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Writing About Poetry

Writing about poetry is not very different from writing about other topics. Some techniques exist, however, that can help you analyze and write about it. Remember that all standard rules of writing apply for essays on poetry, even though the poets might not have adhered to those rules. There are three basic ways to write about poems:

  • Explication unfolds the meaning of a poem. It involves analyzing the formal techniques the poet uses to present an interpretation of the poem.
  • Analysis deals with a certain part of a poem and relates it to the work as a whole. For example, you can analyze the death imagery of a poem.
  • Comparison & contrast involves looking at two different poems that are usually connected in some way—they may share a common theme or technical device.

Pay attention to language

Look up any words you may not understand. Be sure you grasp the meaning of the words and how they are being used, especially if there are words that may have a meaning specific to the cultural context or time period of the poem.

Relate style and meaning

Be aware of style, or poetic techniques. Don't ignore the technical aspects of a poem when you focus on its meaning. At the same time, don't block out your interpretation of the poem when discussing the elements of style. Look for connections between the meaning (what the poem is saying) to the poetic techniques (how the poem says it).

Example: Eliot's replacement of the formal poetic restrictions of rhyme scheme and meter express the
fragmentation of values and the breakdown of society that he observed in the aftermath of WWII.

Move from literal to interpretive

A poem often works on two levels: the literal (what it is saying) and the thematic (what it suggests). Begin with the literal level of the poem, and then move into your thematic interpretation by providing evidence from the poem. Make sure you demonstrate how you reached a particular conclusion. Take your reader with you whenever you make an interpretation. Show evidence that proves your interpretation and also relates it to the literal meaning of the poem. Don't assume what you're out to prove.

Example: The theme of "To His Coy Mistress" is deeper than mere sentimentality and romanticism; Marvell's wit and his use of strong, sometimes astonishing images poignantly illustrate man's mortality and the inexorable press of time.

Quote correctly

You must quote the text directly as evidence for your argument. When quoting multiple lines of poetry, separate the line.

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