How To Start An Essay On Poetry

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.


Robert Matz
Sample Essay
English 201.025

Gwendolyn Brooks' "First fight. Then Fiddle." initially seems to argue for the necessity of brutal war in order to create a space for the pursuit of beautiful art. The poem is more complex, however, because it also implies both that war cannot protect art and that art should not justify war. Yet if Brooks seems, paradoxically, to argue against art within a work of art, she does so in order create an artwork that by its very recognition of art's costs would justify itself.

Brooks initially seems to argue for the necessity of war in order to create a safe space for artistic creation. She suggests this idea quite forcefully in the paired short sentences that open the poem: "First fight. Then fiddle." One must fight before fiddling for two reasons. First, playing the violin would be a foolish distraction if an enemy were threatening one's safety; it would be, as the phrase goes, "fiddling while Rome burns." Second, fighting the war first would prepare a safe and prosperous place where one could reasonably pursue the pleasures of music. One has to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." It should be noted further that while Brooks writes about securing a "civilized" place to play the violin, she seems clearly to be using this playing as an image for art in general, as her more expansive references to "beauty" or "harmony" suggest.

Nonetheless, much that Brooks writes about the necessity to fight before fiddling indicates the she does not support this idea, at least not fully. For example, Brooks describes making beautiful music as being "remote / A while" from "malice and murdering." In addition to the negative way Brooks describes war in this line, as murder motivated by malice, the phrase "a while" significantly qualifies the initial command to "First fight. Then fiddle." While this initial command seems to promise that one will only have to fight once in order to create a safe space for art, the phrase "a while" implies rather that this space is not really safe, because it will only last for a short time. War will begin again after "a while" because wars create enemies and fail to solve underlying conflicts. The beauty of violin playing remains illusory if it makes us forget that the problem of war has not really gone away.

Brooks suggests moreover not only that war cannot really protect art but also that art is not really a just excuse for war. Indeed, she implies that art might be responsible for war's unjust brutality toward others. This idea is most evident in the poem's final sentence: "Rise bloody, maybe not too late / For having first to civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." Though on first read it seems like this sentence repeats the warning to fight before it is "too late," its language has a number of negative connotations that undercut this exhortation. "Civilize" might at first seem a laudable goal, but it is also hard not to hear in this word all the atrocities that have been committed because one group believed another group needed "civilizing" or lacked civility. Moreover, if war inherently makes even "civilized" people uncivil because of its brutality, war's final achievement in the poem--"a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace"--seems heavily ironic. "Grace" can suggest a valuable beauty or refinement, but also more superficial manners. And this possibility of merely superficial refinement, blind to the violence and even injustice committed in its name, is especially suggested by the image of having to "rise bloody." The artist playing his violin so gracefully also has blood on his hands. The first hypothesis of the poem, that one can fight and then fiddle--that is, that once can fight and put the war out of one's mind by playing beautiful music--has been replaced by a recognition that one cannot deny the violence that made beauty possible. For at a minimum war continually threatens this beauty. Even worse, this war has perhaps been unjustly waged with the protection or promotion of "civilized" beauty as its excuse.

This conclusion is striking since violin playing in the poem seems not only to provide a metaphor for artistic creation generally, but also writing poetry in particular. For by its heavy use of alliteration, assonance and consonance, the poem emphasizes its own musicality, as if it were like a violin being played. In just the poem's initial line "first" "fight" "fiddle" alliterate, as well as ring changes on the different sounds of the vowel "i"; "fight" and "ply" assent; and "slipping string" repeats the initial "s" and final "ing" sounds. Moreover, the sonnet itself is a very refined artistic form, easily associated with the difficulty and cultural prestige of violin playing. Indeed, as an emblem of Western civility (one thinks of Renaissance sonnets), the sonnet might be involved in the very justification of the destruction of other less "civilized" peoples that the poem condemns.

One might wonder why Brooks produces poetry, especially the sonnet, if she also condemns it. I would suggest that by critically reckoning the costs of sonnet-making Brooks brings to her poetry a self-awareness that might justify it after all. She creates a poetry that, like the violin playing she invokes, sounds with "hurting love." This "hurting love" reminds us of those who may have been hurt in the name of the love for poetry. But in giving recognition to that hurt, it also fulfills a promise of poetry: to be more than a superficial social "grace," to teach us something we first did not, or did not wish to, see.


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