Tie up all the things you’ve learned this semester:
Obviously, not all those points apply to every poem choice. Pick a poem you want to tackle, then dig for what of those four points you think you can address. Rearrange them in your essay so you have an introduction that invites readers to be interested. Make some points for readers to consider, then wrap up the essay with something we readers should remember about your poem choice–and maybe you can find a twist of thinking for readers: a bit of the author’s own words on the poem? a bit of world history that applies? something happening today that could have easily been the same sort of subject?
One warning, poetry tempts writers into including moral lessons. Be careful not to tell us what we must learn from the poem you write about. Describe it fully, analyze what is there, and avoid what isn’t. If you do that well, a reader can see the lesson to be learned without you needing to tell us what to think.
√ Checklist: Getting Ideas for Writing Arguments about Poems
If you are going to write about a short poem (say, under thirty lines), it’s not a bad idea to copy out the poem, writing or typing it double-spaced. By writing it out you will be forced to notice detail, down to the punctuation. After you have copied the poem, proofread it carefully against the original. Catching and error—even the addition or omission of a comma—may help you to notice a detail in the original that you might otherwise have overlooked. And now that you have the poem with ample space between the lines, you have a worksheet with room for jottings.
A good essay is based on a genuine response to a poem; a response may be stimulated in part by first reading the poem aloud and then considering the following questions.
o What was your response to the poem on first reading? Did some parts especially please or displease you, or puzzle you? After some study—perhaps checking the meanings of some words in a dictionary and reading the poem several times—did you modify your initial response to the parts and to the whole?
Speaker and Tone
o Who is the speaker? (Consider age, sex, personality, frame of mind, and tone of voice.) Is the speaker defined precisely (for instance, an older woman speaking to a child), or is the speaker simply a voice meditating? (Jot down your first impressions, then reread the poem and make further jottings, if necessary.)
o Do you think the speaker is fully aware of what he or she is saying, or does the speaker unconsciously reveal his or her personality and values? What is your attitude toward this speaker?
o Is the speaker narrating or reflecting on an earlier experience or attitude? If so, does he or she convey a sense of new awareness, such as of regret for innocence lost?
o To whom is the speaker speaking? What is the situation (including time and place)? (in some poems, a listener is strongly implied, but in others, especially those in which the speaker is meditating, there may be no audience other than the reader, who “overhears” the speaker.)
Structure and Form
o Does the poem proceed in a straightforward way, or at some point or points does the speaker reverse course, altering his or her tone or perception? If there is a shift, what do you make of it?
o Is the poem organized into sections? If so, what are these sections—stanzas, for instance—and how does each section (characterized, perhaps, by a certain tone of voice, or a group of rhymes) grow out of what precedes it?
o What is the effect on you of the form—say, quatrains (stanzas for four lines) or blank verse (unrhymed lines of then syllables)? If the sense overflows the form, running without pause form (for example) one quatrain into the next, what effects is created?
Center of Interest and Theme
o What is the poem about? Is the interest chiefly in a distinctive character, or in meditation? That is, is the poem chiefly psychological or chiefly philosophical?
o Is the theme stated explicitly (directly) or implicitly? How might you state the theme in a sentence?
o Do certain words have rich and relevant associations that relate to other words and help to define the speaker or the theme or both?
o What is the role of figurative language, if any? Does it help to define the speaker or the theme?
o What do you think is to be taken figuratively or symbolically, and what literally?
o What is the role of sound effects, including repetitions of sound (for instance, alliteration) and of entire words, and shifts in versification?
o If there are off-rhymes (for instance “dizzy” and “easy,” or “home” and “come”), what effects do they have on you? Do they, for instance, add a note of tentativeness or uncertainty?
o If there are unexpected stresses or pauses, what do they communicate about the speaker’s experience? How do the affect you?
Anne Sexton (1928-74) was born in Newton, Massachusetts. She was a member of a well-educated New England family but did not attend college. After the birth of her second child she suffered a mental breakdown, and for much of the rest of her life she was under psychiatric care, indeed, a psychiatrist encouraged her to write poetry, and she was soon able to publish in national journals such as the New Yorker. Despite her success, she continued to suffer mentally, and in 1974 she committed suicide.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light;
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite,
I have been her kind. 5
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: 10
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at the villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind. 20
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