Tips for Writing a Poem Analysis

By March 11, 2015Writing about Writing

When I was assigned a poem analysis paper in my ENG 220 class, I had no idea where to begin. After all, I was only a freshman taking my prerequisites for my English major for the first time. My professor said that we could pick ANY POEM out of our textbook, Poems, Poets, Poetry by Helen Vendler. Since I was new to poetry and writing about poetry, I figured it would be a good idea to browse through the book and read a few poems until I found one that was interesting.

After browsing through a bunch of poems, I stumbled upon “America” by Allen Ginsberg. I had never read anything by Ginsberg before, but I had heard of him. I read the poem to myself out loud because I believe that poetry is to be read aloud, not silently read. Without even digging below the surface level, the words just sounded good to me, especially the repetition of “America.” I also picked up on a few of the historical references to the United States, and it interested me. So, I chose it for my analysis paper. Here are the steps I recommend for writing a poem analysis paper:

Step 1

I recommend reading through the poem the first time just to get a feel for it. What is the poet saying? Do you notice any repetition? What is confusing? Most importantly, write down your first impression of the poem, something you can mention later in your essay if you wish. After that, read the poem a second time to get a better understanding of it. Did your impression change? Write down any questions that you have while you are reading through the poem. Ask yourself, “what’s going on here?”

Step 2

In order to help you get an understanding of the poem, I suggest trying to translate each line of the poem, or at least do the best you can. I literally read a line of poetry, and then I write in the margin what I think the line is trying to say. I find this helps me with things such as the plot, mood shifts, and anything that I find interesting. If you are not sure, write down the first thing that comes to mind! It will help later on when you are comparing your final understanding to your initial one.

Step 3

Write down ALL ideas about what the poem might mean. Remember to think of all ideas as valid and applicable. Don’t make assumptions; pay attention to the language! Look for metaphors, similes, and figures of speech.

Step 4

In writing your introduction, I suggest talking about your first impression of what the poem was like for you. How did that change as you reread the poem? Did you end up understanding the poem or changing your view of it? Let the reader know what kind of questions you asked yourself while you were reading the poem because it will help them when they go on to read poems and write about them. If you feel it is relevant to talk a bit about the author’s background information, go ahead! As long as you think it will assist the reader in their understanding of the poem, feel free to mention it.

Step 5

When writing your body paragraphs, I recommend talking about both the literal meaning of the poem or specific lines, and also what you think it means on a deeper level. Not only does this show your initial, literal understanding of the poem, but also it shows your thought process and how you analyzed the poem.

Things to think about talking about in body paragraphs: alliteration, assonance, consonance, meter, rhyme, structure, outer and inner structural forms, tone, and plot.

Step 6

Last but not least, the conclusion paragraph! What have you learned from analyzing the poem? Why do you think the poet wrote the poem? Were your initial questions answered while you were writing the paper?

Once you are finished with your first draft, feel free to schedule an appointment at the UCWbL! There are tons of people here that love poetry and would be more than willing to help!

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Andrew D. says:

    I think these steps are incredibly helpful for not just writing a poetry essay analysis, but also providing writers with written-feedback. I think this post really tackles the complexities of poetry, and how it really can be helpful — if not, necessary — to read a poem multiple times through. It’s also fascinating how a poem’s meaning to an individual can shift in the span of a few minutes. I feel this aspect really makes the medium unique, whereas, in a short story or novel, getting a new meaning from a piece could take much more time and effort. I’ll certainly keep these notes in mind! Thanks for the post. 🙂

  • Emily Power says:

    As a student who analyzes poetry for class and a tutor who comments on poetry analyses at the UCWbL, I personally found this post very helpful 🙂 There are a lot of things to observe and learn from in every poem, and this can get overwhelming when you’re approaching an analysis. These steps make it seem less intimidating! I appreciate the emphasis you put on rereading. Although it seems like a simple and obvious way to get familiar with the text, I think writers can often overlook this step in order to get to writing their paper. I also like that you offer specific topics writers might focus their body paragraphs on. Thanks Alex A!