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How To Write A Critical Essay On Poetry

By Yann, published on 23/04/2019 Blog > Arts and Hobbies > Poetry > How To Write A Poetry Essay

It is one thing writing a descriptive thesis about a single subject, focusing on the ins and outs of the poem, its structure, its language and its style, but it is quite another to write a college essay in which you compare two or more poems.

Fortunately for you, we are here to explain to you how to outline your comparative discussion and how writing about poetic contrast during an exam is often easier than having to come up with numerous statements and ideas to write about just one single text.

For instance, we don’t need to point out the fact that having multiple poems means that there is a higher number of points to discuss in your narrative composition. So, the pure fact that you are comparing two texts means that you can dedicate a whole paragraph, if not more, to simply pointing out the clear differences in the structure and flow of two poems!

Furthermore, if you are being asked to compare and contrast texts, it usually means that there are significant differences or at least an alternative point of view to pick up on. Whether these be in reference to the era during which they were written, the writing style that the poet has chosen to use, or the different angles adopted to emphasize the same theme or message, the chances are that you will find loads of avenues to explore in your descriptive essay.

Finally, by focusing your attention on comparison and contrast, you can develop a much better understanding and a deeper appreciation of each citation.

Comparing and contrasting two or more poems can help to open your eyes to way more hidden meanings. It may take contrasting one poem with another to truly understand and appreciate the message being conveyed. Photo on VisualHunt.com

For those on their way to completing their A Level exams and in need of some extra help and reassurance when it comes to their literature assessment, here are some tips on how to write an A-Level poetry essay.

How To Write A Poetry Essay A Level Style

Coming Up With Ideas For Your Research Paper

By the end of your A Level poetry course, you’ll likely be familiar with a range of poets, poems and poetry styles but you may be surprised to know that the final exam often asks you to look at and contrasting two or more unseen poems.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be faced with poems that you have never laid eyes on before, by poets you’ve never even heard of. All it means is that neither you or your teacher will know which revised poems might come up in the assessment. It may well be that a poem you did not study crops up, but by an author who you are quite familiar with.

Not having seen a particular poem before, far from what many people think, is not a disadvantage in a timed exam. In fact, some might say that it works in their favour.

Being faced with a whole new set of words and stanzas to analyse is quite refreshing and if you apply all of the things you have learned over your GCSE and A Level course then you should have absolutely no problem finding leads to follow or points to argue.

Remember that, even if you aren’t very informed about the poet or the era during which they lived, you can often decipher hidden messages that might indicate when they were writing and what they were writing in response to. For example, if you find that a poem uses lots of words that are linked to battle, this evidence might be used to prove that the poem was written during the period of a war. Even though you may not know exactly which war, this still gives you something analytical to offer the examiner and a subject to use in your persuasive essay. Even if it is wrong, it may be an important element that the poet was trying to put in there.

In order to get this first impression that you can then report on in your text, be sure to read all of the texts thoroughly before starting to plan and write your essay. Your introductory paragraph, or thesis statement, might include a brief summary of each poem and set out a few observations that you’d like to look at in more detail further into your poetic analysis.

Remember that this will be a timed assessment so you only have so many minutes in which to read, plan, and write your essay. As such, don’t give yourself too much to cover and find that you have to rush your conclusion to bring the comparison to an end (or worse, that you end up with an unfinished essay). Pick out a few points that are relevant to the question being asked and focus on expanding on them as much as possible during your critique.

Don’t forget, if you want the examiner to see that you’ve noticed other things in the poems, then you can always refer to them briefly whilst backing up one of your other arguments.

Finally, remember to not only focus on the historical context or themes of the poem but to also demonstrate your understanding of intellectual poetry techniques. So, as well as exploring the ideas, attitude, and tone of the poems, be sure to look out for structure, form, and literary techniques used by the poet.

Be sure to enhance your analytical skills by demonstrating your knowledge of numerous poetry techniques. Remember, don’t just focus on historical content and obvious themes in your essay. Photo on Visual hunt

Structuring Your Timed Essay

When it comes to writing a paper, the main thing to remember is that you need to have an introduction, the main body, and a conclusion, just like any other term paper you have written in the past. Yet one thing that may not have crossed your mind as being imperative is to write an equal amount on each of the poems that you are discussing. Ultimately, without dedicating the same amount of time to each text, there is no way you can analyse the poems effectively in the comparative way the examiner wants.

Imagine if you wrote an essay where you discussed one poem for four paragraphs and then referred to the second poem in one single paragraph, the flow of the analysis would be completely off-balance and the examiner would only really be able to mark you on your direct analysis of the one poem that has taken centre-stage.

Ideally, each paragraph of your essay should address one or more specific poetic elements or aspects of the works in question. Furthermore, each paragraph should contain a dissection of both works, rather than expounding on only one poem. You might strive for something along these lines:

Poem XYZ expounds of the narrator’s perception of his mother’s love, whereas poem ABC describes a mother’s unconditional love for her child.

With this opening line, you have pointed at the theme of the poems – parental love. You have also uncovered an important difference between the two: perspective. That opening sentence paints a contrast between the two works which you would explore in depth throughout the paragraph.

Note the use of ‘whereas’ in this sentence. Used as a conjunction, one of its meanings is, literally, ‘while in contrast‘. As your assignment is to compare and contrast, using this conjunction is perfectly acceptable.

On the other hand…

The students were eagerly anticipating their marked papers and the teacher did not disappoint. As soon as class started, she handed her students their essays back. One student in particular was dismayed to find that she had scored poorly. Most curiously, her teacher had written, across the top: how many hands do you have?

On the one hand, it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘on the other hand’ to preface a comparison or contrast. On the other hand, it is not acceptable to use it as the only indication of comparison throughout your entire essay!

In fact, that is what had cost that student points off her grade: every single comparison was introduced with the phrase ‘on the other hand’, leading the teacher to wonder how many hands that essay writer intended to employ!

While some forms of repetition are considered literary devices – parallel structure being a case in point, using the same transitional phrase throughout your work will surely cost you in points!

It might help you to study alternate phrases and incorporate a few into your personal lexicon. That way, when one is needed, you have an entire arsenal at your disposal!  

If you can, jot down a table or checklist of similarities and differences during your planning phase and then roughly set out the essay paragraph by paragraph to ensure that it looks even. Not only will this be a helpful guide as you start writing, it will also keep you on track. You don’t necessarily have to keep the analysis paper in chronological order.

Your table might look something like this:

Once you have developed your ideas in such a brainstorming session, crafting your essay is a piece of cake!

Structuring an essay is actually much easier than people think. What the examiner wants to see is that you can clearly explain a point, justify it and then ask questions about why that is important to the overall text. So, for example, just like the essay as a whole, each point you make should ideally be made up of an introduction, middle section, and a conclusion.

The BBC Bitesize website likens this process with a sandwich, suggesting that the two pieces of bread are the intro and conclusion and the layers of filling are made up of each individual point you make in response to that argument. Others also talk about the technique being like a hamburger.

Remember, a plain beef burger with no sauce or fillings makes for quite a dry hamburger, and it’s much the same with your essay.

Poem Analysis Essay Tips

    1. Don't put the examiner off with grammar and punctuation mistakes, check your work! Proofreading is so important as silly errors can jeopardize how a point comes across! Photo credit: b r e n t on Visualhunt / CC BY

Check What The Examiner Expects Of You

Before you start writing any kind of poetry analysis, you should always be certain of what is expected of you. To find out what the English examiner is looking for in a good thesis, visit your exam board’s website and look for the Mark Scheme, Examiner’s Notes and any other documents you can find and cross-reference these with the specimen question papers to get a good idea on what you should be doing when your final exam comes around.

Although your English Instructor will no doubt offer you guidance and set useful homework and classroom tasks, don’t underestimate the benefit of doing past papers. As such, do as many of the available specimen papers that you can and don’t just settle for doing the bare minimum! We don’t recommend using an essay writing service for your coursework or as an exemplary revision resource because you simply can’t guarantee that they are genuine, professional writers nor can you be certain that work hasn’t been plagiarized. Be confident and stick to your own work!

Proofreading Is Key

Remember to leave yourself enough time at the end of a timed exam to read through your work, check for any obvious spelling mistakes, and to ensure it is coherent. It can be quite easy to get ahead of yourself when you are faced with a deadline so taking time to check over the wording on your literary essay can actually help you to strengthen your response. Depending on the requirements, you may like to use some of this time adding a bibliography, checking things like capitalization and looking out for repetition.

Practice Putting Poetry Into Your Own Words

Putting a poem into your own words not only shows that you understand what the poem is about, it also helps you to gain a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of the message trying to be conveyed by the poet. Some poems, specifically those written centuries ago, are quite hard to read aloud so why not add an informal annotation underneath each line to make the wording a bit easier to decipher as you go back and forth between the poems during the exam?

Remember To Reference Any Quotations. You may have written down some distinctive quotes on your revision cards, or you may simply want to paraphrase what a poet or critic has said from memory, but either way, it is important that you do so properly. Any words that aren’t your own should be referenced using quotation marks (if a direct quote) or by making it clear that a particular sentence is an opinion of another individual.

Brush Up On Your Poetry Terms

You simply can’t expect to rack up those top marks if you don’t have the knowledge and expertise to back up your ideas. Showing that you know a wide range of literary terms and poetry techniques will help to impress the examiner. That said, it is just as important to understand what the terms mean as it is to know their names. The examiner won’t be fooled if you simply reel off a list of terms, saying that they are included in the poem but without explaining where each one crops up and why.

Terms to Use in Poetry Analysis

-Rhyme scheme: the pattern of rhyming words – typically, the last word of every poem line.

Rhyme schemes are generally indicated by a combination of letters, AB, CD and so forth. If you wish to describe a scheme in which alternating lines rhyme, you would use ABAB. However, if the first line rhymes with the last and the middle two lines rhyme, the designation ABBA would be correct.

Note: most Shakespeare quatrains are written in the ABAB scheme.

-Meter:  which syllables in each line of poetry are stressed.

Poetry, by its very nature and definition, is meant to be rhythmic; indeed that very rhythm contributes to the tone and meaning of the work itself.

By alternating stress with lack of stress when reading each line, you may arrive at a different tone for that work altogether!

-Iambic Pentameter: the perfect example of meter in poetry!

The name itself, pentameter, indicates that there will be 5 stressed syllables,  each one alternating with an unstressed that should sound like so:

tuh-TAH-tuh-TAH-tuh-TAH-tuh-TAH-tuh-TAH

Consider this stanza:

As I was walking down the street one day, / The sun from behind clouds came out to play.

Here, not only do you have five feet – five stressed syllables contrasting with five unstressed, you also have an AA rhyming scheme!

The Bard make great use of the iambic pentameter when writing his sonnets… so do select rock songs!

-Metaphor: a figure of speech employing a known object or situation to represent something figurative.

A writer’s job is to paint pictures with words. S/he does so by using words and phrases that create vivid images in the readers’ minds.

Naturally, you are not expected to be an author on par with great historical essay writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Lewis Carroll. However, you can and should make use of metaphors in your analysis, where appropriate.  For example:

“The tone of poem XYZ sends the reader’s heart soaring into a cloudless, springtime sky. However, poem ABC fills those skies with dark clouds, reflecting the author’s own gloom.”

As you might have guessed, in neither poem does a sky feature. Nevertheless, using the sky as a metaphor for the tone of the poems is apt in more than one way: the sky lies above us just as a poem’s tone ‘oversees’ the words it comprises of.

Examples of well-known metaphors include:

  • I am boiling mad!
  • It’s clear sailing from now on.
  • I’ll ask my teacher, but it will be an uphill battle to get her to change my marks.
  • What pearls of wisdom will he dispense today?

Beware not to misuse a metaphor as a simile!

-Simile: a figure of speech that compares two unlike things (situations, objects, etc.)

Many people confuse similes with metaphors because their use and purpose is quite nearly the same. In each case, the writer is creating a visual for the reader to better get a sense of what s/he intended to convey.

Let us look at two examples of describing a madman:

‘He was quite mad.’ versus ‘he was mad as a hatter!’

The first sentence conveys the impression that that poor soul was to be pitied; after all, he couldn’t help being mad, could he? However, the second sentence indicates that not only is this man mad but he must be the very spectacle of madness!

Similes are generally recognised by ‘like’, ‘than’ or ‘as’, preceding the comparison. Here are a few examples of similes:

  • Shopping is more fun than a barrel of monkeys!
  • Her laughter is like crystal, tinkling in the breeze.
  • He’s as strong as an ox!
  • This exam is so easy, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

You might use similes in your poetry analysis to distinguish differences in tone (as different as night and day), theme (as grating as nails on a blackboard), structure (constructed like cookie-cutter houses) or content (it’s like comparing apples and oranges).

Similes such as 'comparing apples and oranges' are very common Comparing apples and oranges is a common simile Source: Pixabay Credit: Mabel Amber

-Setting: either a literal or figurative place where the action or situation occurs

Although it would seem like a minor consideration to the overall work, setting is critical to poetry (or any other type of writing) because it helps the reader develop a connection to the narrative.

It may used to help identify the characters, create a conflict for the character(s) to resolve or even be an antagonist that the characters must vanquish. It can help set the tone and the mood of the piece; most certainly it would act as a backdrop.

The works’ setting may be explicitly described or merely implied. However they are presented, don’t neglect to touch upon them in your essay!

In fact, a poem’s setting offers a wealth of analysis opportunity.

-Allegory: a literary device, usually in the form of a metaphor, meant to deliver a broader message.

Should you read a story or poem that resonates on a completely different level, meaning you see a parallel between this work of fiction and real-world occurrences, you may have found an allegory!

Beware, however, that this supposed allegory is not a fable.

The difference between those two types of works is slight but profound. A fable is meant to reinforce a truth or precept while an allegory represents abstract principles. 

You may be familiar with H.G. Wells’ Animal Farm, a classic example of allegory meant to depict the overthrow of the Russian Tsarist system. However, in spite of the fact that this allegory uses animals – as most fables do, it could in no way be considered a fable.

Should you discover, during your exam, that one of your texts is allegorical and the other more of a fable, you may consider contrasting that aspect of those works in your essay. 

-Alliteration: when the same letter or sound starts a series of words

If you entertain your friends with your ability to utter tongue twisters to perfection, you may already be familiar with alliteration.

In fact, the above sentence includes an alliteration!

Here is a stylistic element that, in poetry, could be used to emphasise a line or stanza of particular import, or even to stress an important characteristic – either of the narrative itself or of the poem’s theme.

Alliteration is fairly common in poetry so, if the works you are comparing each contain alliterations, you might write a paragraph about the differences between them.

-Assonance: repetition of a vowel sound or diphthong

Whereas alliteration repeats consonant sounds; assonance does so with vowels. Assonance is quite common in proverbs; the vowel sounds those words have in common help make those phrases memorable:

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The second, third and sixth words all have the same consonant sound, making this sentence a perfect example of assonance.

Beware, though: the words must be noticeably close together; within the same line or sentence. You can’t scan the entire work for similar-sounding vowel combinations and call them assonance!

-Caesura: essentially, a pause

As the old joke goes: “And she talked on, never pausing for breath…”

In fact, we all pause for breath at strategic points in our verbal narrations, but how to find those breaks in poetry? Fortunately, poets make it easy for us through a variety of ways: punctuation, the natural rhythm of the work or by the ‘ll’ symbol.

Caesura are broadly divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’ with the latter a softer stop than the former.

  1. Feminine caesura appear after non-stressed or short syllables; such as a past tense (-ed) or progressive (-ing) ending.
  2. Masculine caesura occurs after long or accented syllables – those that end in a consonant pair(-rd, ck, st…), or plurals.

The use of caesura in poetry can be used to convey tone or mood; thus it makes an excellent instrument for comparing two works!

-Enjambment: no pause at the end of a stanza, line or couplet

In opposition of the caesura comes the enjambment, used to convey heightened emotion or a running thought, although sometimes it is used to trick the reader by presenting a conflicting idea in the very next line:

Among the bracken and thorns / Beautiful red roses bloom.

-Hyperbole: an exaggeration

Does one ever really think of poetry as humorous? It can be and one way that the writer demonstrates that literary tickle is with the use of hyperbole.

Still she, with skirts large as a circus tent, was only on his love intent.

Here, making use of a simile as a hyperbole to bring about a comical image (who could really have such a large skirt?) the writer meant to create a picture of a lovelorn woman pursuing unrequited love.

Naturally, one should not take the hyperbole seriously… 

-Satire: a humorous, ironic, exaggerated or ridiculous criticism

Have you ever seen any political cartoons? If so, you have had exposure to satire. Do you know any limericks? If so, you may be familiar with the use of satire in poetry.

Contrary to the overarching belief that all poetry must be beautiful, wistful and romantic, poetry can also be scathing and scorning.

Might you encounter such works in the course of your exam? If so, be sure to highlight the odes’ satirical tones!

-Personification: literally render into a person.

Trees, animals… even emotions and situations can be personified in poetry. This is a way for the author to give the work life, motion… maybe even fluidity!

The peaks rear’d up, in a ring, as a band of patriarchs who would surround a newborn heir…

By turning an ancient mountains into kindly grandfathers who, most likely, watch over the people living in those shadows, the writer has personified the landscape into a benevolent protector.

Take note of any personification in the works you are assigned to analyse; as personification is a tool widely used in poetry, surely you could find points to compare between personifications!

Final thought: while anyone may notice the larger differences between two poems, perhaps, recognising and writing your comparative essay on these finer points listed above might earn you higher marks.

Good luck! Let us know how you get on, will you?  

 

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