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Meaning of a Poem

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How does one find the meaning of a poem in a commentary? Although poetry can be interpreted in different ways, we're meant to be able to find a deeper meaning of the poem on which we write our thesis and base our analysis on this meaning and how the way in which the poem is written supports our interpretation. However, I find myself incapable of finding this dreaded meaning so what I do is I write a poor, general thesis and basically write out everything I notice in the poem and hope that it'll all connect. This always leads to a poor introduction and conclusion, as well as a poor mark in organisation. Can some one help me with this? Thank you!

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I would suggest using as much of background knowledge in literature as possible. The writing tools, bibliograhy of authors etc. Bibliography might be very useful since in many pieces there are a lot of autobiography elements present, this can definately deepen the meaning and thus boost the quality of your reflection. Other than that all i could say is that you look at the poems both objectively and subjectively.

Good luck!

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I am not sure I agree with blondalternative about looking up a poet' s life to gain insights to the work-- or it serving you for commentary writing. Examiners and teachers find explanations based on biographical less than convincing.Go ahead if you want to, if it helps you actually read the poems. Steer clear of it when doing commentary.

There are plenty of good books and guides out there with good, detailed advice. They'll serve you far better than the general counselling here, which can never replace solid reading and thought. Try Sound and Sense by Perrine, for one. And how about tracking down an old English A1 guide. There must be plenty hanging about at your school. This offered solid interpretations and approaches to texts, including poetry, in a way that was undaunting. That's two, now. Then there are some IB publications fort he A1 dealing specifically with commentary writing. I'll see if I can look up the title and author...

A really good place is the poetry foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/4514. Which has poems galore and lots of background historical, biographical, critical..

But it will help enormously if you stop thinking in terms of unlocking a (single) hidden meaning. This belief is a big obstacle to appreciating a poem. As long as you believe the poet has put a hidden meaning in there for you to hunt down, the more frustrated you'll be and the less meaningful the experience --and the less chance of writing a good, reflective commentary. It does not mean that anything goes, mind you. That's where the disciplined close reading comes in....And your study of how others, more experienced than you, go about making sense of a poem for themselves.

Good luck!

Edited by Blackcurrant
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I am not sure I agree with blondalternative about looking up a poet' s life to gain insights to the work-- or it serving you for commentary writing. Examiners and teachers find explanations based on biographical less than convincing.Go ahead if you want to, if it helps you actually read the poems. Steer clear of it when doing commentary.

There are plenty of good books and guides out there to guide you. They'll serve you far better than the general advice here, which can never replace solid reading and thought. Sound and Sense by Perrine is just one book. The old A1 guide offered solid interpretations and approaches to texts, including poetry, in a way that was undaunting. That's just two. The there are so e IB publications fort he A1 dealing specifically with commentary writing. I'll see if I can look up the title and author...

Then, a really good place is the poetry foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/audioitem/4514

Which has poems galore and lots of background on poems and individual poets.

But it will help enormously if you avoid thinking in terms of unlocking a hidden meaning. That is the biggest stumbling block for students who have learnt somewhere that there is meaning (and a single one) IN the poem. There isn't. As long as you believe the poet has put a meaning in there and your job is to hunt it down the more frustrated you'll be. And the less likely to succeed. It does not mean that anything goes, mind you. That's where the disciplined close reading comes in....And you study of how others (in written form, I.e. Books) can show you the way to good analyses. Good luck!

I do definately agree, but bibliography insight seemps to help me get the grip of what the author wanted to say.:))))

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Thanks for your answers!

I would suggest using as much of background knowledge in literature as possible. The writing tools, bibliograhy of authors etc. Bibliography might be very useful since in many pieces there are a lot of autobiography elements present, this can definately deepen the meaning and thus boost the quality of your reflection. Other than that all i could say is that you look at the poems both objectively and subjectively.

Good luck!

I know that I'm the one who asked the question, but I also disagree with this, and if you're doing it yourself I'd recommend you stop mainly for this reason: you won't have the internet with you during the exam. And honestly, bibliographical context rarely helps.

But it will help enormously if you stop thinking in terms of unlocking a (single) hidden meaning. This belief is a big obstacle to appreciating a poem.

My english teacher (who is a genius) tells us this too, but without having a strong thesis and a structured argument when trying to prove something; my interpretation of the poem, I find myself doing a stanza by stanza analysis without getting anywhere. I try my best to provide some good points but my teacher always says something along the lines of "you need a stronger thesis upon which to hook your analytical points"...

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Ok - can you give an example? An actual thesis statement that you wrote and got the teacher's comment "not strong enough..."? You can PM me if you prefer to.

I might just be able to express things differently to your teacher and in a way that you'll understand. He *is* a genius after all ... ;)

Edited by Blackcurrant
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Ok - can you give an example? An actual thesis statement that you wrote and got the teacher's comment "not strong enough..."? You can PM me if you prefer to.

I might just be able to express things differently to your teacher and in a way that you'll understand. He *is* a genius after all ... ;)

It's a she. She gives great feedback, but I never seem to use it correctly - Thanks for the offer though! I'll PM you in just a bit (I have to eat dinner now)

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Definitely finding a meaning at the beginning is the no. 1 most important thing for a commentary because it's like the backbone to hang all the rest of your argument on.

I would suggest actually just reading poems might be a 'cure' for your problem. I don't know if they sell similar books in Switzerland but I have a few poetry anthologies I grew up reading like this one: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nations-Favourite-Griff-Rhys-Jones/dp/0563387823

and they have lots of really good poems in which you may well enjoy :)

When you read a poem, the first reading should be just a bit like when you read a novel - just reading it for pleasure, to see the story and understand what's going on. It can be a bit slower with poetry because sometimes poetical language can sound quite obtuse, so some parts you just need to read slowly and think about for a moment, but basically what I find is that by the end I'm always left with some sort of general feeling from the poem and with a vague sense of what it's about. I think the more poems you read, the easier it is to get used to simply reading it 'for the message'.

Only after you've done this should you start looking at any literary stuff within it - once you've got a general picture, you can use that to narrow down more clearly on the literary analysis because you know that whatever you find in the poem, it must have contributed somehow to giving you that general picture. So you can interpret the whole thing in light of that - occasionally you need to tweak your general picture, but otherwise you can use the general idea of the poem to back up your whole essay.

Knowing the background of stuff can actually be useful, although more useful with the poems by authors you've been set e.g. for paper 2 or the oral commentary (if you still even do these) rather than in the unseen commentary where you're unlikely to know much. Some authors are hugely biographical and knowing about their background and the history gives you lots of insights into what the poem is about. But, as has been pointed out, this isn't always possible.

It's difficult to explain how you can learn to understand the meaning... but what I would say is at the end of the day, the poems are all written in english. If you understand what all the words mean, you're already 80% of the way there! Just be willing to take away some feeling from the poem and also just be open to abstract thoughts. Don't take everything literally - if you don't get what's going on, just keep reading and usually the context will help it slip into place. A great example of this is the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll: http://www.jabberwocky.com/carroll/jabber/jabberwocky.html

It's a nonsense poem so absolutely all of it is about just the feeling the words give you when you say them out loud and just using context to guess what things are, and using both of those you can understand the poem even though actually most of it is totally made up.

Or you may have a poem which seems pretty random and abstract. For instance Thought Fox by Ted Hughes.

http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/ted-hughes/the-thought-fox/

If you don't first of all read through it 'lightly' just for enjoyment you might get pretty bogged down by the idea that there's a fox. But if you just read it straight through you instantly pick up on the fact that it starts with the idea of sitting at midnight with an empty page and the clock ticking and then ends with a page being printed. So instead of confusing yourself into saying it's a poem about a fox or something, if you let your mind move in a slightly more abstract direction, I hope that the thing which will jump out at you is that he's gone from a blank page to a full page... he's told the tale of something coming out of a 'forest', entering the 'loneliness' and at the end entering the 'dark hole of the head'... put 2+2 together and it = inspiration. And then you've got the theme right there.

Whether everybody will get the same theme out of it is moot, but provided you can argue your theme and nothing contradicts it, or there isn't some blindingly obvious message that you've missed, then all is good :)

One last thing is that I recommend these books:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Anthology-Study-Guide-Poems-Armitage/dp/1841468924/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1380827351&sr=8-11&keywords=anthology+cgp

It's for GCSE level but it doesn't matter, it's a great step-by-step analysis of lots of poems and can really help teach you what sorts of things to look for. There are various AQA Poetry Anthologies with different clusters of poems but they all basically just dissect poems for you to a level which isn't really that different from what you need for IB. I think being taught by example is best :P

Good luck.

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I like Sandwich's suggestion for thinking about Thought Fox. Entirely the spirit to approach an unseen. And it is a good example of how to distinguish between the stated subject (the fox) from overall meaning (the nature of writing and inspiration).

Sandwich's post (with all its useful reading suggestions) jogged my memory for that book I mentioned earlier, the details of which had escaped me- "Commentary Writing" by Woolman ... which I see now is , sadly, out of print. It is jam packed with good ideas for how to approach commentary. Hopefully, you'll find a copy somewhere.

How's dinner? :)

Edited by Blackcurrant
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To continue from some of the great advice that Sandwich has given, I know exactly how you are feeling. I started year 11(IB1) getting 10s and 11s out of 20. I was doing exactly the same thing- reading the poem and picking out all of the metaphors and similies in what was essentially a long list! After a lot of hard work, I have now transitioned from getting 3s and 4s to consistent 7s. So, what's the trick?

Firstly, you need to work out what works best for you, but regardless of if you approach the poem given chronologically or thematically, you must pick out that central concern that you were talking about- but how? As Sandwich mentioned, this could be as simple as the general feeling that the poem leaves you with (e.g. This poem leaves the reader with a profound sense of sadness and melancholia, to something like 'this poem echos the difficulty of loss of innocence and the difficulty in growing up in a challenging world." Whatever it is, make sure that you mention something in your intro! If you don't, you commentary will really lack a sense of cohesion.

Secondly, I used to never know what the poem was about and essentially would give my teacher a word vomit of every single literary technique that I could possibly find- 'on line 1, we can see a metaphor, relating to sadness, and this is reechoed in line 2 with a simile.' It's all good and well to point out literary techniques- but it's pointless if you can't say why they have been used. To give you an example, say you were analysing a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (I know it's not poetry, but the analytical technique is exactly the same!). In the first scene of the play, protagonist Blanche DuBois is compared to a moth. Okay, so the moth is a symbol for Blanche. Pointing that out would barely give you a mark, but being able to point out that the moth is a symbol of Blache's fatal attraction to the 'light of love' that would later burn her is critical. She isn't 'lying'- only distorting the truth, for admitting to a lie would be admitting that her entire existence is false. Tennessee Williams uses the moth to show what society has done to people like Blanche- the outcasts. In the pursuit of hedonism and the "metriculous beaty" (F. Scott Fitzgerald) that is money, the "ape-men" like Stanley Kowlaski (the antagonist) discard humanity in favour of pleasure. It is through connecting Blache to a moth that this behavior is epitomized, and the reader is left questioning how many 'Blanches' we too leave behind to neurasthenia in our pursuit of the "best advertised machine" (Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman).

Do you see how in that mini response I not only included what the moth symbolized and its importance- but why it had been used? Also, as with Paper 1 and 2, being able to quote on your normal sentences will really help you to get that edge in your analysis. You need to be confident with the language that you use.

Thirdly, like you, I also structure my commentaries chronologically. But, I have found tht they key to getting the marks when working in this fashion is to divide the poem into clear sections (generally stanzas) an to try and find an overall theme for each stanza. Often this isn't clear at first, but under exam conditions I like to colour-code: symbols in one colour, imagery in another, characterization, syntax features etc. By doing this, the key theme of each section becomes much more apparent. For example, at the start of each topic sentence when I am talking about a new section I will say 'X poem by Y uses irony and enjambment in order to express the pain associated with losing a loved one'. From here, I'll then go on to talk about said irony and enjambment, not forgetting of course to keep mentioning why it was used! But, I also might point out the occasional symbol too if it's relevant to that section.

That's just a brief summary of what I like to do, but feel free to ask me to clarify/elaborate on any details that I have mentioned. If you're prepared to put in the work, you'll get there!

Edited by iblyf
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Is maroctam's issue "analysing poetry" or difficulty in writing a good commentary? More the second, I thought, which may or may not be connected to the first... They are not necessarily always connected.

Then there is the issue of understanding the teachers feedback..

Maroctam, over to you. Which are you looking for?

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Maroctam, over to you. Which are you looking for?

All the replies that have been given are excellent and thank you all for that, I really appreciate your time!

My issue is both writing a good commentary which mainly stems from my inability to grasp the meaning of the poem after having annotated it and analysed it - simply put: I don't know what to do with the analysis.

This is all rather abstract, but to bring back the example of the "thought fox" which sandwich mentioned, when I read through it I honestly cannot tell what it's about. Is "the page" that's printed the poem he's writing? personally, if I completely disregard the fox, I think this poem is about the process of writing this very poem and how time passes, but why is there a fox? Is it a metaphor (hence the title)? I don't know.

And actually, I may be completely incorrect (although Sandwich seems to have made a point similar to mine - which is reassuring)

To give a more concrete example, the most recent commentary we did is here (I attached a cached url so that you'd be able to access it without downloading - tell me if it's not working!), "The Gift" poem - it was due yesterday so I have no idea what grade I received (but I'm expecting a 5). Basically I thought the poem was about the gift that the father has given the persona: his tenderness, his love, and the way in which he taught the persona how to do stuff. But a classmate thought it was about punishment and discipline. Although I see why he would think that ("flames of discipline / he raised above my head" as an obvious example.) I just don't think that it's the underlying meaning of the poem as a whole.

Thanks again everyone!

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Maroctam, over to you. Which are you looking for?

All the replies that have been given are excellent and thank you all for that, I really appreciate your time!

My issue is both writing a good commentary which mainly stems from my inability to grasp the meaning of the poem after having annotated it and analysed it - simply put: I don't know what to do with the analysis.

This is all rather abstract, but to bring back the example of the "thought fox" which sandwich mentioned, when I read through it I honestly cannot tell what it's about. Is "the page" that's printed the poem he's writing? personally, if I completely disregard the fox, I think this poem is about the process of writing this very poem and how time passes, but why is there a fox? Is it a metaphor (hence the title)? I don't know.

And actually, I may be completely incorrect (although Sandwich seems to have made a point similar to mine - which is reassuring)

To give a more concrete example, the most recent commentary we did is here (I attached a cached url so that you'd be able to access it without downloading - tell me if it's not working!), "The Gift" poem - it was due yesterday so I have no idea what grade I received (but I'm expecting a 5). Basically I thought the poem was about the gift that the father has given the persona: his tenderness, his love, and the way in which he taught the persona how to do stuff. But a classmate thought it was about punishment and discipline. Although I see why he would think that ("flames of discipline / he raised above my head" as an obvious example.) I just don't think that it's the underlying meaning of the poem as a whole.

Thanks again everyone!

I agree with you, Maroctam. I think the comment about the flames of discipline is just saying that his fathers hands have two roles, one is to tenderly lift a splinter out of his palm, but those same hands are also used to punish him. It's just a contrast of the two different fatherly ways he uses his hands :P

And yep I agree with you about the Thought Fox thing, it is the process of writing (or of inspiration, however you want to phrase it) which I think it's about as well. I think the fox thing you can interpret however you like - it could be a metaphor for how his imagination works, it could be showing how he feels inspired by nature, it could be that by choosing an elusive creature like a fox which slinks around, appears and then disappears very quickly, the whole thing is about the nature of inspiration that it lurks just beneath the surface of your consciousness and then suddenly appears like a fox into a hole. Really, whatever you want. Provided you can make a strong argument. It's just about asking yourself "What does this mean to me when I read about it?". What does it make you think and why does it make you think that? Then you've got your theme.

Abstract poems like that which seem to just deviate off into something totally random are always open to interpretation. Provided you don't make an error like saying that the Gift is all about punishment and just punishment (when clearly huge sections of the poem are about how tender his father is, how his father tells him a story to distract him from the pain and loads of stuff where his father is being nice), then you can interpret what's there however you like. The only big mistake you can make is failing to understand bits of the poem and just taking a message from a small part of it instead of from all of it.

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