric feet per line:
Tell me | not in | mournful | numbers
Pentameter means five metric feet per line:
Shall I | compare | thee to | a sum | mer’s day?
When lines of poetry are grouped together, it’s called a stanza. Stanzas may contain any number of lines, but are clearly separated. They function similarly to paragraphs in prose.
Poets pay close attention to the sound of their poetry. This involves meter, of course, but also a variety of sound deviceslike rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia.
We assume you are familiar with rhyme, but notice that some poems include more than just rhymes at the end of lines (end rhyme). Often, poets will rhyme words within a line of poetry as well. This is called internal rhyme.
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and bears man’s smell; the soil…
The example above also contains alliteration – the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Notice that three words begin with sm: smeared, smudge, and smell.
Onomatopoeia is a playful word that indicates a kind of play with language. When a sound word imitates the sound it names, we call that onomatopoeia. That includes words like hiccup, snap, pop, and swish.
Figures of speech are not reserved for poets by any means. All writers make use of them, but the evocative nature of poetry makes non-literal language even more appealing. A figure of speech, remember, is an expression that isn’t meant to be taken at face value. It’s not intended to be understood literally. There are dozens of types of figures of speech, but the most common include metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and personification.
Metaphor: An indirect comparison suggesting one thing is another, but meaning that the two things share some implied characteristics (Stan is a clown, Congress is a circus, today was a nightmare).
Simile: Similar to metaphor, but a direct comparison, using words like like or as (hot as a jalapeno, this place is like the Wild West)
Hyperbole: intentional exaggeration to emphasize a point (the fury of a thousand suns, I could eat a horse)
Personification: the attribution of human qualities to non-human things (the breeze tickled my neck, the moon watched me through the trees)
Many poems create vivid word pictures of people and objects. This is known broadly as imagery and sometimes suggests symbolism. A symbol is something that stands for something larger than itself. A black bird might represent evil or death. A waving flag might point to courage or patriotism. A rose petal might suggest love or the loss of a loved one. Look for important images and think about what they might mean in a deeper sense.
It’s normally not enough to simply analyze the structural aspects of a poem. Like any writer, poets intend to say something with their poem. You’ll want to talk about the meaning of the poem – the unique perspective on life that the poet communicates. This is what we mean by the content of the poem.
Remember that a poet uses poetic tools like meter, rhyme, and figures of speech as a means to an end. Your job is to identify those literary devices and show how they add to the power and message of the poem. In other words, it’s not enough to just talk about the poet’s use of similes and alliteration. A really good poetry analysis essay will also suggest what those things contribute to the message or the reader’s enjoyment of the poem.
Poetry can be hard to understand. It’s not unusual, especially for young readers, to read a classic poem and come away nothing but confused. Poems don’t normally communicate the same way prose does – in a logical, linear progression of ideas. A poem might simply present an image and leave its meaning up to the reader. It may present a collection of images to paint a picture of the truth it wants to convey. It may tell a story or it may simply play with language in a way makes understanding the message challenging.
Different poets take different approaches to poetry. Often they say things like “I don’t write poetry to convey truth. I write poetry to figure out truth.” Or, “I just write the poems. What they mean is up to you.” In other words, poetry often doesn’t follow the typically straightforward style of prose.
This is both good and bad news for you. The bad news is that it may take some work to discover what you believe is the point of a poem. The good news is that there is often no single right answer. Many poems are open to several legitimate interpretations.
Let the Poem Speak
Just because this is true – that poems can often be read in different ways – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that any interpretation is okay. Read poetry honestly. Look for what the text itself actually says. Don’t try to read into it things that aren’t there.
We all read with biases. We come from a particular place and time, with a particular family and environment, a particular kind of upbringing, particular hopes, dreams, goals, and experiences. All of these things affect how we read. This is unavoidable, but good readers and literary analysts do their best to put those things aside and to read with an open mind and heart. Don’t make a poem try to say something that you already believe unless you can point to solid evidence in the poem itself. Don’t make assumptions about what the poet “must” have meant.
You don’t have to agree with the content or perspective of a poem, but you do have try to understand it before you can begin to criticize it. This is so important. Read fairly. Read objectively. Read thoughtfully. Then make conclusions about how much you agree or disagree.
And even if you do disagree, that doesn’t mean you have to address that in your paper. It’s fine, even encouraged, to simply talk about what the poet is saying. You can leave your opinion out altogether. All you need to do is persuade your reader that the poem means what you say it means. You don’t have to persuade him to agree or not.
Tips for Reading Poetry
Read it multiple times. Because poetry is often understood on multiple levels, it is always rewarding to read it over more than once. Each time, look for new ways to understand it.
Read with a pencil. Create a copy of the poem that you can write on and use a pencil to interact with the poem. Circle or underline parts that seem important. Draw question marks where you find it confusing and to mark where you should come back later to puzzle it out. Write notes and questions in the margin as you go. Put quotation marks around passages that you think might be worth quoting directly in your paper.
Read it out loud. Remember that the sound of a poem is often a key to its meaning. Find someplace where you can hear the words as you read aloud. Try reading it dramatically, placing emphasis where it seems appropriate. Dry different kinds of reading. Read in a different voice or a foreign accent. Whatever helps you hear the poem differently
Look for key words. Look for words and phrases that seem important to the poem as a whole. Mark these in some way. If a word is repeated, pay particular attention.
Look for literary devices. We’ve listed them above. Pay attention to the craft of the poem, looking for figures of speech, meter, rhyme, and other poetic devices.
Look closely, but also step back. Since you are doing analysis, you’ll want to look carefully at the various parts of the poem. But don’t forget that the poem is also a whole – it works to communicate some overall point. Be sure you don’t miss the forest for the trees. What is this poem ultimately about?
If necessary, do research. As we’ve said before, we don’t expect you to do any research on your paper. There are advantages to going at it all on your own. But if you find yourself stuck on a particular line or stanza, you can feel free to use a search engine to see what other readers have to say about it. Just don’t go immediately to the ideas of others. You can do this all by yourself. Believe it.
Literary analysis is mostly the same kind of writing regardless of the kind of work you address, but in this lesson we’ve tried to point out the slightly different approach you should take with poetry as opposed to prose works like short stories.
We’ve provided an example of an analytical paper on a short lyric poem (Click Here). As always, this is just one way of doing it. There isn’t a single right way to write a literary essay. As long as you are helping your reader to more fully, deeply, and insightfully understand the structure and content of the poem, you can’t go far wrong.