Useful Guidelines on How to Write a Good Poetry Essay

Poetry and its effect are tailored to the individual: nearly everyone takes something different away from a poem, even if the takeaway is, “Well that’s a load of nothing.” So, if you’ve been assigned an essay on a poem or on poetry, it’s probably because your teacher or instructor wants you to learn how to express your thoughts on paper about something you’ve read.

While reflecting on poetry can be a little intimidating, the sheer complexity of good poetry ensures that the number of approaches you could take to writing about it is never-ending. There are myriad ways to go about examining a poem via essay.

Write about the theme

Even the most obscure poetry usually has a theme, or what the poet generally means to “discuss.” Sometimes it’s immediately apparent, and other times the poem acts like a puzzle whose solution turns out to be the theme. Think about what you’re reading as you’re reading it in order to identify what, to you, seems to be what the poet is talking about.

  • What does the poem generally seem to address? Is it about love, grief, happiness, and a cat?
  • Are there any secondary themes you can pinpoint? How do any of those relate to or support the most obvious theme overall?
  • What concept or concepts did the writer mean to convey?

Write about how the poem is actually written

There are myriad ways in which to write a poem, all sorts of styles and structures and forms. Sometimes a poet writes in his style because it’s just what’s most comfortable to him, but sometimes the style itself is relevant to the theme (for example, a balanced, perfectly rhymed poem might speak to a theme of constriction.)

  • Pay attention to rhyme schemes and meter. Are there patterns? Are they related to the theme of the poem, or just a means to an end? Why?
  • Where applicable, does the layout of the poem speak to any themes therein? And how?

Write about wording, plays on words, and figures of speech

Poetry is colorful by nature and chock full of literary devices. Select even just a few from the poem at hand and discuss them at length.

  • Metaphors tend to be abundant in poetry. Identify a few and remark on them. Do they honor the overall theme of the poem? What does each one mean to you (how do you interpret it)?
  • How did figures of speech affect what the poem meant to you?

Reflect on cultural context at the time the poem was written

For older poems, sometimes they don’t make a whole lot of sense without some context, or even if they do make sense they become richer with context. The whole of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, is basically just one really long poem, and it’s beautiful on its own, but with context is just overabundant with references to political figures of his time.

  • Does the poet reference any person or event occurring as of when the poem was written? If so, what does the poet’s commentary on that matter seem to be?

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