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How do I do a poetry analysis? (English HL)

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This is from a document I found very helpful. Hope it helps. :)

Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center

Hamilton College

Clinton, NY 13323


by Seth DuCharme, '92

Writing about poetry can be difficult. A poem does not affect its reader in quite the same

way that a work of prose does. To be able to understand and write about the way a poem

works, you need to spend some time thinking analytically about the poem before you

start your draft. Then, when you begin to write, you are better able to select appropriate

evidence and construct a convincing argument. Professor Ivan Marki of the English

Department encourages the four-stage approach explained below. It should help you

become comfortable working with a poem.

Get to Know the Poem

Describe the poem: Before you begin to organize your essay, read the poem aloud

several times, noting its structure, meter, recurring images or themes, rhyme scheme--

anything and everything which creates an effect.

Paraphrase the poem: Again, before you begin to organize your essay, make sure you

understand the language of the poem. Poetry, particularly from other time periods, often

contains confusing syntax or vocabulary. Put into your own words those lines or phrases

which are especially difficult. Resist the temptation to brush over the lines or phrases

which seem unintelligible; these can be the most crucial parts of the poem. The Oxford

English Dictionary is a good resource for defining difficult vocabulary.

How the Poem Works

Analyze the poem: Since your analysis should make up the bulk of your essay, approach

it with care. Knowing that you will not be able to address every aspect of the poem,

select the elements which work together to create special effects. Look beyond the

surface meaning of the words and start to think about how the techniques used in the

poem add depth to its meaning. How do the elements work together? Do they

complement each other, do they create tension, or both? Think in terms of cause and

effect and look for relationships within the poem itself. For example, if you see a pattern

of imagery which suggests something about the speaker, look at other areas of the poem

for more evidence along the same lines. In poetry, form and content are inseparable, so

you must not overlook the relationship between what the speaker says and how he or she

says it.

So What?

Interpret the poem: Using your analysis of how the poem works as your evidence,

interpret the poem--answer the question, "So what is this poem all about?" In the

interpretation, you bring together your analysis of the elements in the poem and show

what they mean to the poem as a whole. You may suggest an interpretation of the

speaker's state of mind, the poem's subject, or the nature of the experience which the

poem creates. For example, does Poe's "The Raven" describe a dream? A drug-induced

hallucination? A recollection? Why do you think so? What evidence, from your

analysis, supports your idea? The main argument of your paper should begin to take

form as you struggle with this process.

You have great freedom in interpreting a poem, provided that your assertions are solidly

linked to your evidence. Interpretation that does not align with your analysis will be

invalid. In the words of M. H. Abrams, editor of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, "There

is no one, right interpretation of a poem--but there is one which is more right than any of

the others."

The multi-faceted nature of poetry demands that you know where you are going before

you begin to construct your written argument, which is why the description and

paraphrase stages are so important. Your selective analysis emerges from them in the

form of an argument that is limited to a manageable set of ideas. After you have thought

through these stages and taken good notes, you should be ready to begin writing your


Constructing Your Paper

Thesis: Review your notes. Look for patterns and themes. Formulate a thesis statement

that will allow you to explain the relationships and the effects of elements in the poem. If

you can, indicate in the thesis the areas or features of the poem important to your

argument (a pattern of imagery, for instance, or a series of crucial lines). Remember,

your thesis statement must argue a point; instead of simply saying that a poet uses certain

poetic devices, you must give some indication in your thesis as to how those devices

work and what they do to the poem's meaning. You do not need to go into elaborate

detail in your thesis, but do show the relationship between the poem and your argument.

Introduction: Your first paragraph should make your reader comfortable with the poem

by identifying the poet, offering a brief, general description of the poem and, most

importantly, leading into the thesis and development of the argument by narrowing and

limiting the subject. It may be helpful to imagine the introduction as a funnel, initially

appealing to your reader from a wide perspective and then swiftly directing him or her

into the body of your essay. Avoid sweeping, abstract statements or statements which

you cannot concretely link to your thesis. The more quickly you get away from the

general and focus on the specific, the sooner you will engage your reader.

The Development of Your Argument: The approach you undertake in your thesis

determines the organization of the rest of the essay. Some arguments lend themselves to

a linear presentation. For example, if you choose to trace the development of the speaker

according to the recurrence of an image throughout the poem, you might want to go

through the poem chronologically to show how that image changes in significance from

line to line or stanza to stanza. You need not limit yourself to such a presentation,

however. Many poems are difficult to explain chronologically; some poems are better

suited to a non-linear argument which reflects cycles or other patterns in the poem. If

you organize your argument according to the patterns you choose to address, your

argument might move through the poem several times, according to the instances of the

images and their contextual significance. For example, one word may have a formal

relationship to numerous other words in the poem. The word "snow" has a relationship to

the word "flow" in that they rhyme, and to the word "ice" in that they are both associated

with winter. To discuss the significance of these relationships, you may find yourself

jumping around the poem. That's fine, as long as you make your argument clear and

keep your thesis in sight.

Paragraphs: Each paragraph should consist of a point which is credible, relevant to

your thesis, and analytical. Remember that you are arguing for a certain position and

need to convince your reader of that position. At the beginning of each paragraph, tell

your reader the focus of your argument in that paragraph by starting with a topic

sentence. The rest of the paragraph should address the assertion with convincing

evidence. The effectiveness of your argument depends heavily on how well you

incorporate evidence into your paragraphs.

Using Evidence: You cannot create a compelling argument without evidence to back it

up, but you must present that evidence in the context of your own argument. Merely

including a line or a passage in your paper without linking it to your argument will not be

convincing. Try incorporating your evidence into a "sandwich" of information which

will allow your reader to receive the full impact of the lines. Before the quotation,

describe the evidence in terms of the poem. Where is it located in the poem? Is it part of

a pattern? Let your reader know what he or she should be looking for. After the

quotation, if the passage is particularly difficult to understand, you should explain

problematic syntax or vocabulary. Then, you must analyze the quote and show how that

quote supports the claims you are making in your thesis. This is the most important part

of your paper; it is where you make your interpretation clear to the reader and where you

prove your thesis. Don't assume that the quotation will speak for itself—it is your job to

explain it.

Citation: Be sure to cite your evidence properly. Citing from a poem is different from

citing from a prose text. Because the line form of poetry is so important, you must

indicate where lines end by separating them with a slash mark "/". If you are quoting

more than three lines, single space the passage, indent, and present the passage as it

appears in the poem. Follow the quotation with the appropriate line numbers enclosed in

parentheses (see English Department handout on use of quotations and citations,

available from the Department office and the Writing Center).

The Conclusion: Conclusions take many forms. In your conclusion you can emphasize

crucial ideas, raise questions about the poem, or connect the poem to other literary works

or experiences. This is where you can offer your interpretation of the poem, which by

now should be convincing to your reader since you have presented your evidence in the

body of the paper. You may raise new ideas in a conclusion, provided that they are

solidly linked to the development of your argument. Remember, you have flexibility, but

your conclusion should flow naturally from the body of your paper.

Final Thoughts

1) If you have the choice of which poem to write about, pick one you like.

2) Read the poem aloud. Your ear will notice things your eyes miss.

3) Notice the way the poem looks on the page. The form of the poem may reveal

something about the way it works.

4) Be careful to make a clear distinction between the poet and the speaker. Even in

poems that are written in the first person, you should be careful not to assume

anything about the speaker that the poem itself does not suggest.

5) Let your interpretation follow your analysis--avoid making unsupported assertions.

6) Be selective with your evidence. Limit the length of your quotations to a workable

size. Passages longer than a few lines will be impossible to explain in a single


Enjoy the Poem!

Poems are artistic expressions that demand that you appreciate them before you begin to

reduce them to something explainable. Often, the most brilliant elements in a poem are

very subtle and will be felt before they are understood. Remember, you are not just

explaining what a poem does, you are explaining what it does to you. You are the

medium in which the poem comes to life. Writing about poetry offers you a special

opportunity to interact with a work of art.

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Hi, i'm going to try and explain this as simply as i can. In the end, it all comes down to practice. The most important thing is structure - not just the structure of your analysis but also the structure of yours sentences. Of course, there are the standard things like topic sentences, point, example, explanation, link.

A big part of the analysing poetry is to understand the fact that poets usually have a much deeper meaning. They tend to use a lot of symbolism and subtle metaphors. For example, if the word 'dust' is mentioned, you could connect it to the feeling of something being ancient or neglected. It's important to recognize the themes and how the poet tries to portray it.

Eg. of subtle techniques

use of particular sounds. Eg. sexy, succulent, sensual. The use of the S sound gives a ~ tone contributing to the ~message the poet is trying to communicate.

Caesuras (very short sentences for effect). Eg. *a long, flowy description* stop. i can't do this anymore. The sudden caesuras draw the reader's attention and create contrast for the second theme.

Enjambment (one sentence on two lines) - maybe used to highlight certain things.

in terms of setting it out, there's various ways. If you're used to a 3 point essay:

For example, if there's 3 stanzas, you could go a paragraph for each stanza, talking about the theme, how it's portrayed using poetry techniques, etc.

Or, i prefer to split it into the theme, the techniques and the tone, which is quite hard and i have occasionally changed it to suit the piece i'm writing about.

In summary, get used to close reading poems. By this, i mean questioning everything you read in a poem. Why did the poet choose to use this word? What could this possibly symbolise? (Be careful not to over analyse it though!). Pick up on the themes, plan your structure and start writing!

I've only been in IB for one semester but this is what i've picked up on on the way. I hope it helps!

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A helpful guide is to take a look at the assessment rubrics and see how your analysis addresses the criteria stated. For example, for understanding of text try to look for cases where an examiner would find reason to believe you understood the poem, which would be largely through appropriate quotes of the poem and how the part quoted achieves a certain effect on the reader, and just move along for there.

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Pick an overarching theme in the poem/passage, what jumps out at you the most and how to decide that this idea is the one you want to pursue as the main idea in the poem/passage.

Once the theme is picked, devise your thesis statement and write it out in your introductory paragraph.

Each subsequent body paragraph should address SADIST: Style/Structure, Author's Intent, Diction/Dialogue, Imagery (Visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, food, colour, shape, geometric, etc), Symbolism/Simile/Metaphors, Tone/Mood.

Each and ever one of those ideas should be addressed in any commentary you write in every body paragraph. Your body paragraphs should be in this format:
1. Opening line is a topic sentence which explains point X that relates back to your thesis.
2. You then present your argument of how point X is related to your thesis.
3. Use evidence (Style, Imagery, Diction, Symbolism/Simile/Metaphors)
4. Analyse the evidence (what is the effect on the tone? Mood? What was the Author's Intent?)
5. Concluding sentence about how this relates back to your thesis.

Try and vary things to show that you're looking at the piece as a whole as opposed to a line-by-line analysis. If the first quote you use is describing visual imagery in Line 5, the second part of the evidence for the same point should be visual imagery in line 19.

SADIST is of course not an exhaustive list, it's merely to help you organise yourself and is meant to be a reference point at best, you can always bring in the whole host of literary devices: pathetic fallacies, atmosphere, allusions, double entendres, personifications, apostrophes, punctuation determination, etc the list is endless.

I hope that helps, if something wasn't clear enough email me and I'll get back to you.

Best of luck for your exam,

Edited by Arrowhead
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