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Analyzing Poetry


									                                                   Analyzing Poetry

When asked to analyze or "explicate" a poem, it is a good idea to read the poem several times before starting to write
about it. Remember that no one was born reading a book of poetry, but that it is a learned skill that gets easier with

These are the general steps to follow:

     1. Read once to determine the literal meaning of the poem.
     2. Read the poem again and then try to paraphrase it in a few sentences, in your own words. A good paraphrase is
very close to what the poem says literally, without reference to the uses of figurative language or other poetic devices.
     3. Based upon your general sense of the poem, think about a strategy for approaching the poetic elements, or non-
literal strategies used in the poem. Although most good poets use several strategies at the same time, usually one
dominates in a particular poem. For instance, does the poet get his or her point across primarily by relying on treatment
of a particular theme? Does the poet rely upon development of a particular set of figurative language? Does the poet
make a point by using a particular structure? Upon rhyme and meter? If possible, mark what you notice, in pencil, on
the poem itself to indicate interesting features and details which may be worth discussing.
     4. Next, construct a "reading" or explication of the poem, based upon what you have observed. There is no one
"correct" reading of a poem; many readings are possible. But there are readings that are better than others. The best
readings are strongly supported by evidence gleaned while reading the text closely. The best readings take into account
all of the evidence in the poem. A reading that ignores evidence that contradicts the reading is a poor reading.

When writing in response to an assignment, keep in mind the constraints put upon you by the assignment itself and the
actual questions you are answering. A written analysis of a poem should not simply paraphrase it, although the analysis
may include paraphrase.

The following are questions you can ask about any poem you encounter. Remember, however, that not all of the
questions will apply to every poem you read, and also that you do not have to write about every answer to every
    1. Who is the speaker? Is it the poet or a character/persona the poet takes on? What is the tone of voice adopted?
Can you detect any irony? How precisely is the speaker defined? (Note: You should refer to the speaker as "the
speaker" and not as "the poet," even if the voice seems to be the poet's own.
    2. Who is the speaker's audience? Does the audience help to define the speaker?
    3. What is the poem's literal meaning?
    4. What is the poem's theme? Is the theme stated explicitly or implicitly?
    5. What is the poem's structure? Does it develop in a straightforward manner to a logical conclusion? Is there a shift
or turn in its development? How is the shift indicated? Why does a shift take place?
    6. How is the poem organized? How does its organization contribute to the development of the poem's subject or
    7. What is the poem's meter? How does it contribute to the development of the poem's subject or theme? Are there
any strategic points where the poem breaks with its rhyme scheme? Why?
    8. What is the poem's rhyme scheme? How does it contribute to the development of the poem's subject or theme? Is
there any evidence of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, etc?
    9. Do the lines end with a completion of a thought or closed punctuation (i.e., are they end-stopped)? Or do the lines
flow without pause, from one to the next (i.e., are they enjambed)? If enjambed, does it occur from one couplet to the
next, one quatrain to the next, etc?
    10. How would you characterize the poem's language or diction ? What effect does this choice of language have on
your response to the poem and its speaker?
    11. What imagery is developed in the poem? Does the poet use metaphor, simile, personification, etc? Does he/she
use symbolism? Considering the poem's subject matter, are these images obvious ones, or are they unusual and
unexpected? Do they contribute to the poem's subject or theme? If so, how?
    12. Is there any evidence of repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia, or other sound effects in the poem? What do they
    13. Is there any significance to the placement of words in the poem? Is the rhythm of any particular words or lines
    14. Is there any significance to the poem's punctuation or the capitalization and spelling of words? (Note: These
features are often the result of modern editing and not original to the author)
Specific Terms

   An allegory is a narrative in which all (or most) of the events, locales, and characters correspond
systematically to the events and characters in a completely different context. Some elaborate
allegories can have several sets of correspondences simultaneously. The contexts within which the
correspondences operate can include religious, moral, political, personal, or satiric.

   An allusion is a figure of speech that makes a brief reference to a historical or literary figure,
event, or object.

   A popular oral poetic (and later written) form that relates a dramatic episode or story, often set to
music and usually written in ballad meter, or fourteeners (a tetrameter line followed by a trimeter
line, giving fourteen syllables total). Ballads often have refrains, which are stanzas that repeat.
Some refrains change slightly each time they are repeated; these are called incremental refrains.

   Diction is the term used to refer to the poet's choice of words in a poem. Words vary in their
levels of abstraction, and we can speak of words as being concrete or abstract. Words also vary in
their formality, and some genres, such as epic and tragedy, call for use of elevated rather than
colloquial or plain language. Words also have specific or direct definitions (denotations), as well as
implied meanings (connotations) associated with their use. Connotations as well as denotations of
words can vary in meaning historically and geographically.

Figurative Language
   Figurative language occurs whenever a poet uses words in ways that deviate from their usual
meaning. A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are otherwise unrelated. A simile is
a kind of metaphor that uses like or as in the comparison. A mixed metaphor occurs when the
metaphor used produces an incongruous or impossible image; such metaphors are often
unintentionally funny. Metonymy occurs when the name of one thing is replaced by the name of
something closely associated with it. Synechdoche occurs when a part of something is used to
describe the whole. Overstatement (hyperbole) may be used to exaggerate what is being described;
understatement describes something as less than it is. Both can be used ironically. Personification
occurs when a non-human animal, object, or abstraction is given human qualities. Apostrophe is a
direct address to something not actually present or without actual human form; consequently, an
apostrophe tends to personify its object. Onomatopoeia is used describe a word or words that sound
like the thing they describe. A pun is a word that refers to two very different meanings
simultaneously. A paradox is a statement that simultaneously contradicts itself and makes sense.

   Form refers to the overall design of a poem, including the patterning of its rhyme, meter, and
stanzas. Form can be open in form or closed (highly structured). Blank verse is verse written in
unrhymed iambic pentameter; it is the poetic form that is closest to spoken English. A couplet is
two consecutive lines of poetry that rhyme. An heroic couplet consists of two rhyming lines of
iambic pentameter. A tercet has three rhyming lines. A quatrain has four. Common closed forms
include the sonnet, limerick, villanelle, sestina, odes, and ballad.
   Imagery refers to words used to evoke a sensory experience, including sight, sound, smell, touch,
and taste. Consequently, although image seems to refer to something that can be seen, imagery is
also the term used to describe anything in a poem that appeals to the senses. Euphony refers to
words that sound harmonious together. Cacophony refers to words that jar against one another.

   Irony is a way of speaking that implies a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, or
between what appears to happen and what actually happens. Ironic speech consists of saying one
thing and meaning another. Verbal irony occurs when the actual words used are ironic. Dramatic
irony arises from the situation; frequently, this occurs when the audience knows or understands
something that the characters in a drama do not. Cosmic irony occurs when an outside force, such
as fate, seems to be operating despite the best efforts or intentions of the speaker or a character.

    Limericks are (usually humorous) poems consisting of five anapestic lines that rhyme aabba; the
a-lines are written in anapestic trimeter, whereas the b-lines are written in anapestic dimeter.

   A lyric is a brief poem that expresses private thoughts and emotions, originally set to music
(lyric is derived from the lyre, a musical instrument Greek poets used to accompany recitation).
Ballads, sonnets, and odes are all forms of lyric poetry.

   Meter, rhyme, and subject together are used to identify form in poetry. Often, deviations from
the expected form are more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's regularity.

Metric Feet:
  Iamb--unstressed syllable followed by stressed syllable
  Trochee--stressed syllable followed by unstressed syllable
  Anapest--two unstressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable
  Dactyl--one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables
  Spondee--two successive syllables with approximately equal strong stresses
  Pyrrhic--two successive syllables with approximately equal light stresses

Metric Lines:
  Monometer--one foot
  Dimeter--two feet
  Trimeter--three feet
  Tetrameter--four feet
  Pentameter--five feet
  Hexameter--six feet (a line of six iambic feet is called an Alexandrine)
  Heptameter--seven feet (also called a fourteener [14 syllables], also called ballad meter])
  Octameter--eight feet

End-stopped--a line of poetry which ends with a period or other punctuation
Enjambed--a line of poetry which carries over syntactically to the next line

Caesura--a strong pause in the middle of a line of poetry, often marked by punctuation

   An ode is a relatively long, serious poem that discusses a noble subject in a thoughtful and
dignified manner. The ode is Greek in origin and was originally recited by a chorus. Pindaric odes
(after the Greek poet Pindar) were meant to be performed by a chorus and originally consisted of
three stanzas; the chorus moved in one direction for the first stanza (strophe), in the opposite
direction for the second stanza (antistrophe), and remained stationary for the third stanza (epode).
Such odes often resemble a meditative argument. Horatian odes (named after the Roman poet
Horace) were meant to be read and consisted of stanzas of equal length and with the same rhyme
scheme and meter. During the British Romantic period (1798-1820), the term ode was used by
poets more to describe the meditative mood of a poem rather than its form; consequently, odes from
this period to be irregular both in meter and in rhyme

   Personification is a kind of figurative language in which a non-human object, animal, or
abstraction is given human qualities.

    Meter, rhyme, and subject are used to identify form in poetry. Often, deviations from the
expected form are more important to the poet's artistry than a poem's regularity. A rhyme scheme is
the overall pattern of rhyme in a poem. A pair of rhymed lines is called a couplet. Alliteration
refers to the repetition of similar consonant sounds. Repeated consonant sounds at the beginning of
words is called initial alliteration. Repeated consonant sounds in the middle or at the ends of words
is called internal alliteration. Repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance. Although definitions
differ, slant rhyme can be said to occur in near rhymes (for instance, cat and cot, but not cat and
coat). Consonance is a repetition of consonant sounds. A line is said to have a masculine ending
when the line ends with a stressed syllable (either a one syllable word, or a word of multiple
syllables with emphasis on the last syllable). A line is said to have a feminine ending when the line
ends on an unstressed syllable.

   A sestina is a form written in six six-line stanzas. The end words in the first stanza are also the
end words of the other stanzas, but they occur in a different order in each stanza, often following a
fixed pattern. In the final envoy (last three lines) of the poem, the six end words are repeated again
in any order.

   A sonnet is a closed poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Because Italian is
an easier language to rhyme than English, Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets have tighter rhyme schemes
than Shakespearean (English) sonnets. Petrarchan (Italian) sonnets rhyme abba abba cdcdcd (with
some variation in the last six lines). Shakespearean (Engish) sonnets rhyme abab cdcd efef gg (with
some variation). Sonnets may be structured as an octave and a sestet or as three stanzas of four
lines, followed by a couplet. Structure and meaning often intersect in the sonnet; a Shakespearean
sonnet often changes the direction of its argument in the 9th line or 11th line.
    A symbol is an object or action that carries with it meaning that goes beyond the object or action
itself. Symbols are often specific to a particular culture rather than universally recognized. Allegory
makes extensive use of symbolism to work on several levels at once.

   A villanelle is a nineteen-line lyric with only two rhymes and with certain lines repeating in a
specific pattern. Lines 1, 6, 12, and 18 are the same, as are lines 3, 9, 15, and 19. Lines 1 and 3
form a final couplet. The lines rhyme aba aba aba aba aba abaa

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