Writing About Poetry
Contributors: Purdue OWL
Last Edited: 2018-02-21 12:51:36
Writing about poetry can be one of the most demanding tasks that many students face in a literature class. Poetry, by its very nature, makes demands on a writer who attempts to analyze it that other forms of literature do not. So how can you write a clear, confident, well-supported essay about poetry? This handout offers answers to some common questions about writing about poetry.
What's the Point?
In order to write effectively about poetry, one needs a clear idea of what the point of writing about poetry is. When you are assigned an analytical essay about a poem in an English class, the goal of the assignment is usually to argue a specific thesis about the poem, using your analysis of specific elements in the poem and how those elements relate to each other to support your thesis.
So why would your teacher give you such an assignment? What are the benefits of learning to write analytic essays about poetry? Several important reasons suggest themselves:
- To help you learn to make a text-based argument. That is, to help you to defend ideas based on a text that is available to you and other readers. This sharpens your reasoning skills by forcing you to formulate an interpretation of something someone else has written and to support that interpretation by providing logically valid reasons why someone else who has read the poem should agree with your argument. This isn't a skill that is just important in academics, by the way. Lawyers, politicians, and journalists often find that they need to make use of similar skills.
- To help you to understand what you are reading more fully. Nothing causes a person to make an extra effort to understand difficult material like the task of writing about it. Also, writing has a way of helping you to see things that you may have otherwise missed simply by causing you to think about how to frame your own analysis.
- To help you enjoy poetry more! This may sound unlikely, but one of the real pleasures of poetry is the opportunity to wrestle with the text and co-create meaning with the author. When you put together a well-constructed analysis of the poem, you are not only showing that you understand what is there, you are also contributing to an ongoing conversation about the poem. If your reading is convincing enough, everyone who has read your essay will get a little more out of the poem because of your analysis.
What Should I Know about Writing about Poetry?
Most importantly, you should realize that a paper that you write about a poem or poems is an argument. Make sure that you have something specific that you want to say about the poem that you are discussing. This specific argument that you want to make about the poem will be your thesis. You will support this thesis by drawing examples and evidence from the poem itself. In order to make a credible argument about the poem, you will want to analyze how the poem works—what genre the poem fits into, what its themes are, and what poetic techniques and figures of speech are used.
What Can I Write About?
Theme: One place to start when writing about poetry is to look at any significant themes that emerge in the poetry. Does the poetry deal with themes related to love, death, war, or peace? What other themes show up in the poem? Are there particular historical events that are mentioned in the poem? What are the most important concepts that are addressed in the poem?
Genre: What kind of poem are you looking at? Is it an epic (a long poem on a heroic subject)? Is it a sonnet (a brief poem, usually consisting of fourteen lines)? Is it an ode? A satire? An elegy? A lyric? Does it fit into a specific literary movement such as Modernism, Romanticism, Neoclassicism, or Renaissance poetry? This is another place where you may need to do some research in an introductory poetry text or encyclopedia to find out what distinguishes specific genres and movements.
Versification: Look closely at the poem's rhyme and meter. Is there an identifiable rhyme scheme? Is there a set number of syllables in each line? The most common meter for poetry in English is iambic pentameter, which has five feet of two syllables each (thus the name "pentameter") in each of which the strongly stressed syllable follows the unstressed syllable. You can learn more about rhyme and meter by consulting our handout on sound and meter in poetry or the introduction to a standard textbook for poetry such as the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Also relevant to this category of concerns are techniques such as caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (continuing a grammatical sentence or clause from one line to the next). Is there anything that you can tell about the poem from the choices that the author has made in this area? For more information about important literary terms, see our handout on the subject.
Figures of speech: Are there literary devices being used that affect how you read the poem? Here are some examples of commonly discussed figures of speech:
- metaphor: comparison between two unlike things
- simile: comparison between two unlike things using "like" or "as"
- metonymy: one thing stands for something else that is closely related to it (For example, using the phrase "the crown" to refer to the king would be an example of metonymy.)
- synecdoche: a part stands in for a whole (For example, in the phrase "all hands on deck," "hands" stands in for the people in the ship's crew.)
- personification: a non-human thing is endowed with human characteristics
- litotes: a double negative is used for poetic effect (example: not unlike, not displeased)
- irony: a difference between the surface meaning of the words and the implications that may be drawn from them
Cultural Context: How does the poem you are looking at relate to the historical context in which it was written? For example, what's the cultural significance of Walt Whitman's famous elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" in light of post-Civil War cultural trends in the U.S.A? How does John Donne's devotional poetry relate to the contentious religious climate in seventeenth-century England? These questions may take you out of the literature section of your library altogether and involve finding out about philosophy, history, religion, economics, music, or the visual arts.
What Style Should I Use?
It is useful to follow some standard conventions when writing about poetry. First, when you analyze a poem, it is best to use present tense rather than past tense for your verbs. Second, you will want to make use of numerous quotations from the poem and explain their meaning and their significance to your argument. After all, if you do not quote the poem itself when you are making an argument about it, you damage your credibility. If your teacher asks for outside criticism of the poem as well, you should also cite points made by other critics that are relevant to your argument. A third point to remember is that there are various citation formats for citing both the material you get from the poems themselves and the information you get from other critical sources. The most common citation format for writing about poetry is the Modern Language Association (MLA) format.
Teaching would be the easiest job in the world if following mandated curriculum and reading from your latest teacher’s edition meant all of your students would listen and learn. But we know that teaching involves lighting a spark in students that motivates, inspires, and makes them want to learn and achieve. We also know that what ignites a student’s passion for learning varies from student to student — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Over the years, I’ve discovered that one way to engage almost every student, even those who are reluctant readers and writers, is through song. This week I’ll share with you some of the ways I use music to inspire, motivate, and teach reading and writing (along with life skills!) in my classroom.
Music in Reader’s Workshop
In reader’s workshop I frequently use mentor text to help with mini-lessons. Song lyrics make great mentor text to use to teach theme, author’s message, character traits, visualization, inferring, and more. Students who may not connect with a book or article in class just may connect with a popular song they are familiar with when you make it part of instruction.
I’ll admit the trickiest part to using music lyrics as part of your instruction is finding popular, relevant songs that are school- and age-appropriate. I’ve begun relying on the site, Common Sense Media to find songs with kid-friendly lyrics. Once I find a song I think may work, I use the site AZLyrics to search the title of the song so I can read all the lyrics in their entirety. Once I’ve chosen my song, I’m ready to start teaching with it!
Close Reading (and Listening!)
Last year I shared how I got my feet wet with close reading in my post, "Investigating Nonfiction Part 2: Digging Deeper with Close Reading." At that time, I was only using nonfiction text for digging deeper and gaining meaning. Since then, I’ve expanded my repertoire to include narratives, along with poems and familiar songs. While I apply many of the same principles I used with nonfiction text to look closely at lyrics, there are a few differences, especially when I get the lesson started. My favorite part of doing close readings with songs is when my boys and girls realize for the first time that their favorite head-bopping song actually has a story behind it.
Normally, I’ll begin by reminding students that text is found all around them and they are practicing their reading and thinking skills nearly every moment, even when they don’t realize it — like when they’re driving in the car listening to the radio or have their headphones on and their iPod going. The songs they are listening to are really just stories, and the songwriters are authors.
Next, I’ll tell my students, you are going to listen to a song you may already know from the radio or a movie (this statement alone gets my kids excited!) and I want you to think about the song while you’re listening. After this introduction, my students are hooked and that's when we get going.
The next step is to listen to the song. If you own the song, you could play it off your phone or a CD; I frequently play it off of YouTube, letting my kids hear the sound only.
After listening to the song, my students write down the name of the song in the first column, what they think the song is about in the middle column and what they are wondering or curious about in the last column. They discuss what they’ve written down with their turn-and-talk partners.
Before listening to the song a second time, I tell my students, “This time your goal is to listen for . . . ” and I’ll share the objective such as the song’s theme, purpose, lesson, how the characters are acting or feeling, etc.
After listening a second time, students complete the next row of the I Hear, Think, Wonder sheet, then talk over their findings with their partner once again. If time allows, they listen a third time. Normally, when the song is played multiple times, my students start listening more carefully, and for the first time, many begin to realize there is more to the song than a catchy beat.
The next day, we revisit the song, except this time students are passed out a sheet of the lyrics that I’ve copied for them. I ask my students what they notice about the lyrics. The “aha moment” comes when they realize the song looks like a poem when it’s written down.
Using the Close Reading sheet below, my students read through the songs with their reading partners three times. They share what they have learned on the I Read, Think, Understand sheet which I’ve copied onto the back of the I Hear, Think, Wonder sheet, all of which can be downloaded and printed by clicking on the image below.
Music, especially music your students are familiar with, makes great text for close reading. My students come to understand listening to a song and even reading through it once does not always equate comprehension, and they quickly realize the value of close reading with their favorite songs so they can appreciate the story behind the song.
Songs to Use With Close Reading
For young students like my third graders, I’ve been successful using songs from movies that they are familiar with, such as:
Students in the upper elementary and middle grades would enjoy using songs from artists like Taylor Swift, One Direction, Imagine Dragons, Lorde, etc. Actually, with older students, you can just ask them for a list of songs they like, and you are sure to get plenty from which you can choose! Remember to always preview for appropriateness!
Using Songs to Improve Fluency
One of the first things preschoolers can read is environmental print — the signs from fast food restaurants they pass on the road, stores they shop in, and the names of cereal in their pantry. For older students, songs can work in a way similar to environmental print to practice fluency. Your students already know the words and reading, or singing along can quickly become a favorite part of your day.
Top Teaching blogger, Shari Edwards, inspired me to try music for reading instruction after reading how she used song lyrics to practice fluency skills with her second graders. Read her post, "Using Music to Improve Reading Fluency" to find out how you can do this in your own classroom.
Compare and Contrast Songs
You can either listen to these songs, or print out the lyrics to do compare/contrast activities during reader’s workshop.
Inspire Writers With Music
Music is the shorthand of emotions. ~Leo Tolstoy
Motivating reluctant writers to write is one of the toughest things there is to do. Music, however, has a way of evoking memories and emotions much better than any teacher who tells an 8-year-old to write a story from your life. Consider using music to help your students feel inspired to write.
Using Songs to Inspire Personal Narratives
For example, when it comes time to draft a personal narrative, instead of telling your students to write about a happy moment from their life, play "Best Day of My Life" by American Authors, and have students write about the best day of their life. Other songs that could inspire your students to write narratives:
Using Songs to Inspire Poetry
While doing close reading, my students realize that songs are set up exactly like poems, with verses that are read with rhythm. Print out the lyrics to a few different songs and have students write poems based on real life events or experiences. Consider using Scholastic's Writing With Writers: Poetry Writing with your students to help guide them through the poetry writing process.
Other Ways to Integrate Music Into Your Day
"Mr. Vasicek's Classroom Music Playlist" offers a wide variety of songs that work well in different classroom situations from kicking off your morning to end of day.
In the blog post, "Classroom Songs: It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like December!" Alycia Zimmerman shares her strategies for getting her kids singing all year long.
Introduce Your Students to an Inspiring Writer: Taylor Swift
Many of my students are huge fans of singer Taylor Swift, and I enjoy sharing a bit of her biography to help inspire them as readers and writers. My kids are definitely impressed that she has won seven Grammys and she set the record for youngest person to win the coveted Album of the Year award. What I really use to hook them, however, is the fact that she writes all of her own songs — many of which are actually stories from her life. Then I tell them that she has sold more than 76 million songs to people who enjoy her music and they are more than impressed. While I may do my best to inspire my readers and writers, for some students, learning that someone they look up to as a celebrity is also a renowned author provides the just the inspiration they need to put their pencil to paper.
Lately we have been using Swift’s songs, "Mean" and "Shake It Off" to discuss bullying behaviors. Because of this, I was very excited to learn that Scholastic would be doing a video interview with Taylor Swift on October 29 at 1p.m. ET. Girls and boys alike can learn from her inspiring message. If you watch the video with your class, you may want to use some of the great materials Scholastic has developed. A few of my favorites that you can download and print are shown below.
My Heart Map and Personal Narrative Graphic Organizer
My Favorite Book and Writing a Reflective Essay
Creating a Memory Map and My Most Influential Book
With as many songs out there as there are books, I hope I've given you a few ideas for integrating music into your reading and writing workshops. I would love to hear ways that you use music in your classroom. Please share your ideas in the comment section below! For more ideas and tips, follow me on Twitter and Pinterest.
Sign up today for a live webcast with superstar Usher on Thursday, November 6, 2014 at 1:00 p.m. ET and 10:00 a.m. PT about how kids can open a world of possible through reading.