How to Write Line-by-Line Critiques of Poems
Analyzing poetry properly is different than analyzing a novel or a play. While those other genres require you to get a broad scope of characters and meaning, poetry allows you to dust off your critical microscope and examine the poem on the level of the line. Because poets carefully consider each word in a poem, proceeding line by line is a particularly productive way to read a poem. Even if you've read a poem a hundred times, analyzing it closely can yield endless new meanings and enjoyment.
Rhyme and Meter
All poems contain a rhyme scheme and rhythm (meter), even if one is not apparent. Begin a line-by-line critique by determining the rhyme scheme and rhythm of the poem. Count how many stressed beats the first line has, and do the same for every other line. Look for patterns. Assess whether the poem has a conventional meter and rhyme scheme or whether it deviates from standard patterns. Pay close attention to individual words or lines that disrupt the rhyme scheme or meter.
Diction and Tone
Poets usually think very carefully about the particular words they put in a poem. As you read line by line, analyze what sort of language the poem uses: formal, informal, casual or dialectal, for instance. Similarly, look at each line to discover what the speaker's attitude is toward the subject of the poem in that line. Note words that suggest irony or sarcasm, and pay close attention to shifts in diction and tone throughout the poem's lines.
Poems are famous for using metaphors and similes. Read each line closely and take note of all instances of figurative language. Look out for metaphors and similes, as well as personification, hyperbole, imagery and other figures of speech. If the poem uses a metaphor to describe an object, consider why the poet chose that particular metaphor. As part of your critique, assess whether the figure of speech is an effective one that properly communicates its meaning.
Although a line-by-line critique of poetry needs to proceed on a small scale, it is also important to use the information you have gathered to make larger assessments of the poem. Once you have analyzed the poem's use of rhythm, meter, diction, tone and figurative language, analyze the meaning of the poem. The best line-by-line critiques show how localized uses of figurative language, for instance, impact the overall meaning of the poem. If, for example, the rhyme scheme changes abruptly in the middle of the poem, see if a thematic change occurs at the same time.
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