Tuesday, 16 October 2007

How to study poems and write essays about them

My Last Duchess

Lord knows I've prepared advice sheets like this one several times. Still it's worth giving another take on this. This advice on how to write about poetry comes from the excellent CEA, Northern Ireland's Exam Board. The internet back-up support and notes for their anthologies is superb. Here is the link to their site. Scroll down to see the available poems for notes, interpretation, etc.


Writing about poetry: some general pointers
To begin with it is likely that you may be asked to write about an individual poem and later you’ll find yourself faced with more complex tasks that will require you to compare and/or contrast poems.
We’ll first look at how to analyse a single poem. Later, we’ll look at working with more than one.

Analysing an individual poem
Below are a series of sub-headings that should allow you to break down the task of analysis into more user-friendly bites.

a. To begin by looking at the SUBJECT MATTER of the poem is logical: what event, situation or experience does the poem feature?

b. Does the poet have a PURPOSE or a THEME or a MESSAGE? What was the poet's purpose in writing this - what is being conveyed?

c. What is the MOOD or FEELING of the poem? Is there a key emotion or mood within the poem? Does that mood change during the course of the poem? What response does the poet conjure up in his/her reader?

d. What are the poem’s KEY FEATURES? What TECHNIQUES has the poet used, what are the specific skills that have been employed in creating this poem? (This would be a major element within your analysis and it has been considered in detail in the section below.)

e. Finish off with YOUR SUMMARY. You’ve analysed the poem, now pull together the significant information. What impact has the poem had upon you? How successful is it? Do you think that it succeeds in its purpose, or if not, why has it failed?

This deals with the HOW question: how does the poet achieve a particular effect? What techniques have been used, and what is their effect?
The following outline is to help you understand the major elements of craftsmanship.

STRUCTURE: how is the poem structured? Does it have a conventional structure such as a sonnet, or an ode? Does it have stanzas with a regular number of lines, or any other features in its structural make up?

LANGUAGE: how would you describe the poet's use of words – are they vivid, striking, effective, drab, predictable or unusual? Is the language in keeping with the subject and/ or theme, and what part, importantly, does the language play in the poem's achievement?

IMAGERY: are there any striking examples of similes, metaphors, personification or symbols in the poem? Of much more consequence, what is their effect and what has been achieved by their use?

RHYTHM: does the poem have a regular (slow or fast) or fragmented rhythm? And again, most significantly what is the effect of a poem’s rhythmic qualities?

SOUNDS: Does the poem have any significant sound features? Is it musical? Does the poet use onomatopoeia, alliteration, or assonance? Does the poem rhyme? Having recognised these, your major emphasis should be on what influences these features of sound have on the achievement of the poem?

Analysing two poems
Let’s begin by stating the obvious - a successful comparison of two poems demands a close understanding of the texts.
So what methods of organising such a comparison are open to you?
Two alternatives immediately present themselves:

• the titles
• a thematic approach
A sequential approach is where you work your way through one of the poems and then work your way through the second after that. This is appealing in that you only have to concentrate on one poem at a time, however, the need to compare the two poems will mean that, as you comment on the second poem, you have to make cross-references with the first. This can be more difficult than the second approach.

The thematic approach is more difficult, initially, only because you have to plan thoroughly before beginning to write your response. This will require you to be confident enough to use some of your precious time for planning as opposed to writing - which is what every exam candidate feels they should be doing all the time! No matter which of these approaches you choose to use, what you must bear in mind throughout is the focus demanded by the question. (One final thought before leaving this – practising will certainly help!)

The following planning strategy might help:
• the titles
• the context of the poems
• their perspectives
• their form
• the use made of imagery
• their mood and tone
• your preferences and conclusions


ميّويه said...

Thank you very much. This post really helped me.

Term Papers said...

Certainly the thematic approach is more difficult, initially, only because we have to plan thoroughly before beginning to write our response.

Term papers

About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.