Analyzing a Poem to Articulate Its Theme

ENGL 201: Formal Paper #2


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Analyzing a Poem to Articulate Its Theme


4+ pp, due Tuesday, Nov. 10


For this assignment, you are to produce a formal academic essay in which you explain/argue for your interpretation of a poem’s THEME through carefully analyzing its literary elements.     As with your short story analysis, I will provide you with a list to choose from.


Your essay shouldbegin by spelling out, in a thesis statement, your best understanding of the meaning/message/idea/insight the author seems to want to communicate to readers via the poem.  Body paragraphs should support yourclaimby analyzingkey literary elements we have studied in this unit (levels of diction, concrete imagery, figures of speech, denotations/connotations of words, closed/open form), explaining their effects on readers and their role in the poem, showing how the elements work together to produce your understanding of the author’s meaning.


This assignment is analogous to your first essay in which you analyzed the theme of a short story.  Most of the feedback you received on that essay will remain applicable to this paper, though the literary elements will be different.


You may organize the body of your paper according to a chronological reading of the lines, or bythevarious poetic elements. In either case you should include some discussion of the form of the poem, whether it is closed or open.  You need not discuss every single word.  Rather, you should think carefully about which words, phrases, and poetic elements seem most important to arrive at a careful understanding of the specific poem you have selected.


Make use of the textbook I asked you to order for class.  Any edition of Norton’s Introduction to Literature textbooks will have sections on writing about literature generally, and writing about poems specifically, and will include examples of student essays to help guide you.


In addition, here are a few online resources for producing poetry analysis papers:




A few paper-writing tips:


  • Do take the time to go through very slowly and work out all of the separate sentences in the poem and make sure you follow what they say. Consider the slow work we did in class on “My Last Duchess,” in order to translate into contemporary terms some of the old-fashioned language, and to pause to picture the scene, and bring to your mind’s eye who is speaking to whom, and what the situation is, etc.


  • Do take time to read your selected poem out loud, several times, to get the hang of how it is put together, and to figure out how it sounds. Think of it a little bit like music — what is its rhythm?  Where do the sentences start and stop (if there are sentences)?  Think of how I paused when reading the poem about the swan out loud, to figure out how the phrases worked because there was no punctuation.


  • Do look up any and all words whose meaning you are not 100% absolutely sure of! Even if you think you know all the words, look at possible multiple definitions or connotations of any that seem to get special attention or emphasis in the context of the poem.


  • Do include direct quotes of words and phrases from the poem in order to explain what you understand them to mean. Quoting is not plagiarizing; the poem is the core sample, the blood sample, the raw data, the case study, we are seeking to understand.


  • Do use your textbook’s resources for writing about literature. I had you purchase a textbook for a few reasons—this is one of the main ones!  Don’t just shoot from the hip in the dark and see what happens.  There are literally examples of student essays in there to use as a model.


  • Do not waste space flattering the poet (“Shakespeare is brilliant in hisuse of metaphors”). Rather, focus on showing and explaining to your reader how the poem works in order to produce its unique effects and meaning (“Shakespeare uses metaphor X in order to suggest…”).  A strong literary analysis will demonstrate the excellence of the poet and poem without having to declare it.


  • Do not write your whole paper without using any of the literary terms we have studied. Demonstrating your knowledge of how we talk about literature in the academic discipline is one of the key goals of this assignment.


Do not include information about your thinking process, or your writing process, as part of the content of your paper.  Focus always on argumentation—on explaining to your reader what you understand the poem’s meaning to be

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