The Poetry Analysis Essay Assignment

The Poetry Analysis Essay: Suggestions and Common Errors

1.      Review “Major Stages in Thinking and Writing About Literature” beginning on page 19 in the text as well as the elements of poetry in “Part III, Reading and Writing About Poetry.”  Note, with my exceptions, “Writing a Research Essay on Poetry,” page 1222.

2. Length: Three to five pages.  This is the suggested amount of development, not the number of pages to be filled.

3. Choices: You must write about the work of a poet who is listed on the course schedule, but you should not analyze a poem that we have already analyzed in class or one that we may at some point analyze in class.

Hint: papers by students who have spent little time researching the work of the writer they’ve selected are apparent to good readers within the first paragraph most of the time.  Ethos begins low, and the grade on the paper will be below average.   If you choose the most conveniently accessed poem, you’re only making your life more difficult.

4.      The analysis is not a paraphrase or summary of the poem’s argument, circumstance or plot.  Summaries neither lend insight nor illuminate possible inferences, two purposes of analysis.  For example, to say, “Bart Edelman’s poem ‘Chemistry Experiment’ is about a chemistry experiment that goes wrong for some college students.  He talks about the smoke, describing it as a ‘black rope of smoke.’”  Such regurgitation does not serve the reader.

This is not to say that you cannot paraphrase the poem to call the reader to the moments or ideas you wish to analyze.  This is only to say that a paper which only paraphrases or summarizes is not fulfilling the assignment or the purpose of the assignment, to train you to think critically about the text and learn to articulate clearly your critical thoughts.

5.      Analysis is not a reader reaction.  Reader reactions are just that: a reader’s emotional, casually considered reaction to a work.  Such reactions range from, “This poem was weird,” or, “This poet’s an idiot.  He makes no sense,” to, “Edelman writes a wonderful poem about some college students who almost blow themselves up in chemistry class.  The line, ‘With the hazardous waste crew,’ shows how serious the accident was.”

None of the previous comments lend the reader a compelling interpretation of the poem.  Relevant interpretations, which when supported with evidence are analysis, offer insight into how the poem is working, why it is significant beyond what we see on the surface, or reveal the instructional value of the poem, the wisdom we might take from it.

A good draft of an analysis of this poem might begin, “Bart Edelman’s poem ‘Chemistry Experiment’ illustrates just that, a chemistry experiment in a college classroom, to symbolize the seeming trauma of becoming an adult, especially in matters of romance.”

6.      The poem you are analyzing will not organize your paper for you.  Very often, novice writers will commit what we will refer to in this class as the Quote and Comment method, which is when the writer quotes or paraphrases a line from the poem being “analyzed,” comments on it, then quotes the next line and comments on it, and so on.  It’s nearly impossible to organize a paper into useful paragraphs using this method, and most writers who do employ it don’t even bother to organize.  The method is easy on the writer and hard on the reader.  Other than someone who’s being paid to grade the paper, few readers would endure more than the two paragraphs of this sort of essay.

7.      A draft of a clear, focused, organized analysis is significantly more difficult to write when you have not already brainstormed general ideas and, afterward, drafted a rough outline of the ideas that might work.  The more time you spend refining your outline, the more manageable your paper will be during the drafting process.  You want to have a sense of how your paper should be organized and what your supporting details will be before you begin writing.  Otherwise, you will find yourself frustrated and lost in your own paper.

8.      Research is not required for this first paper, but it is encouraged and it will be rewarded.  Any consulted sources used in the paper must be cited in MLA format.  See the text and Diana Hacker’s website for MLA citations in The Bedford Guide on line.

9.      Just as poetry creates poets and novels breed novelists, the best way to develop an understanding of a good analysis is to spend time reading good models.  Included here are the authors whose works are the subject of good poetry analyses written by students and the first pages on which they appear in our text: Edwin Arlington Robinson, 703; Robert Browning, 746; John Masefield, 782; Sharon Olds, 866; George Herbert, 964; Mary Oliver, 1006.


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