Studying Shakespeare and want to know what iambic pentameter actually means in terms of a Shakespearean sonnet? Or writing poetry and need to work out how to write a poem with figures of speech, irony, and emotion?
From poetry by Edgar Allan Poe and William Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound, here you will find all you need to know about poetry in order to start your criticism of any poetry collection.
Whether you are on a GCSE English course, taking an A Level English Literature programme or you are enrolled on a Literature degree at university, the concept of poetry analysis is the same for all levels.
Analysing poetry is, in essence, the process of using a number of tools to investigate every aspect of a poem: form, structure, content, history, meaning, etc… with the aim of understanding and appreciating the work in question.
As well as applying knowledge and individual thought, the reader also draws on the skills acquired throughout their course to identify a number of literary techniques which more often than not are used to emphasise certain points or feelings.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term ‘poetry’ as “metrical writing” or “the productions of a poet” whilst also describing it as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm”. Not only that, but it indicates that the word ‘poetry’ can also be used in speech to refer to something that has “poetic quality” or can be “likened to poetry especially in beauty of expression”.
The above descriptions highlight the beauty of poetry as an expression, in a way that even the saddest of stories can be told in a beautiful manner by manipulating words.
Poetry is likened to beauty hence why things are referred to as poetic when are beautiful or trigger emotions. Photo credit: hoopoequotes on Visual Hunt
The words ‘poem’ and ‘poetry’ derive from the Greek words ‘poiēma’ (to make) and ‘poieo’ (to create), pointing clearly to the fact that poetry is a made thing, rather than something that is produced from nothing. As such, there needs to be substance to a poem. It must come from somewhere and someone and, while a poem can take many forms, there can also be many reasons for wanting to analyse it.
For instance, you might feel the need to investigate the poetry of others to improve your own mastery of the field, you may want to read more into a piece of metric writing to understand the technicalities of a poem and how it achieves the effect it has on its readers or you might simply want to learn more about a poem to better understand the emotional message being communicated by the poet.
As an English Literature student, you will no doubt be analysing poems for most (if not all) of the above reasons, not to mention to help you pass your exam at the end of the academic programme! So, if you are a pupil or undergraduate looking for some tips on poetry analysis, then keep reading for some useful information and pointers.
Read more about how to revise poetry.
At one time, poetry was quite restrictive and was written in accordance with strict rules about meter and rhyme, yet each culture had its own set of guidelines for poets to abide by. Just think of the differences between the Anglo-Saxon poets, the Greek and the Arabic.
Poetry is probably the oldest form of literature, possibly predating the origin of writing itself. For instance, some of the oldest written manuscripts in our historical collections are epic poems telling stories about ancient mythology. It is thought that in the days before writing and distinctive languages, rhythm and rhyme could have made texts more memorable.
While many of the classical features are often still seen in the poetry of today, it is safe to say that modern poetry has moved far away from restrictions and barriers and is solely focused on putting across the message the poets want to communicate to their readers. Contemporary poems often do not rhyme, do not follow a particular rhythm or fit a specific meter, yet they can still be described as poems because they have a poetic or rhythmic quality to them thanks to their unique use of words.
Poetry can be written with the same aims as all other kinds of literature – to convey beauty, humor, political messages, or to tell a story.
Poetry can be used to communicate a wide array of messages, even scientific or political ones. Photo credit: Hackley Public Library on Visualhunt / CC BY
As we have discovered, poetry analysis is the same for every level of education. However, as you’d expect, a more advanced literary course will require you to go deeper with your analysis. As part of your poetry GCSE or A level exam you may be asked to write a critical poetry essay in which you will have to analyse a poem or compare and contrast two poems.
Here we cover all the bases to help you write a poetry essay.
Below are 25 terms used in poetry analysis that, if learned, will help you to tackle your next critical analysis.
Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in a series of words which feature in a phrase or verse line.
Ambiguity is a word, situation or statement with two or more possible meanings leading to deliberate confusion.
An anagram is a word spelt out using a different arrangement of letters from another word.
Canon is the term that best describes a list of authors or works considered to be central to the identity of the given period or movement.
A couplet is a pair of successive rhyming lines that are usually the same length. A couplet can be described as closed when the lines together form a full, grammatical sentence.
Enjambment is when a sentence or phrase runs over to the next line in the poem, without terminal punctuation.
Free verse is best described as non-metrical and non-rhyming lines, whereby the poet does not adhere to any metrical rules in the composition.
The word genre is used to group together a class or category of texts that share similar traits, i.e. in form, style of subject matter. Genre isn’t a fixed definition as it can change over time and texts can interact with more than one genre at once.
A hyperbole is like an inflated exaggeration of the truth.
Iamb is a metrical foot made up of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one.
Imagery is highlighted in a poem when the poet uses any of the five senses to create a mental image, often with the use of vivid or figurative language.
A metaphor is a direct or indirect comparison which points out a similarity without using words such as ‘like’, ‘as’ or ‘than’.
Meter is the rhythmical pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in verse. The different meters in English poetry include accentual-syllabic, accentual, syllabic, and quantitative.
Onomatopoeia represents the technique used when the sound of a word imitates its sense (i.e. ‘buzz’ or ‘hiss’).
An oxymoron is yet another figure of speech that describes the bringing together of contradicting words, such as ‘deafening silence’.
A parody is a comic imitation of another piece of work or style.
A pastiche is a patchwork of lines from another writer destined to be like an imitation. Or, it can be an original composition that mimics another’s style in a spirit of respect as opposed to satire.
Personification is a when the poet describes an object as if it were a person.
Personification is when a poet makes an object seem real, enabling them to feel emotion. Photo credit: Matthew Murdoch on Visual hunt
A pun is a term that describes wordplay that uses two different words that are spelt identically to deliver multiple meanings at once.
A rhyme is the repetition of syllables, usually at the end of a line in a poem. The different types of rhymes include Eye rhyme, End rhyme, Feminine rhyme, Identical rhyme, Internal rhyme, Masculine rhyme, Monorhyme, and Pararhyme.
A simile is a direct comparison made using the words ‘as’, ‘like’, or ‘than’.
A stanza is a group of lines that are separated from others in a poem. In prose writing, you would describe this as a paragraph marking a shift in time or mood.
Stress is used to describe a syllable uttered in a higher pitch, or with greater emphasis, than others.
Tone, or mood, refers to the poet’s attitude and is interpreted by the reader. A combination of things can affect tone such as vocabulary, syntax, language, rhyme and metric regularity or irregularity.
Verse is a line of poetry, typically used to refer to poetry that possesses more formal qualities.
So, there you have it – 25 of the most common literary terms used in the analysis of poetry. There are, of course, numerous more terms for you to brush up on, but think of this as a start… an introduction to poetry analysis!