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English Composition 2

Essay Assignment 2: Analysis of a Poem

Wednesday, February 15: Draft of at least 700 words due for peer critique.

Friday, February 24: Revised Draft of at least 1000 words due

The Assignment

For Essay Assignment 2, you need to write an essay of at least 1000 words that helps readers understand one of the following poems: 

These poems may not have much in common thematically, but I think they are good poems that will be interesting subjects for essays. And all four of the poems seem to tell us something important about life. Make sure to read the poems repeatedly, looking up any words that you do not understand and doing your best to understand the meaning conveyed in the poems.

You can assume that your audience has read but has not studied the poem you are analyzing, so you should not simply summarize the literal level of the poem. Instead, you should give your audience an interpretation of the poem, some insightful explanation of the poem that will help your audience understand its meaning and significance.

Your essay should follow the conventions of MLA documentation. After each quotation from the poem, include a parenthetical citation of the line number(s), for the quotation, "like this" (12-13). Do not cite the page number(s). See "Quoting Poetry Correctly" below for more information. You also need to include a separate "Work Cited" page listing publication information for the poem. The sample essay on pages 497-500 demonstrates the correct way to cite your source and how to prepare the "Work Cited" page. (But note than we are using the 9th edition of the textbook, not the 7th edition, as in the sample "Work Cited" page.)

Make sure to read the assigned chapters of the textbook carefully. The chapters should give you a good sense of how to interpret, analyze, and write about a poem. Remember as well that the first three chapters of the textbook provide valuable information about writing essays.

We will discuss all three poems, and our discussions should give you good ideas that you might explore in more depth in your essay. Feel free to use some of the ideas suggested by other members of the class, but be careful not to plagiarize from others. Plagiarism would occur if you copied sentences or phrases from other class members and presented them as your own in your essay. On the other hand, if other class members bring up ideas about a poem that you think are interesting or insightful, feel free to use these ideas as a starting point, presenting them in your own way and examining them in more depth in your essay.

Interpreting Poetry

Important: because your paper will analyze a poem, you must identify and explain some of the "poetic" elements of the poem, such as images, metaphors, similes, personification, symbols, and connotative meanings. Of course, you do not need to explain all of these elements in each poem. All of the elements might not even appear in the poem you are analyzing, but your essay must include explanation of some of these elements of poetry and the meanings they convey. It's best to organize your essay based on ideas expressed in the poem, not based on the use of particular poetic elements in the poem (a body paragraph on the metaphors, for example, probably would not be a good idea), but you should explain how the ideas you identify are conveyed by the poetic elements in the poem.

On page 464 of the textbook, we have "Critical Questions for Reading Poetry." These questions should help you find aspects of the poem you could explain in your essay. Whatever approach you take, make sure that you can support your interpretation with specific evidence from the story. In other words, your paper must be both analytical and persuasive: you should analyze the story but also argue your interpretation with plenty of specific evidence from the story itself. You will not convince readers that you have a good interpretation unless you demonstrate that your interpretation is well supported by the facts, by the details of the story.

Note especially the good advice on page 15 of the textbook: "Devise a thesis that makes its point by relating some aspect of the work to the meaning of the whole--that is, to its theme." You should analyze and interpret different aspects of the poem, but your entire essay should be well focused on one thesis. The entire essay should focus on what you think is a main "message" of the poem, with your explanation of the specifics of the poem helping you support and develop your overall interpretation.

Some people seem to think that poems, more than any other literary form, can mean just about anything that we want them to mean, but this is not true. A few years back, on an exam in an American literature course, I responded to a student's written interpretation of an Emily Dickinson poem by saying that I did not think the student was interpreting the poem correctly. In class, she asked, "How can my interpretation be wrong if it's my interpretation?" Other students said, "Yeah!" The answer to her question is really simple: the interpretation is "wrong," or at least weak, if it is not supported by evidence in the poem itself. Claiming ownership of an interpretation ("but it's my interpretation") does nothing to strengthen the interpretation. If it did, we could come up with crazy interpretations of poems or anything else, and, as long as we say, "but it's my interpretation," then the interpretations would suddenly be just as "right" as any other interpretation and free from any criticism.

Just as you needed to support your interpretation of the stories for Essay 1, you need to support your interpretation of a poem with specific evidence from the poem. And, again as with Essay 1, your interpretation of a poem must be both analytical and persuasive: you should analyze the poem but also argue your interpretation with specific evidence from the poem itself. You will not convince readers that you have a good interpretation unless you demonstrate that your interpretation is well supported by facts, by the details of the poem.

(Note: The textbook authors discuss "responsive" writing and "critical" writing in reference to poems. The kind of writing we do in this class is critical writing.)

The main difference between interpreting poems and interpreting stories is that the meanings of poems are often presented in more subtle ways. While stories can be highly symbolic and highly metaphoric, the authors of stories typically use more words than poets do to convey their meaning. This means that individual words in poems might convey much meaning. The often heavy use of figurative language in poems also helps poets convey much meaning with just a few words.

Use a Dictionary

Students sometimes enter the classroom complaining that they did not understand a poem at all, and, when I ask them about the definitions of individual words in the poem, some students tell me that they do not know what the words mean. Common sense should tell us that one of the first steps in understanding a poem is understanding the meanings of words in the poem.

Of course, you should look up words that you do not know. You should also look up words that you know but that might convey a meaning with which you are not familiar. Poets are experts on words, and several different definitions of a single word might be significant to the meaning of a poem.

Quoting Poetry Correctly

For the most part, when you quote from a poem, you should follow the conventions of quoting explained on the Integrating Quotations into Sentences web handout. However, there are also a few quoting conventions that are unique to poetry, including the citation of line numbers instead of page numbers and the use of a forward slash ( / ) to indicate a line break. Make sure to read pages 511-513 ("Quoting Poetry in Essays") of the textbook carefully so that you understand the conventions for quoting poetry.

Note that the final punctuation of a sentence goes after the parenthetical citation, not before it, "like this" (34). And note that there always should be one space before the parenthetical citation: this is "right" (34); this is "wrong"(34). Once you put quotation marks around words from the poem, make sure that the words in the quotation marks appear in your paper exactly as they appear in the poem.

Make sure than none of the quotations in your paper is standing by itself. You should make every quotation a part of one of your own sentences. Please refer to the first part of the Integrating Quotations into Sentences web page for ways to integrate quotations into your own sentences.


Please just ask if you have any questions!

This page was last updated on Thursday, June 06, 2013. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2012.