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How to Paraphrase a Poem


When you paraphrase a poem, use your own words to explain the major ideas line-by-line. Paraphrasing isn't the same as explicating or analyzing a poem. The goal is to rephrase the ideas in your own words without evaluating or addressing the author's hidden messages or underlying themes. A paraphrased poem is a literal translation in regular prose without rhyme or meter.

Create a Literal Translation

Read the entire poem once or twice to get a broad understanding of the storyline, characters and setting. Then, break the poem down word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase or line-by-line to paraphrase. Read a line or a stanza, look away from the poem and think about what the author is literally saying. Translate the words by restating them in a new way, using common, everyday language, suggests Kip Wheeler, English professor at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee. Use language that that you might use when talking to a teacher or an adult. Avoid slang and clichés and focus on the literal meaning of the words.

Avoid Replacing Words with Synonyms

Don't just replace all the important words with synonyms, according to Williams College in Massachusetts. You might use synonyms occasionally to identify important terms, but exchanging the author's original words for synonyms isn't paraphrasing. Consider ways to rearrange the words and substitute your own words to get across the same meaning.

For example, Edgar Allan Poe writes, "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December, And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor," in his poem "The Raven.". An effective paraphrase might state, "It's a cold December night, and the trees outside my window are barren. The moon casts shadows of the bare tree branches onto my bedroom floor, and the shadows resemble ghosts." The poem is about a man who expresses his sadness about the death of his lover as a raven pecks ominously at his window. Poe wants readers to associate death with the haunting coldness of winter.

Expand the Text with Details

Expand the lines and stanzas in the poem by using full sentences to explain the poet's ideas, recommends Seamus Cooney, English professor at Western Michigan University. Poets often condense their ideas to make them fit within the meter and rhythm of the poem. When you paraphrase, fill in pieces that the author hints at but doesn't fully explain in detail. For example, in Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" she says, "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me." A paraphrased version might say, "I realize that death is a natural part of life, and I can't delay or stop its inevitability. Fortunately, death is a polite, respectable force that doesn't treat me unfairly." Dickinson wants readers to feel comfortable with death, without fearing it, and realize that it's a normal part of human existence.

Use the Same Point of View

Maintain the same point of view as the poet. Your paraphrase should parallel the poet's voice, tone and overall mood. For example, when paraphrasing, "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both..." by Robert Frost in "The Road Not Taken", you might say, "I had a hard time choosing between two paths in the colorful autumn forest. I wish I could have taken both routes to see where they'd take me." Frost wants readers to understand that life presents choices, and at any given time, you'll have to choose which path to take. In this example, you should maintain the first-person point of view throughout your entire paraphrase.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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