Writing about Poetry
Some things to think about while you're planning your papers.
- Robert Frost once defined poetry as "what gets lost in translation." What is the difference between this poem and a prose paraphrase of this poem?
- Variations on "more better" (e.g., more powerful, more emotional, more colorful, more poetical, etc.) are not very good answers to this question.
- Instead, write about what the poem accomplishes beyond its prose meaning. How do images, rhythms, patterns, and repeated phrases modify or extend the prose meaning of the poem?
- Notice that I said "how"; all poetry has images, rhythm, pattern, and repetition; the fact that a given poem has these things is true, but not interesting. Write instead about the way that these things are used: do they enhance the prose meaning of the poem? qualify it? undercut it? etc. Another way to put the same question: what is the relationship between the content of this poem and its form?
- Don't make "Form follows function" the thesis of your paper. It's trite and (what's worse) it's often untrue.
- Don't let your paper turn into a laundry list of observations. Make sure that no one could title your paper "Some Things I Liked about This Poem." Both of these things are a sure recipe for a C.
- A recipe for avoiding the laundry list phenomenon: after you've gone through the poem for yourself, noticing things and making notes, ask yourself "What is the total effect of all the little things I've been noticing?" What do the parts of the poem cooperate to mean? When you've answered this question to your own satisfaction, you're ready to start writing your paper.
- Since you now know what you want to say, organize your observations in such a way as to communicate this to someone who doesn't already know what you think, and who may even disagree with you when he or she does! Remember the evil laundry list... Some ways to organize your observations: types of imagery, themes, patterns, repeated words; there are lots more.
- Suggestion: whenever you take up a new topic (say, moisture imagery in Donne's "Ecstasy"), be sure to relate that topic to the total effect of the poem. You can do this when you introduce the topic, or you can do this when you finish talking about the topic, but don't forget to do it.
- Proofread. This starts, but does not end, with doing a computer spell-check. Remember: bad marketing can kill a good product; sloppy proofreading does the same thing to ideas.
- Never start a paper with a sentence like "Poets have always..." or "People have always..." This is boring, and besides, statements like this are very hard to defend.
- How should you start a paper then? Let me make a suggestion. Instead of telling your reader why you like the poem you've chosen to write about, start your paper with a question or a problem: "What makes this poem hard to understand (or hard to like)?" It may be a single line; it may be a set of lines; it may be an attitude, or a category of images. Work outward from there. How would the poem be different if it didn't have this problem? Most importantly, what does the problem tell you about the poem as a whole?
- Your job is not to say how great a given poem is or tell your reader how much you liked it. These things go without saying (why would you spend time writing a paper about a bad poem?) so don't say them.
- Be explicit. Don't be wordy.
- Don't say things that are too vague to agree or disagree with.
- When you are explaining what an image means or suggests, ground your explanation in the text itself. It's not enough to say that image x makes you think of experience y. Say why such-and-such an image suggests such-and-such an idea; appeals to personal associations are not usually very convincing, so it's best to omit them and ground your inferences instead on the words themselves.
- What does it mean to ground your inferences in the words of the text? Here's a tip: ask yourself "How is the poet guiding me to think about the objects in the poem? Are there other images or words in the poem that corroborate my interpretation of this particular word or image?"
- Some poems tell a story; sometimes it takes an effort to figure out what that story is. For you, however, it is not enough to retell the story. You must also interpret the story: what does the story mean?
- Statements like "This symbolizes that" always make people suspicious. If you think something is a symbol of something else, give some reasons.
- Don't say "It would be interesting to consider x" or "It would be interesting to know whether..." If you're interested, find out. If not, you probably weren't that interested after all. (Hint: start with the reference librarian.)
- If you decide that you need to do some research on a poem or author, do so. Remember, though, that your goal is to gather evidence for an argument about a poem. If, for instance, you decide that the poet's biography is relevant to your argument about the poem, then tell your reader about the relevant facts. Do not, however, pad your essay with random facts.
- You are in college now and I take it for granted that you visit the library from time to time. Peppering your essay with random footnotes will not, therefore, increase your grade; on the contrary, it will make me cross and probably prompt a tiresome sermon on the centrality of the Text.
- Don't summarize your argument with a quotation from the critics. Doing so makes it sound as if you have nothing to add. (Sometimes, of course, that's how one feels: what is there left to say? When this happens, see the following suggestion.)
- If you must cite a literary critic, build on what she says, don't build up to it. Use the observations of your predecessors as building blocks. When you find that someone has already said what you wanted to say, don't despair. Congratulate yourself on the fact that you, at the tender age of 19, have seen something that it took a gray-haired professor decades to discover, and move on. Instead of despairing ("Oh no! I have nothing left to say!"), wipe your hands, breathe a sigh of relief ("Well, that's one less thing for me to do--I can just tell my reader to "see Peabody, pp. 29-37") and move on. Push the argument a step further. If x is true, what does that say about y? Stand on the shoulders of the giants! See farther!
- Or ignore the critics altogether and reread the poem.
1 January 2001