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People have been composing and sharing poems since before we had writing. And though there's no way to know for sure (unless someone invents a working time machine), it would not be surprising if it turned out that poetry is as old as language itself.
Because of its great age, then, poetry is an important form of writing to understand--especially if you want to write it. In fact, even if you want to write fiction or non-fiction prose, it can be useful to know something about poetry because it can help make you aware of how you use language and in so doing, it can make you a better writer, whatever you write.
Even if you have no interest in writing, poetry is important because it has been a form of human cultural expression for so long. And, on a purely practical level, understanding how poetry works and how to analyze it will get you though your required schoolwork. The more you understand it (or can fake that you understand it) the more you'll impress your teachers and the better your grades will be.
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At its most basic level, writing poetry is really just stringing words together in a way that complements whatever it is you're trying to say in your poem. But the better you understand how the different tools and structures of poetry work, the more effectively you'll be able to use them in your own writing.
If you want to write poetry (or even prose), these articles were written for you, but don't stop here. All of the articles in this guide will be useful for you, because the more you know about poems and how they work--whether its your own writing or someone else's--the more effective you will be with words, however you choose to use them.
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Understanding Poetry: Sound, Rhythm and Image
There are many different tools and techniques that poets can make use of when they write. Some of those tools are focused on the sound of the poem, whether it's the actual sounds formed by the letters and syllables and words, or the way those sounds are arranged to create rhythm and meter. When poetry is read aloud, these techniques literally create the way the poem sounds to an audience. Other techniques may serve to create a mental image for the reader to enhance the meaning visually.
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There are other techniques in poetry, often called "poetic devices," that may not have anything to do with the way a poem sounds, but instead relate to the meaning the words carry. Because poetic devices offer a means to add meaning beyond the surface definition of the words and create understanding between the poet and the reader, they are vital to understand if you are to gain a real sense of how poetry works or what an individual poem is saying.
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Types of Poems and Movements
Over the years since humans developed language, we have created may different kinds of poems. Sometimes types of poems are based on very strict use of rhyme, meter and other techniques and devices. As literature developed, various movements or schools of literature, including poetry, also developed--these might be based on a particular philosophical view or a preference for certain subject matter that were popular at the time.
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Poetry analysis is often the basis for teaching literature in the classroom. If you've been to school, you've probably had to study some form of literature, and your teacher has almost certainly demonstrated the analysis of poetry or even asked you to do it. It can seem like a daunting task, but if you've looked at the way poets use language and you make an effort to understand some the things that might have been happening in history at the time the poet was writing, you've already got an edge.
Now you just have to lean how to put together an analysis. Have a look and the next few sections, too, for some examples of well-known poems and their analyses.
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15th to 18th Century Poetry
If you study the poetry analyses listed here, you'll soon see how poetry analysis in general is done, and you'll be able to apply it to any other poems you encounter. Because the date at which a poem was written, and the events that were happening at the time, can have a significant effect on the way the poet viewed the world, used language, and chose a subject to write about, the next few sections are divided according to broad time periods. That ought to make it a little easier for you to find a specific poem or poet, too (within each section, you'll find the articles listed by the alphabetical order of the poet's last name).
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19th Century Poetry
Love, death, the natural world, and a nostalgia for the past were all significant themes in the poetry of the nineteenth century. They're big topics for poetry in general, but they seemed to assume extra significance for the poets of the nineteenth century. These poets and poems are also some of the most commonly studied in English literature classes.
- Analysis of Emily Dickinson's Love Poems
- Analysis of Emily Dickinson's Nature Poems
- Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson
- Analysis of the Odes of John Keats
- Analysis of the Sonnets of John Keats
- Analysis of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats
- Analysis of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats
- Analysis of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats
- Analysis of "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe
- Analysis of "Eldorado" by Edgar Allan Poe
- Symbolism in "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe
- Analysis of "I Hear America Singing" and "Beat! Beat! Drums!" by Walt Whitman
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20th and 21st Century
The closer we get to our own times, the more individualistic the subjects of poetry seem to become. In addition, fewer and fewer poets were interested in the strict forms of earlier times and more free verse poetry became the norm. This can sometimes make it more difficult to analyze more contemporary poems, because universal themes are expressed in more specific, individual terms instead of broad, general language.
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Whether you want to be a poet or just pass your end-of-term literature exams, reading poetry is essential. And one of the best ways to learn how to do something is to see how other people do it, figure out why they do it that way and then try it for yourself. Poetry is no exception. To learn how to write poetry well, read a lot of poems, learn about poetic devices and how they work, and then write, write, write.
Learning how to analyze poems is much the same: read a lot of poems, read analyses of those poems by other people--including analyses of the same poem by different people--and then try analyzing some poems yourself. Once you figure out how it's done, your English literature assignments won't seem so daunting anymore and you'll be able to impress your teachers and get good grades.
- McArthur, Tom (editor). The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford UP, 1992.