39 Writing About Poetry

Dr. Karen Palmer

In the “Intro to Poetry” chapter, we covered the first steps to writing about poetry–choosing a poem and reading it carefully to think about what the poem means to you and to come up with some ideas about what the author is trying to tell readers through the poem. In this chapter, we’ll take the next steps to writing critically about poetry. As we discussed in the previous chapter, these are steps that you’ll need to take when writing about any academic text, as well.

Step 3: Research the Poem

Remember that, while your response and connection to a particular poem is dependent upon your experience, part of better understanding poetry is learning more about the author and the context of the poem. The combination of your own understanding and the support of strong outside sources will make your argument more powerful.

Primary Sources

Primary Evidence is the thing we study. In academic writing, this kind of evidence differs according to discipline. In the field of English literature, primary evidence comes from the poem, novel, short story, play, or memoir you are studying. In this case, your primary source is the poem you have chosen. Always cite the poem in your Works Cited page, along with other outside sources!

A student, for example, might present direct quotes from the novel The Sun Also Rises supporting specific claims he forwards in his argument, as well as summarized and paraphrased passages in which he describes, in his own words, key occurrences in the novel. Below, he summarizes a conversation between Jake and Robert Cohn, condensing a lengthy passage of dialogue into one sentence:

In an early conversation between Jake and Robert Cohn, Jake warns his friend that Cohn desires to go to South America only because he has been reading sentimental literature.

Later, paraphrasing the novel’s description of Jake’s and his friends’ response to a bullfight, the student might translate Hemingway’s words into his own in about the same number of words as the original passage:

Jake observes Brett for any signs of serious disturbance as she watches the matador kill the bull, but Brett is not upset by the scene. Instead she expresses her appreciation for the matador’s extraordinary grace.

These examples from the primary text support the student’s argument, but how does he decide when to quote, summarize, or paraphrase? These decisions are important ones for effectively incorporating primary evidence into an essay. Here are a few guidelines as you consider these options in your own writing:

  1. Use the shortest quote possible to generate (a) the evidence needed and (b) the effect you seek. Be careful to avoid long quotes unless they serve a significant purpose in forwarding your argument. Do use quotes to “liven up” your argument, to bring the voice of the literary text into your academic prose.
  2. Use summary to provide a broad-scoped piece of evidence (a long passage from the novel, for example) to the reader. That “Jake and Brett have multiple tension-filled encounters” (Bill’s summary) is evidence that they still care for each other even though they cannot overcome Jake’s impotence to settle into a committed relationship. There may be no need in this section of Bill’s essay to focus more closely on particular tension-filled exchanges.
  3. Employ paraphrase when the content of a scene or passage is pertinent but does not require the original language itself. Bill’s description of Jake’s and Brett’s behavior during the bullfight is a helpful example of effective paraphrase use.

Secondary Sources

Although the proof that Jake’s struggles reveal the destructive potential of war must come from the novel itself, the primary source, the student can use secondary sources to (a) help explain his perspective on the novel, and (b) indicate how his argument fits into the ongoing scholarly dialogue about the novel. Plenty of people have contributed to the conversation on the meaning of The Sun Also Rises. The student’s goal is to say something new, to bring the reader fresh insight about the novel, to contribute something original to the conversation. To clarify the significance of his argument, he can integrate material from carefully selected scholarly articles.

Start by creating a list of questions about the poem that you’ve chosen. After reading the poem and thinking about it a bit, what questions do you still have? What would you like to know about the author and his/her experiences? For example, if you’ve chosen “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes, you might wonder if the poem is about his actual mother. For Steven Crane’s, “War is Kind,” you might wonder what his experience with war was.

While there are certainly times when citing a website or other online source might be appropriate, when writing a paper about literature for an English course, the sources you choose should be scholarly articles and/or books by people who are qualified to discuss literature. Remember, since writing about literature is a step toward learning to write about academic texts, it’s important to also use academic sources in our discussions about literature. While you may have some luck finding good articles or even the full text of books with a google search, your best bet is to use the YC databases. In addition to knowing that you are finding academic sources, another benefit to using the databases is that there is a Cite button on every source that gives you the correct citation!

Here is a video with a brief review of how to use the databases at YC:

If you need more help, do contact the librarians at YC. They are extremely helpful!

About the Author

You might want to begin by seeking the author’s biography. After performing our own analysis, it can be intriguing and sometimes helpful to consider the author’s life. For instance, Hughes wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, the first large-scale African American artistic movement. Although he had read the poetry of many well-regarded British and American poets, he determined to raise the status of African American folk forms, challenging the idea that great art must follow the traditions of European forms. Adding this biographical and historical component to our study increases our understanding of the importance of Hughes’s contribution to the improvement of African American lives and his celebration of African Americans’ part in shaping U.S. culture.

Author’s biographies can often be found in the ProQuest Literature Online database. The video below shows how to find an author’s biography in the database and showcases how this first source can be a springboard for the rest of your research.

About the Poem

The author’s biography might answer many of our research questions. As we continue on in our research, we have several options:

  • If you still have additional questions, your next step should be to attempt to try to find the answers to those questions.
  • You might choose to try to find a source about the poem you’ve chosen to see what academic writers have said about it. For example, you might search for a source that discusses Dickinson’s “I saw a dying eye” to see what scholars believe it means.
  • You might choose to try to find a source that discusses the author’s work as a whole. For example, you might find a source that discusses Langston Hughes’ poetry.
  • You might look for a source that focuses on the theme of the poem and uses the poem as an example. For example, you might look at the psychology of grief to better understand “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.”
  • You might look for context of the poem. If the poem is about a historical event, like Browning’s “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning,” you might want to find more information about their love story. Or you might want to look for information about the Civil War to better understand Crane’s perspective on war in “War is Kind.”

It’s a really good idea to create a Research Journal to help you keep track of your sources and what you are learning from them. See “Keeping a Research Journal” if you need a reminder of how to create a research journal. Here is a sample research journal based on Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66”:

Research Journal

De Grazia, Margreta, and Adena Rosmarin. “Interpreting Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” PMLA, vol. 100, no. 5, 1985, pp. 810–812. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/462100. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Notes:

This is a letter to the editor and a response regarding how to interpret Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Quotes:

“It is well known that Shakespeare’s sonnets were a Romantic obsession because their generically “personal” rhetoric made them seem the key to Shakespeare’s heart” (De Grazia, 811)

——

HOLTON, AMANDA. “AN OBSCURED TRADITION: THE SONNET AND ITS FOURTEEN-LINE PREDECESSORS.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 62, no. 255, 2011, pp. 373–392. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23016433. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Notes: History of the sonnet

Quotes

——-

Henneman, John Bell. “The Man Shakespeare: His Growth as an Artist.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 5, no. 1, 1897, pp. 95–126. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27527919. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Notes: Biography

Quotes:

———

Stockard, Emily E. “Patterns of Consolation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1-126.” Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Michelle Lee, vol. 42, Gale, 1999. Gale Literature Criticism, https://link-gale-com.proxy.yc.edu/apps/doc/DXUIHA790857588/LCO?u=yava&sid=LCO&xid=65e42aed. Accessed 23 Mar. 2020.

Notes:

Quotes:

——-

Frost, Adam. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. ProQuest, Ann Arbor, 2001. ProQuest, https://proxy.yc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.yc.edu/docview/2137919713?accountid=8141.

Notes: Biography of Shakespeare

Quotes:

—–

Bevington, David. “Sonnets.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Pearson, 2009.

Notes: A summary of Shakespeare’s sonnet authorship.

Quotes: “The wary consensus of most scholars is that the sonnets were written over a number of years…before 1598, but some perhaps later and even up to the date of publication in 1609” (Bevington).

“Love and friendship are a refuge for the poet faced with hostile fortune and an indifferent world” (Bevington.”

“…the bond between poet and friend is extraordinarily strong” (Bevington).

“”The English form of three quatrains and a concluding couplet lends itself to a step-by-step development of idea and image, culminating in an epigrammatic two-line conclusion that may summarize the thought of the preceding twelve lines or give a sententious interpretation of the images developed up to this point” (Bevington).

“His emphasis on friendship seems new, for no other sequence addressed a majority of its sonnets to a friend rather than to a mistress…” (Bevington).

“…the exaltation of friendship over love was itself a widespread Neoplatonic commonplace recently popularized in the writings of John Lyly” (Bevington).

Here is a video in which Dr. Palmer shows a class how to conduct research and compile a research journal for Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66.”

MLA Citation Review

Please click here for a thorough lesson on MLA formatting:  MLA Formatting.

Citing Articles and Books

Here are the basic MLA formats for citing articles and books:

Article online:

Works Cited:  Achenbach, Joel.  “America’s river.”  Washington Post,  5 May 2002, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13425-2202May1.html. Accessed 20 July 2003.

In text: (Achenbach, pp)

Article in a database:

Works Cited: Langhamer, Claire. “Love and Courtship in Mid-Twentieth-Century England.” Historical Journal, vol. 50, no. 1, 2007, pp. 173-96. ProQuest, doi:10.1017/S0018246X06005966. Accessed 27 May 2009.

In text: (Langhamer, pp)

A book:

Works Cited:  Gorman, Elizabeth. Prairie Women. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

In text:  (Gorman, pp)

A Poem from This Text:

Works Cited: Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” The Worry Free Writer, 2020. http://theworryfreewriter.pressbooks.com.

Note that the in text citation (what is in parenthesis after a quote) is the first word/s in the Works Cited listing.  Every source listed in your Works Cited should be cited at least once in the text of the paper.

Creating a Works Cited page

In an MLA paper, the sources are listed at the end of the paper on the Works Cited page. Please follow the guidelines discussed in the video below when creating your Works Cited page. Remember, you can simply click the cite button for each source you find in the Library Databases for the correct MLA citation.

Step 4: Create a Thesis and Outline

Once you have completed your research, your first step is to think about what you want to say about the poem. Hopefully, you are clear at this point about what the poem means to you and what you think the author is trying to say. Now your job is to think of something to say about the poem that is uniquely yours. Topics might include the following:

  1. What the theme of the poem is.
  2. How the author uses Elements of Poetry to create the theme of the poem.
  3. How understanding the author or the cultural context of the poem deepens the meaning.

Generally, your research will guide your decision about what to write about. Think about what you think is the most important thing for readers to understand about the poem.

If you are still completely stumped about what to write about, you might choose the option #2 above because it is pretty straightforward. Since you’ve already done quite a bit of reflecting on the poem, in addition to all of your research, you should have a clear idea of what the theme is and what elements of poetry are used in the poem. Your thesis, then, is a combination of the two. ie “The author shows readers that __________ by using ______, ______, and _______.”

Your paper should have a minimum of three points, but it can have more. Let’s say that a student has chosen Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” as their poem. Here is their thesis:

In this sonnet, Shakespeare uses an emotional plea, irony, asyndeton, antithesis, and parallel structures to show that, no matter how difficult life seems, the love of one person is enough to make life worth living.

Note that the thesis combines the theme of the poem, as well as the elements of poetry that help to create the theme–emotional plea, irony, asyndeton, antithesis, and parallel structures. Each of these five points would be discussed in its own paragraph in the body of the paper, so each of the points would be one point on the outline. In addition, the student should include some quotes from the poem for each point.

The outline might look something like this:

  1. Introduction

a)Hook:  It is human nature to sometimes feel as if the world is just too much to bear. We experience tragedy and see injustice and might sometimes feel as if there is no hope left. Often just knowing that we are not alone is enough to push us to persevere another day.

  1. b) intro to the topic: While we might think this is a modern experience, William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” proves that there really is nothing new under the sun.
  2. c) thesis: In this sonnet, Shakespeare uses an emotional plea, irony, asyndeton, antithesis, and parallel structures to show that, no matter how difficult life seems, the love of one person is enough to make life worth living.
  3. Author, special circumstances, summary of the poem
  4. Emotional Plea
    • “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry” (Shakespeare, 1).
  1. irony
  • “As, to behold a beggar born” (2)
  • “And needy, nothing trimmed in jollity” (3)
  1. Asyndeton
  • Begins each line with “and”
  1. Antithesis
  • “purest faith” “unhappily foresworn” (4)
  • “gilded honor” “shamefully misplaced” (5)
  • “Maiden virtue” “rudely strumpeted” (6)
  • “right perfection” “wrongfully displaced”
  1. parallel structures
  • “Strength disabled” (8)
  • “art tongue-tied by authority” (9)
  • “skill controlled by folly” (10)
  • “truth misplaced” (11)
  • “good held captive by ill” (12)
  1. Conclusion

Here’s a video in which Dr. Palmer shows students how to create a thesis and outline of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66.”

https://yavapai.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Embed.aspx?id=4c73da54-26da-4527-b797-ab89013a40af&autoplay=false&offerviewer=true&showtitle=true&showbrand=false&start=0&interactivity=all

Step 5: Drafting Your Paper

Once you have a clear idea of your thesis and the passages in the work that best support it, you can begin to shape and refine the essay.

  1. Make sure your intro accurately reflects what you end up saying about the poem
  2. Avoid generalizations, but make sure to have some kind of attention grabber that will draw readers into the paper

Make sure your body supports your thesis with good topic sentences and concrete examples…Remember that the best way to support a thesis is to cite and analyze carefully selected passages from the text that relate directly to it. You want to have at LEAST one quote from the poem or your sources in each body paragraph to support your thoughts.

Three parts of a paragraph

  1. Topic sentence/Claim
  2. Support/Quote
  3. Analysis—underscore relevance to thesis

Here’s an example body paragraph from a student paper on Lawrence’s poem, “Snake.” Note that the parts of the paragraph are formatted to match the three parts listed above.

            By using personification throughout the poem, Lawrence depicts a gentle snake that is more like a person than a creature.   Lawrence begins the poem by telling how a snake came to drink at his water-trough.  Instead of describing the snake as an animal or using “it” to talk about the snake, Lawrence says that he “…must wait…for there he was at the trough before me” (6).  Lawrence continues to show a softer side of the snake when he says “[the snake] rested his throat upon the stone bottom… / He sipped with his straight mouth, / Softly drank… / Silently” (9-13).   Instead of a thrashing, dangerous creature, here is a quietly drinking person.   Lawrence continues this image in the very next line.  “Someone was before me at my water-trough, / And I, like a second comer, waiting” (14-15).   Throughout these lines, the snake becomes less of an animal and more of a person coming to drink.

Note how the last sentence tells the reader what the examples show. Also note that the in text citation shows the LINE of the poem only.

The Quote Formula

The Quote Formula is a formula for using quotes correctly in your writing. Always remember to surround quotes with your own words. You do this by introducing the quote and explaining the quote.

1. Introduce the quote.  Here, you tell readers what the author is doing.

2. Give the quote.  Here, you give an actual quote from the poem. Make sure to use quotation marks. The number after the quote is the line of the poem in which the quote is found.

3. Explain the quote. Tell readers what the quote means.

To illustrate, take a look at the next paragraph in the paper quoted above (formatted to match the three parts of the quote formula).

     Lawrence continues showing the gentler side of the snake by using similes.  The first example of this occurs when he describes the snake drinking: “He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do, / And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do” (16-17).  By comparing the snake to harmless, everyday farm animals, Lawrence is saying that he sees this snake as a harmless animal.  He continues showing the gentle side of the snake when he says, “He drank enough / And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken” (41-42).  An evil animal would not look “dreamily” and satisfied like a person whose thirst has been quenched.  He also shows the snake to be more of a person when he says, “How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough / And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless” (28-30).  By using the word “guest”, Lawrence shows that he does not think the snake is invading his yard but is welcome to come and help himself.  Then Lawrence sees an even greater side of the snake when he says, “[a]nd [the snake] looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air” (45).  Quite opposite of the snake representing the evil devil, Lawrence compares the snake to a god.  And, like most gods described in mythology, the snake is arrogant.  When Lawrence says the snake “looked around…unseeing” (45), it seems as if everything around the snake is beneath him, not worthy of his notice. The author’s use of similes effectively shows reader a gentler side of the snake, helping them to understand why he hesitates to kill it.

Some Tips

  1. Use Present Tense
  2. Include quotes from the poem (minimum of one per body paragraph)
  3. Include quotes from outside sources (minimum of one per body paragraph)
  4. Use MLA citation

Remember, your paper should be based on your own thoughts and observations about the poem. Your outside research should be used to support and strengthen your own thoughts!

Here’s a draft of the Shakespeare paper we’ve been discussing:

Poetry Draft

            It is human nature to sometimes feel as if the world is just too much to bear. We experience tragedy and see injustice and might sometimes feel as if there is no hope left. Often just knowing that we are not alone is enough to push us to persevere another day. While we might think this is a modern experience, William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” proves that there really is nothing new under the sun. In this sonnet, Shakespeare uses an emotional plea, irony, asyndeton, antithesis, and parallel structures to show that, no matter how difficult life seems, the love of one person is enough to make life worth living.

Interestingly, we don’t know a lot about the circumstances of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “The wary consensus of most scholars is that the sonnets were written over a number of years…before 1598, but some perhaps later and even up to the date of publication in 1609” (Bevington). Since we don’t know the dates the sonnets were written, it can be difficult to correlate Shakespeare’s work to circumstances in his life. However, from the sonnets we can begin to have a good understanding of what was important to Shakespeare–especially friendship.

Sonnet 66 begins by making an emotional plea for rest from the hard things of life. The first line says, “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry” (Shakespeare, 1). In this line we see a desperate cry for help. The author is so tired of the world around him that he is asking for death. He adds emotion by using the word “cry,” which makes the plea more emphatic, while also reminding readers of weeping. This brief plea creates an emotional appeal to the reader to sympathize with the weight he feels.

Continuing into lines 2 and 3, Shakespeare uses irony to describe everything he sees wrong in the world, showing how often life is unjust. The word “as” leads us into his list, telling us these are his examples of the ways the world has gone awry. First, he notes that often the people most deserving of honor are born beggars: “As, to behold desert a beggar born” (2). In other words, the person who deserves honor, “desert,” is born to poverty, “a beggar,” rather than to royalty. Shakespeare then contrasts this idea to show that the opposite is also true—often the things least worth of respect are given more. He says, “And needy nothing trimmed in jollity” (3). “Needy nothing” represents all that is worthless, empty of meaning. He notes that often these things (or people?) who are worth nothing are often decked out with the most finery, “trimmed in jollity.” These ideas paired together display the irony that those who have the finest characters are often born into poverty while those with the least substance are born to wealth and position.

In lines 4-12, Shakespeare continues his list, using the rhetorical device of asyndeton to connect ideas together and create the effect of making the reader feel his pain. First, by beginning each line with the word “and,” Shakespeare effectively creates a very long sentence that continues to stack one injustice on top of another. Not only does this connect the ideas together, but it has the effect of making the reader feel just as tired as the speaker does in the first line. It’s not just one thing that bothers him, but this giant stack of injustice that is weighing him down. By connecting the ideas with “and” instead of simply using new sentences, he adds weight to the list.

Furthermore, he uses antithesis in lines 4-7 to continue to expose the irony of life by juxtaposing contrasting ideas, showing how the best things in life are destroyed by their opposites. The first parts of lines 4-7 list some of the ideas and characteristics that we most prize: “purest faith,” “gilded honor,” “maiden virtue,” and “right perfection” (4-8). The second halves of these lines list their opposites, showing how the negative side of human nature often overrules these virtues. Faith is “unhappily forsworn,” honor is “shamefully misplaced,” virtue is “rudely strumpeted,” and perfection is “wrongfully disgraced” (4-8). Each of these negatives are parallel in length and structure—they have five syllables and contain an adverb and verb. The parallel structure of the contrasting ideas makes the irony and the injustice even more pronounced.

Lines 8-12 continue in this vein, using contrasting parallel structures to show how even the things we value can be undermined and destroyed by injustice. First, “strength” can be “disabled” by poor leadership (8). In other words, even the strongest army lose a battle if it is led by a poor leader. Next, “art” can be censored. Shakespeare says that it is “made tongue-tied by authority,” which means that the truths that art would speak are stifled by the authorities who seek to control it (9). (Perhaps a reference to censorship of the theater?) He goes on to say that “skill” can be controlled by “folly” disguised as wisdom (10). Sometimes foolishness can masquerade as wisdom by assuming the guise of education and experience. Next,  “truth” can be “miscalled simplicity” (11). Those who speak truth might be simply called naïve. Finally, he says that what is “good” can be held captive and controlled by what is “ill” (12). Line 12 seems to echo the sentiment of line 8, that often good can be disabled by poor or even evil leadership. In each of these instances, what is good is perverted by whoever is in power, whether that is a leader or a trend or a social class. By contrasting these ideas with the parallel structures, Shakespeare adds strength to the images of injustice.

Even as the reader gets to the point where he, too, is tired of all the injustice of the world, Shakespeare gives an important reminder—the relationships we have are more important than anything else. Even if he is “tired with all of these” and wishing that “from these would I be gone,” he realizes that, if he were to die, he would “leave my love alone” (13-14). As Bevington notes, “Love and friendship are a refuge for the poet faced with hostile fortune and an indifferent world” (Bevington).  It is the thought that he would leave his love alone in this unjust world that makes him choose to stay in it.

Conclusion

Works Cited

Bevington, David. “Sonnets.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Pearson, 2009.

De Grazia, Margreta, and Adena Rosmarin. “Interpreting Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” PMLA, vol. 100, no. 5, 1985, pp. 810–812. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/462100. Accessed 23 Mar. 202

Frost, Adam. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. ProQuest, Ann Arbor, 2001. ProQuest, https://proxy.yc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.yc.edu/docview/2137919713?accountid=8141.

Schalkwyk, David. “Love and Service in Twelfth Night and the Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 1, 2005, pp. 76-100,118. ProQuest, https://proxy.yc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.yc.edu/docview/195890056?accountid=8141.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 66.” The Necessary Shakespeare. Pearson, 2009.

Here’s a video in which Dr. Palmer shows how to write a draft of a paper from an outline:

https://yavapai.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Embed.aspx?id=cd3eba60-11e2-44f4-bb7e-ab8e01378895&autoplay=false&offerviewer=true&showtitle=true&showbrand=false&start=0&interactivity=all

Attributions:

  • MLA Citation and Steps content created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
  • All Examples created by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
  • Content adapted from “Experiencing the Power of Poetry” by Tanya Long Bennet in Writing and Literature, licensed CC BY SA.

License

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The Worry Free Writer by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.