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Analyzing Poetry: Poetry Tips
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What is poetry? How is it analyzed? What are the elements of poetry? Good questions! This web page provides a quick overview of poetry analysis. Please note that this handout discusses the basics of poetry; there is much more to know about it than there is room to discuss here.
Laurence Perrine's book LITERATURE: STRUCTURE, SOUND, AND SENSE can provide more detailed information about poetry analysis. Until you can get a copy of the book, I hope this page helps you begin your poetry analysis work.
What is poetry ?
Poetry goes beyond the rhyming of words. The object of writing a poem is usually to make a very complicated statement using as few words as possible; as Laurence Perrine says, poetry "may be defined as a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language" (517). Thus every word and stanza is packed with meanings. Poetic language could be said to have muscle because, in a sense, it is powerful. When a poet writes, he is trying to communicate with the reader in a powerful way. He uses the elements of poetry to get his point across, and these elements consist of a variety of ways to use words to convey his meanings. In the analysis of poetry, then, two important questions the reader must ask himself are: What is the poet trying to say? How does he or she try to say it?
What does a poetry analysis paper look like?
Individual teachers may have specific requirements for papers written in their classes. A critical analysis includes an introduction, a thesis statement, perhaps a map of the essay, the body of the essay, and a conclusion. The critical analysis paper will consist of a proof or a demonstration of the thesis statement. Always begin with a thesis statement, which usually appears at the end of the introductory paragraph. The thesis of a critical paper should include a statement of the poem's theme; everything in the body of the paper should apply in some way towards proving the thesis statement.
In critical analysis, one looks both analytically and critically at a short story, a novel, or a poem and makes an argument about what the meaning of the story or poem is. What follows is a discussion of what the words "critical" and "analysis" mean:
What is "analysis"?
It is helpful to think of analysis as decoding. Creative writers rarely say what they mean in a straightforward, obvious way, and this is especially true of poets. However, they are trying to communicate with readers. In doing so they use a variety of tools to enrich their purpose, and these tools are the elements of poetry. The combination of elements the poet uses makes up the "code" of the poem. Analysis means literally picking a poem apart--looking at elements such as imagery, metaphor, poetic language, rhyme scheme, and so on--in order to see how they all work together to produce the poem's meaning. By looking at a poem in terms of its elements, one decodes the poem. This guide is to help readers learn what to look for and what questions to ask in decoding a poem.
What does "critical" mean?
To criticize means to judge the merits and faults of a poem. Questions to consider in this regard are: What has the poet done well, and what has he done less well? Has he successfully expressed his theme? Has he written a "good" poem or a "great" poem according to Laurence Perrine's standards?
How do I get started?
- Read the poem more than once.
- Use a dictionary when you find a word about whose meaning you are unsure.
- Read the poem slowly.
- Pay attention to what the poem is saying; do not be distracted by the rhyme and rhythm of the poem.
- Try reading the poem out loud to get a sense of the way the sounds of the poem effect its meaning.
Elements of Poetry
Denotation and Connation Words in poems have denotations, or literal, easy-to-understand dictionary meanings, and connotations, or figurative, less specific and less direct meanings. The latter is the more important in poetry than the former. The figurative, or connotative, meaning of a word means everything that the word might imply besides its direct, dictionary meaning.
For example, the literal, denotative meaning of the word apple is something like this: It is the fruit of the apple tree, anywhere from gold to dark red in color, and it has seeds and a sweet taste. The literal meaning of a word, its denotation, can usually be defined in simple, clear language and can be understood right away.
The connotative meaning of a word, however, is much different. A red apple in a poem is never merely a red apple, but probably implies a lot of different things. The red color may symbolize passion, fertility, anger--anything one can associate with the color red could be a possible meaning. The apple itself could symbolize the Tree of Life, it could symbolize knowledge, Adam and Eve and their Fall from Grace, the harvest in fall, the forbidden, Sir Isaac Newton or Johnny Apple seed--perhaps a combination of these things. In this way a poet uses a word or an idea in a poem to express a variety of ideas at one time, and so deepens our experience.
Thus, in reading poetry one should look at words as having two kinds of meaning. They have dictionary meanings, but also mean other things besides. One should look at individual words and at phrases in the poem and brainstorm; that is, one should think about the literal meanings, but then try to think of every possible idea that the word or phrase could imply. Importantly, words do not mean anything and everything in a poem. Thus the reader should look at the poem as a whole and try to figure out which implications make the most sense within that poem.
Images are very concrete "word pictures" having to do with the five senses--touch, smell, taste, sound, movement, and especially sight. As Perrine points out, images make readers experience things vividly. To figure out the imagery in a poem, the reader should first make a list of every single mental picture, or visual image, that comes to mind as he reads the poem. He can then go back and find other kinds of ideas that have to do with physical sensations--sounds, tastes, smells and so on. Finally, he can go back and think about all the ideas these different images could imply--figure out their connotations, in other words.
For example, if a poet compares something to a ship, the reader might think about what ships look like, and then think about what it feels like to be on a ship. How do ships move? Where do they go? What sights, sounds, smells and sensations can we associate with ships and being on ships? After thinking about these questions, the reader can go back and attach these ideas that a ship implies to the thing to which the ship is compared, and finally try to fit these ideas into the overall meaning of the poem. See Emily Dickinson's poem "There is No Frigate Like a Book" on page 575 of Structure, Sound, and Sense.
Importantly, poets often place images in opposition to each other. This creates what is known as "tension." Tension is often an important clue to the meaning of a poem; it also creates drama and interest and is a key to paradox (see below). One should look out for strange contrasts in images in the process of analyzing poems, and think about the responses they arouse in a reader. Images can be part of similes and metaphors, though they are not always (see below).
Figurative language involves a comparison between two things--a literal term, or the thing being compared, and a figurative term, or the thing to which the literal term is being compared. As Perrine states, figurative language is a way of describing an ordinary thing in an un-ordinary way.
A simile is an explicit, or clear and direct, comparison between two things that are basically unalike using dead-giveaway words such as "like", "as though", "seems", "similar to", "than", or "as". For example, "The woman moved like a fish--she moved as though she were as weightless as a fish in water. Her movements were certainly as graceful and fluid as those of a sea creature. She seemed ready to swim away at any moment, like a startled school of fish." Here, the woman is the literal term, while the fish, sea creatures, and school of fish are all figurative terms.
A metaphor is a comparison that is not made explicitly--that is, it is not made clearly and directly and is not made with clues such as "like" or "as". It is, instead, an indirect comparison between two things that are basically unalike. In metaphor, the figurative term is substituted for or identified with the literal term, the thing being compared. This is done to make the meaning of a poem more forceful.
For example, the expression "The apple never falls far from the tree" contains a metaphor in which parents or family (literal term) is compared a tree (figurative term), while children (literal term) is compared to an apple (figurative term). The metaphor expresses that children are never very different from the parents or family from which they come. For further example, "The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods" (Wallace Stevens) also uses metaphor. Here, the sun is compared to an eye--one that has seemingly eternal life, and thus can watch the full course of human events. Here, one figurative term is "fire eye in the clouds" while the literal term is "the sun". The term "eye" may give the reader the idea that the sun is kind of like a conscious being, since conscious beings have eyes for purposes of perceiving the world; what a thing "sees" it can presumable think about in a conscious way. Also, the idea that the sun "survives" reinforces the idea that it is like a living thing, though it is not, in fact living. See also, "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," both by Robert Frost and appearing in Structure, Sound and Sense. These are good examples of easy-to-understand uses of metaphor.
Personification is a kind of metaphor, and it means to speak of an impersonal thing, such as a season, a natural element, any object, a country, etc., as though it were a person. For example, look at the line from the popular Seals and Crofts song, "Summer Breeze": "July is dressed up and playing her tune." Here the month of July is spoken of as though it were a woman. July is "dressed up", that is, July is in full swing--flowers are blooming and butterflies are flying, resembling the pattern of a summer dress. Also, to say that July is "playing her tune" is a metaphorical way of saying that birds are singing and nighttime insects and frogs are voicing their mating calls. Thus the figurative term, a woman in a dress playing a tune, is identified with the literal term, a summer month in which nature is at its peak of activity.
Synecdoche is a way of naming a thing: the word for a part of a thing is substituted for the whole. For example, in the sentence "I bought a new set of wheels this morning," the word "wheels" is substituted for the word "car." Wheels are part of any car; here the part is substituted for the whole. The following are further examples: "How do you like my new threads?" and "All hands on deck!" both represent synecdoche.
Metonymy is a way of naming a thing: a thing closely related to the thing actually meant is used to name it. For example, "He came from excellent blood" substitutes the term "blood" for "family", and expresses the idea that an individual comes from a "good" family, perhaps a noble one. "Blood" and "family" are related because families are made up of people who have similar characteristics; people have blood, and people in families, being related to one another, are often said to share the same blood. Furthermore, "blood," a biological thing, is not part of a "family," which is a cultural institution. However, blood, part of the human body, can be substituted for "family," a group of biologically related bodies. Thus the figurative term "blood" is substituted for the literal term "family".
A symbol means what it is, but at the same time it represents something else, too. For example, "the straw that broke the camel's back" is a symbol of a last, remaining bit of patience with a difficult, ongoing situation.
An allegory is very similar to a symbol. Laurence Perrine describes it in this way: "Allegory is a narrative or description that has a second meaning beneath the surface one. Although the surface story or description may have its own interest, the author's major interest is in the ulterior meaning." (597) What this means is that in addition to the surface meaning of the poem there is also a more important, deeper meaning. Allegories relate especially to subject matter from the Bible and from mythology. For example, a garden in a poem may be not just a garden, but it may represent also the Garden of Eden and all of the ideas that accompany the idea of the Garden of Eden become potentially important in the poem. These might include ideas such as the seven days of creation, paradise, utopia, the Fall of Man, disobedience, human rationality, God's power, Eve's origin as Adam's rib, and so on. References to mythology are harder to catch because most Americans simply are not familiar with Greek, Roman, and Norse gods and goddesses and their stories. However, there are dictionaries of mythology in any public library, so use one if need be.
A paradox occurs when two things that should not be able to exist at the same time are said, in a poem, to exist at the same time. For example, it is impossible that it be both night and day, both spring and fall, both past and present at the same time. If, however, one were to say that night and day coexist in a poem, one would be expressing a paradox. Because human beings frequently experience two or more emotions at the same time (mixed feelings, ambivalence) or can see things from two points of view at the same time, they often use paradox in poetry to express such a situation. For example, if a poem were to say that the speaker of the poem is experiencing the past and the present at the same time, this may mean that his memories of the past are so vivid that the past seems to be existing in the present.
For example, "A poem should be palpable and mute/As a globed fruit" (Archibald MacLeish, p. 650 of Structure, Sound and Sense). This line expresses a paradox because poems are constructed through words--why should a poem be "silent"? A poem has the "silence" of a globed fruit because the poem should be able to communicate the non-verbal aspects of the fruit (the things we experience without words)--the fruit's roundness, its smooth or fuzzy texture, its sweet fragrance, its crunchy or soft texture once it's bitten into, and so on. These are all things which are not experienced nor understood in a verbal way but which a poem may paradoxically communicate through words. Thus a "silent poem" is a paradox.
Overstatement and Understatement
Overstatement is very similar to exaggeration. To say "You'll tear down that house over my dead body!" is overstatement; what is actually meant is that the speaker will do everything in his power to prevent the house being torn down. He will probably not, in fact, submit to death in order to prevent that from occurring.
Understatement is the opposite of exaggeration--one states less than one's full meaning. To say "It is on warm side in July and August on the Gulf Coast" would be an understatement. In fact, it is blazingly hot on the Gulf Coast. See Burns' "A Red, Red Rose" and Frost's "The Rose Family" on pages 611 and 612 of Structure, Sound, and Sense for good examples of over- and understatement in poetry.
Irony is a situation in which one thing is said but another is actually meant, or in which the outcome of a situation is the opposite of what one would have expected it to be. Irony is packed into the line, "The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods." Human beings are often said to create their gods, beings frequently presumed by humans to be immortal, all-knowing, and all-powerful because they are presumed to have created things like the earth, the moon, the sun. Rather, this line of poetry emphasizes the mythical nature of gods and goddesses; their existence, so to speak, is tied to a culture, and once that culture has run its course, those gods can be said to have "died". It is the sun, supposedly created by the gods, which actually "witnesses" the passage of time and the events of human history. Thus the opposite of what one would think to be the true situation is occurring: The sun, not the gods, can make a better claim to being immortal and all-knowing because it "watches" the rise and fall of cultures and of the gods associated with those cultures. Furthermore, it is the sun which has, in fact, inspired human beings to create gods in order to account for its existence. See the section in Structure, Sound, and Sense that covers irony for good examples of this element in poetry.
Meaning and Idea
Remember that a poem might be summed up in a literal, one-sentence statement, a theme. Also remember that along with that simplified statement a poem has other ideas connected with it. For example, "The fire eye in the clouds survives the gods" means literally that the sun has a very long "life expectancy" of several billion years. However, other ideas are associated with this literal meaning; the line expresses ideas about the nature of time, history and the "immortal" gods. For example "the fire eye in the clouds" implies that the sun is in some way godlike because gods are often said to live in the sky, among the clouds, on mountaintops. Likewise, those aspects of the sun are represented here. Furthermore, eyes see, and the idea of the sun as an "eye" implies an all-knowing and perhaps all-powerful quality; for instance, God's eye is depicted above a pyramid on US dollar bills, and so we are "one nation under God." The words "fire-eye" allow us to experience the sun in an entirely new way, above and beyond its being a star in the sky which produces heat. (See above discussions of metaphor and irony.)
Tone consists of the attitude of the speaker toward his subject matter. It involves practice working with the other elements--especially under- and overstatement, language, irony, imagery, the meanings and connotations (implications) of words--of poetry to judge the tone of a poem. In assessing tone, nevertheless, one might begin by asking oneself the following questions: Is the speaker involved or detached (uninvolved, unemotional?) How does he seem to feel about his subject matter? Is the speaker serious or joking, ironic or straightforward, condemning, approving or dispassionate, lighthearted or depressed, loving or angry? Does the tone change as the poem progresses? Is the tone mixed? For instance, is the speaker at once sad and apprehensive, happy and nostalgic, loving and angry?
To determine what musical devices are used in a poem, one should ask how sounds are arranged and used in a poem. What sounds and words get repeated? What are repeated but with slight changes? Is there rhyme? The following are kinds of musical devices. Keep in mind that the vowels are a,e,i,o,u and sometimes y, and the consonants are all of the other letters in the alphabet.
Alliteration--the repetition of beginning consonant sounds For example, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."
Assonance--the repetition of vowel sounds found anywhere in a word For example, "mad as a hatter," "blackjack," "knick- knack, paddy-wack," "picnic"
Consonance--the repetition of consonant sounds found at the ends of words For example, "knick-knack, paddy-wack," "bric-a-brac," "flip-flop"
Rhyme--also spelled "rime" rhyme is the repetition of ending sounds between words; poems can have end rhyme, in which words at the ends of lines rhyme; this is what we usually mean when we say a poem "rhymes." A poem can also have internal rhyme, in which words inside of individual lines for example, "Go with the flow, Joe."
The sounds used in a poem can effect its meaning and tone. The use of consonants, vowels and rhyme can effect the way the reader feels about the poem's subject matter; they can effect the poem's tone and reflect its meaning. One should think of the sounds of letters in terms of the range of feelings they may express. For example, lots of long vowel sounds accompanied by soft consonant sounds may contribute to a tone of sleepy restfulness in a poem. Short vowel sounds plus hard consonant sounds may express anxiety, quick movement, anger or happiness.