A lot of students are expected to write a literary essay based on appreciation of poetry. To make the task enjoyable we need to define poetry. What is poetry? Edmund Clarence Stedman said the following: “Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion, and insight of the human soul.”
Poetry is the creativity of a person’s imagination. Like any other literary work, it needs to be understood to be appreciated. The writer writes for a reason. His purpose may be to evoke emotion, inform, define, represent something of the world or life, entertain … Whatever the case, a poem is unique to its writer. And each poem can be analyzed to be appreciated. Here are some general ideas to help you understand the poem you are reading:
- Subject: Try to outline the subject matter of the poem. You need to look at what is being described. It could be a place, an event, a person, a situation or an experience. What does the poet want you to focus on, in the poem or in each stanza?
- Theme: Once you have identified the subject of the poem, try and figure out what the poet wants to tell you. Look at the following: the poet’s message; his purpose; ideas that he is conveying; the title; and the type of poem (i.e. sonnet, ballad, lyrical, reflective, monologue, elegy, narrative, descriptive, a combination of different types). Always remember that feeling and tone work hand-in-hand with the subject and theme.
- Structure: The form of the poem is very important. By now, you should know what kind of poem you are dealing with: e.g. ballad, epic, ode, sonnet, dramatic monologue, elegy, etc. Discuss your knowledge of the poem’s structure in the essay
- Rhythm: Look at the flow of the poem through the line patterns. Are they regular or irregular? If they are regular, does the metre stay the same throughout the poem? (Metre: pattern of rhythmic beats per line; stressed and unstressed words that make up the rhythm of the poem, indicating pace, e.g. slow or fast.) If there are changes to the metre, analyse where the changes are. Try to find the reason for the change. What effect does this change have on the poem?
- Rhyme: Does the poem have a set scheme? Has the poet written in free verse, blank verse; does he use pair rhyme, cross rhyme, or broken rhyme? Does he use half rhyme, near rhyme, middle rhyme or end rhyme? Does the poet emphasise words or the message by means of the rhyme scheme? What is the purpose and effect of the rhyme scheme? Pausing and punctuation have an effect on the structure, rhythm and rhyme of a poem.
- Imagery: There are various ways to paint a picture in the reader’s mind through the use of words. Look at the figurative and sound devices used in the poem. Are the images visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile, olfactory or gustatory?
- Diction: The words that are used and the way they are placed can enhance the power of the poet’s creativity. Remember inversion, hyperbole, euphemism, irony, sarcasm, rhetorical questions and other poetic techniques that can bring meaning to the poem. When you are writing your essay, you only need to mention imagery, figurative and sound devices, as well as diction; you need not explain why the poet has used the technique or whether it is effective or not.
- General Impression: Give your opinion of the poem in general and what effect it has had on you. Did you like it or not? Remember to use quotation marks when you are quoting from the poem.
As you read and appreciate more poetry, you will discover that the study of poetry is educationally fulfilling. Once you start to understand poems, you will be enriched in so many ways. Poetry enhances character. Keep on trying. Success lies first and foremost in the love for literature, and then it can be found in the understanding and interpretation of texts.