Poetry Essay Assignment

The Big Picture

I want you to write an essay that analyzes how a particular poem’s form and content fit together: why does the author shape the text in this way and not some other way? After you’ve done some thinking and pre-writing, you’ll need to come up with a crystal-clear thesis and then support this claim with specific textual evidence and careful reasoning. Along the way, you’ll memorize a poem or a portion of the poem in order to help you internalize its form.

How to Write it

Find an interesting passage (I’ll define passage broadly so that it can be a couple of words or a couple of stanzas—ask me if you have any doubts) in one of the poems we’ve read, maybe a passage that you’ve already written about in one of your reflections. Think about the formal attributes of this section: metaphors, repeated words or images, word play, rhymes, word rhythms, etc. Be sure to use the online Oxford English Dictionary as you start to unpack the passage. How do these formal elements shape or determine the meaning of the passage? The answer to this question will be your working thesis.

Your essay should have an introduction that provides a context for your claim (what theme in the work as a whole does your essay clarify? What textual problem or apparent confusion does it answer?) At the end of this introduction, you should state your thesis very clearly and accurately. Organize your supporting evidence logically into manageable paragraphs, and begin each supporting paragraph with a topic sentence that a) states the claim of your paragraph, b) transitions from the previous paragraph, and c) connects the paragraph’s claim to your overall thesis. Within each paragraph, organize your supporting evidence and analytical reasoning clearly and use precise language formed into polished sentences (i.e. revise and proofread your essay carefully).

You must also memorize the poem that you write about. If it’s a longer poem, one of Whitman’s, for instance, then you may memorize a relevant section, at least 15 lines in length. If you are not memorizing the whole poem, you must talk with me and we can discuss which section to memorize.


The essay should be between 950 and 1100 words long. You may either find me at the end of class or set up a time to meet in my office and recite your poem to me. You must recite your poem before the essay is due with only one prompt or correction from me. I will not grade your essay until you have quoted your poem to me.

I would very much like to discuss your essay ideas or drafts with you at any stage, so don’t hesitate to set up a time to talk with me.