How to write about poetry so that your essay stands out from the crowd!
‘Poetry is that which is lost in translation’ Robert Frost
What is the difference between the given poem(s) and a proseparaphrase of the same material?
In other words…what does the poem accomplishbeyond its prose meaning?
Do you recognise this ‘translation’?
I’d never experienced love before but when Idid feel it, I was blown away! I went pale,my legs went numb and nothing in my lifepreviously made any sense any more. I wasflushed, my vision went and it was as if I wasin the dark – I was dumb struck and I couldfeel my heart pounding. Is love always sopainful? She didn’t seem to acknowledgeme but I can’t help myself – I’ll never be thesame again.
What has been sacrificed in the prose version? Here is your starting point to analysing and appreciating the craft of poetry.If you can understand how it works and why a writer might choose verse, you can write intelligently about it.
I neer was struck before that hour With love so sudden and so sweet, Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower And stole my heart away complete. My face turned pale as deadly pale. My legs refused to walk away, And when she looked, what could I ail? My life and all seemed turned to clay.I’d never experienced love before but when I did feelit, I was blown away! I went pale, my legs wentnumb and nothing in my life previously made anysense any more.
How do images, rhythms, patterns,and aural devices modify or extendthe prose meaning of the poem?
Then…•Examine the content•Examine the formAnd then ask yourself…‘What is the relationship betweenthe content of this poem and itsform’?
A key discriminator between the middlingand top grade candidates is that the beststudents write intelligently about thisrelationship.Remember champagne flutes, brandytumblers and shot glasses?!
Some ways to organize your observations:ImageryPatterns & shiftsLanguage choicesAural poetic devicesMood/toneNarrative perspectiveAnd of course form / structure(there are others!)
Ask yourself "What is the total effect of allthe little things Ive been noticing?"What do the parts of the poem cooperate totell me about the poet’s treatment of thetopic?
Dont let your paper turn into a laundry list ofobservations – find synthesis statements.Make sure that no one could title your essay"Some things I liked (or simply noticed) aboutthis poem."This is a sure recipe for a ‘C’ grade at best!
Furthermore there areno marks for ‘gushing’or making unfoundedstatements about apoem’s greatness!!Don’t be him!
It is likely that you will be given a topic ortheme and will be asked how the poet presentsthis within their poem.Find 3 or 4 ways in which the poet has done thisand then consider the combined effect of thesechoices.This will give you your THESIS statement.
A poetry essay, then, no matter what the task,invites you to investigate these underlyingquestions while addressing the named topic…
Given that the writer could just as easily havewritten their thoughts on this topic in prose,why have they elected to do so in verse?What has this combination of form and contentachieved in addition to the prose alternativeand how has the poet used the toolbox ofpoetic devices to reflect and comment on thegiven subject?
Examine the way in which marriage ispresented in Smith’s ‘Wedlock Blues’
Smith conveys a bitter message about hisexperience of marriage. The poet’s use ofbleak metaphor, anaphora, and thedisrupted rhyme scheme and syllablestructure in the poem allow him to revealhis deepest and darkest thoughts aboutthe social institution of matrimony.
How does Jones present love in‘The Ghost of a Wedding Cake’?
Jones here presents a poem whichexamines his narrator’s conflictingpsychological thoughts about theexperience of romantic love. The poet’suse of free verse, pastoral imagery, andcaesura combine to reflect his character’sinner struggle to resolve the vulnerabilityand confusion he feels alongside anobvious passion and commitment to his‘tender’ and ‘gentle love’.
Then be sure that every new paragraphthereafter (you should have at least 3 or 4!)presents a topic sentence which takes one ofthese observed details and develops it withclose embedded quotation in order to furtheryour argument about the treatment of thegiven topic…
The poem makes good use of a series ofbrooding metaphors which reinforce thenarrator’s pessimistic view of marriage. In the2nd stanza, the reference to a ‘golden barbedwire band’ takes the wedding ring, a traditionalsymbol of matrimony, and subverts it; theplosive alliteration reinforcing the tensionalready established…
Once you have presented this evidencedargument which remains topic focusedthroughout, you should conclude in a way thatdoes more than just repeat the ground youhave just covered as a list.(a sure fire way of throwing away marks withthe finishing line in sight!)
Try instead to have something up your sleeve towow the examiner so that they are left in nodoubt that you are deserving of the top band.You could broaden your argument…
There is no doubt then that for Smith, marriageis a source of torment and disillusionment andyet a glimmer of hope remains; he is not quitewilling to abandon his faith in the redemptivepromise of a shared life and this is perhaps whyin another poem from the same period ‘Heartfelt’, he concludes that ‘Love is what remainswhen all is done’.
Or you could reinforce that you are offering apersonal response (AO4):‘To conclude, while I cannot align myself withJones’ position on romantic love as a parasiticand ultimately destructive force, I do find thispoem to be both striking and thoughtprovoking. Arguably, while he fails to woo hislover, he does successfully seduce his readerand in this sense the poem is successful!’