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FIRST YEAR ENGLISH: POETRY (2002-3)

Writing About Poetry in Essays and Exams (TF)

1. Your first paragraph should spell out your overall understanding of the poem. Then go on to discuss how particular details/features fit into your general interpretation.

2. It's often best to begin with speech situation and tone, and/or to identify the poem's genre and how it employs or breaks with generic conventions.

3. The order in which the poem is written is usually significant - it may involve a dramatic unfolding of meaning or experience. Your analysis can follow this order, but it's often helpful to move backwards and forwards through the poem.

4. Remember that you are writing for a reader - your essay needs to make sense to that reader and to convince him/her that your interpretation is a valid one (by quoting evidence).

5. Don't rely too much on summary or paraphrase: quote from the poem and analyse what you have quoted in order to show how it contributes to your overall interpretation/argument.

6. Trust what the poem says: don't assume, without good evidence, that the poem must mean something other than what it says. Avoid importing your own fantasies into the poem.

7. If something in a poem can be understood literally, then take account of that literal meaning and only then consider whether it can also be understood as metaphorical or symbolic.

8. Focus on interesting metaphors, allusions etc; try to show how they contribute to meaning, tone, effect.

9. There is little point merely stating that a poem uses particular formal features/devices of sound (eg, alliteration, blank verse): try to show how that feature/device contributes to meaning or effect in this particular poem. If you can't see any connection between form and meaning then don't try to force or invent a connection. In last week's tutorial we noted several formal features in Brown's Sonnet XX, but only the use of double syntax (through the split across lines of 'tender-ness') seems to relate to meaning effect.

10. Phrases like 'When I first read this poem, I thought' and 'on my second reading, however...' are of little interest unless they reveal some feature of the poem itself (eg, ambiguity).

11 Don't waste time on generalisations about poetry or information about poet or celebrations of the poem.

Example Analysis: 'The Rabbit Catcher' (Sylvia Plath, 1965)

It was a place of force -
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.                                      5

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.                                 10

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into the hollow.
And the snares almost effaced themselves -
Zeroes, shutting on nothing,                                            15

Set close, like birth pangs.
The absence of shrieks
Made a hole in the hot day, a vacancy.
The glassy light was a clear wall,
The thickets quiet.                                                          20

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china,
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.             25

And we, too, had a relationship -
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.                                      30


[Introduction: General summary/speech situation/genre]

The speaker of Sylvia Plath's 'The Rabbit Catcher' (1965) is a woman who sees her 'relationship' (24) with her ex-lover as analogous to that between rabbits and the rabbit catcher of the title. The poem is an interior monologue that records the speaker's thoughts and feelings as she moves through a rural landscape towards the rabbit catcher.

[Beginning of detailed analysis]

At the beginning of the poem she seems to be in a windswept place overlooking the sea:

It was a place of force -
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights ... (1-4)

[Analysis of quotation] The way the woman describes the effects of the wind and sea indicates that she is feeling under duress. The metaphor of the wind 'gagging' her mouth with her own hair personifies the wind as an aggressive, constrictive force that is trying to kill her. In this context, the dead metaphor of the sea 'blinding' her 'with its lights' becomes reanimated, suggesting that the sea, like the wind, is violently attacking her. These metaphors can be interpreted as instances of the speaker projecting her feelings onto aspects of the landscape in a way that indicates her extreme state of mind.

[Continuation of detailed analysis] The speaker's need to escape from this 'place of force' is indicated in the realisation that 'There was only one place to get to' (11). Yet this place of apparent safety turns out to be equally threatening: 'Simmering, perfumed, /The paths narrowed into the hollow' (12-13). This hollow is set with snares and its 'glassy light' is described as 'a clear wall' (19) - a metaphor that indicates the speaker's sense of being shut in or trapped. In this 'simmering, perfumed' place, the speaker senses the presence of the rabbit catcher waiting for his prey:

I felt a still busyness, an intent.
I felt hands round a tea mug, dull, blunt,
Ringing the white china,
How they awaited him, those little deaths!
They waited like sweethearts. They excited him. (21-25)

The disturbing image of the 'hands round a tea mug ... / Ringing the white china' suggests that the rabbit catcher is eagerly anticipating wringing the necks of the rabbits. The following lines reveal the speaker's sense that the rabbit catcher experiences a strange sexual excitement in the killing of rabbits: 'How they awaited him, those little deaths!/They waited like sweethearts. They excited him.'

[Conclusion – closure?] In the last stanza the speaker sees a parallel between the rabbit catcher's relationship to the rabbits and her ex-lover's relationship with her:

And we, too, had a relationship -
Tight wires between us,
Pegs too deep to uproot, and a mind like a ring
Sliding shut on some quick thing,
The constriction killing me also.

The use of end rhyme for the only time in the poem seems to emphasise her lover's efficient cruelty: 'a mind like a ring / sliding shut on some quick thing.' The final revelation that she experiences this relationship as a 'killing' 'constriction' retrospectively accounts for the almost hysterical tone of the whole poem. Yet the fact that the poem is a past tense narrative ('It was a place of force'; 'we had a relationship') leaves us wondering about the outcome of the speaker's precipitous journey through the landscape into the rabbit catcher's domain.

Exercise: 'Identi-kit' (Veronica Forrest-Thomson, 1967)

Love is the oldest camera.
Snap me with your eyes.
Wearied with myself I want
a picture that simplifies.

Likeness is not important               5
provided the traits cohere.
Dissolve doubts and contradictions
to leave the exposure clear.

Erase shadows and negative
that confuse the tired sight.             10
Develop as conclusive definition
a pattern of black and white.

For I wish to see me reassembled
in that dark-room of your mind.


(1) Read and reread this poem until you feel that you understanding it (it may help to underline or highlight words or phrases and to make notes in the margin).

(2) Write a short paragraph (employing paraphrase and short quotations) that articulates your understanding of the whole poem (including some comment on the poem's speech situation).

(3) In a second paragraph identify the most important and revealing features of the poem (tone, metaphor, ambiguity, metre, rhyme, etc). Quote examples and say why they are important in the poem and/or contribute to your interpretation.

(4) In a third paragraph, sum up what insights about the poem your analysis has led you to.

Swap your 'essay' with that of someone sitting next to you. Read your neighbour's essay.

Does it successfully carry out the requirements of (2) to (4)?

Does it lead to an insightful and interesting reading of the poem?

Are you convinced by what he/she says about the poem?

What do you like about your neighbour's essay?

Do you have any helpful criticisms to make?

Compare and contrast your interpretations of the poem.

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