Tips On Writing Poetry Essays

Are you taking the AP English Literature and Composition exam? If you’re taking the course or self-studying, you know the exam is going to be tough. Of course, you want to do your best and score a five on the exam. To do well on the AP English Literature and Composition exam, you’ll need to score high on the essays. For that, you’ll need to write a complete, efficient essay that argues an accurate interpretation of the work under examination in the Free Response Question section.

The AP English Literature and Composition exam consists of two sections, the first being a 55-question multiple choice portion worth 45% of the total test grade. This section tests your ability to read drama, verse, or prose fiction excerpts and answer questions about them. The second section worth 55% of the total score requires essay responses to three questions, demonstrating your ability to analyze literary works: a poem analysis, a prose fiction passage analysis, and a concept, issue, or element analysis of a literary work.

From your course or review practices, you should know how to construct a clear, organized essay that defends a focused claim about the work under analysis. Your should structure your essay with a brief introduction that includes the thesis statement, followed by body paragraphs that further the thesis statement with detailed, well-discussed support, and a short concluding paragraph that reiterates and reinforces the thesis statement without repeating it. Clear organization, specific support, and full explanations or discussions are three critical components of high-scoring essays.

General Tips to Bettering Your Odds at a Nine on the AP English Literature and Composition Exam.

Your teacher may have already told you how to approach the poetry analysis, but for the poetry essay, it’s important to keep the following in mind coming into the exam:

  1. Carefully read, review, and underline key to-do’s in the prompt.
  2. Briefly outline where you’re going to hit each prompt item–in other words, pencil out a specific order.
  3. Be sure you have a clear thesis that includes the terms mentioned in the instructions, literary devices, tone, and meaning.
  4. Include the author’s name and title of the poem in your thesis statement.
  5. Use quotes—lots of them—to exemplify the elements throughout the essay.
  6. Fully explain or discuss how your element examples support your thesis. A deeper, fuller, and focused explanation of fewer elements is better than a shallow discussion of more elements (shotgun approach).
  7. Avoid vague, general statements for a clear focus on the poem itself.
  8. Use transitions to connect sentences and paragraphs.
  9. Write in the present tense with generally good grammar.
  10. Keep your introduction and conclusion short, and don’t repeat your thesis verbatim in your conclusion.

The newly-released 2016 sample AP English Literature and Composition exam questions, sample responses, and grading rubrics provide a valuable opportunity to analyze how to achieve high scores on each of the three Section II FRQ responses. However, for purposes of this examination, the Poetry Analysis strategies will be the focus. The poem for analysis in last year’s exam was “The Juggler” by Richard Wilbur, a modern American poet. Exam takers were asked to analyze the following:

  • how the speaker in the poem describes the juggler
  • what the description shows about the speaker
  • how the poet uses imagery, figurative language, and tone to convey meaning

When you analyze the components of an influential essay, it’s helpful to compare all three sample answers provided by the CollegeBoard: the high scoring (A) essay, the mid-range scoring (B) essay, and the low scoring (C) essay. All three provide a teaching opportunity for achieving a nine on the poetry analysis essay.

Start with a Succinct Introduction that Includes Your Thesis Statement

The first sample essay, the A essay, quickly and succinctly introduces the author, title, thesis, elements, and devices. The writer’s introduction sentences are efficient: they contain no waste and give the reader a sense of the cohesiveness of the argument, including the role of each of the analyzed components in proving the thesis. The specificity of the details in the introduction shows that the writer is in control, with phrases like “frequent alliteration,” “off-kilter rhyme”, and “diction evoking an almost spiritual level of power”. The writer leaves nothing to guesswork.

The mid-range B essay introduction also cites some specific details in the poem, like “visual imagery (of the juggler and his balls), figurative language (the personification of the balls interacting with the juggler), and tone (the playful mood of the first two stanza)”. However, the writer wastes space and precious time (five whole lines!) with a vague and banal recitation of the prompt. The mid-range answer also doesn’t give the reader an understanding of an overarching thesis that he or she will use the elements and devices to support, merely a reference to the speaker’s “attitude”.

The third sample lacks cohesiveness, a thesis statement, and organization. The sentences read like a shotgun spray of facts and descriptions that give no direction to the reader of the writer’s approach: how he or she will use the elements and details listed to prove a thesis. The short, choppy sentences don’t connect, and the upshot is something so commonplace as Wilbur describes a talented juggler, who is also a powerful teacher. That doesn’t respond to the prompt, which requires an argument about what the juggler’s description reveals about the speaker.

To sum up, make introductions brief and compact, using specific details from the poem and a clear direction that address the call of the prompt. Writing counts. Short, choppy, disconnected sentences make an incoherent, unclear paragraph. Don’t waste time on sentences that don’t do the work ahead for you. Cut to the chase; be specific.

Use Clear Examples to Support Your Argument Points

The A answer first supports the thesis by pointing out that alliteration and rhyme scheme depict the mood and disconnection of both the speaker and the crowd. The writer does this by noting how alliteration appears when the juggler performs, but not before. The student also notes how the mood and connection to the crowd cohere when the juggler juggles, the balls defying gravity and uplifting the crowd with the balls. Then, the writer wraps up the first point about description, devices, and elements by concluding that the unusual rhyme scheme echoes the unusual feat of juggling and controlling the mood of the crowd.

With a clear focus on attaching devices to individually quoted phrases and poem details, the student leads the reader through the first pass at proving the attitude of the poem’s speaker while commenting on possible meanings the tone, attitude, and devices suggest. Again, the student uses clear, logical, and precise quotes and references to the poem without wasting time on unsupported statements. Specific illustrations anchor each point.

For example, the student identifies the end rhyme as an unusual effect that mimics the unusual and gravity-defiant balls. Tying up the first paragraph, the student then goes on to thoroughly explain the connection between the cited rhyme scheme, the unique defiance of gravity, and the effect on the speaker. The organizational plan is as follows: point (assertion), illustration, and explanation.

The mid-range sample also cites specific details of the poem, such as the “sky-blue” juggler, a color that suggests playfulness, but then only concludes that euphony shows the speaker’s attitude toward the juggler without making that connection clear with an explanation. The writer simply concludes without proving that assertion. Without further explanation or exemplification, the author demonstrates no knowledge of the term “euphony”.

Sample C also alludes to the “sky-blue” juggler but doesn’t explain the significance. In fact, the writer makes a string of details from the poem appear significant without actually revealing anything about the details the writer notes. They’re merely a string of details.

Discussion is Crucial to Connect Your Quotes and Examples to Your Argument Points

Rather than merely noting quoted phrases and lines without explanation, the A response takes the time to thoroughly discuss the meaning of the quoted words, phrases, and sentences used to exemplify his or her assertions. For example, the second paragraph begins with an assertion that the speaker’s view of the world is evident through the diction used when describing the juggler and the juggler’s act. Immediately, the writer supplies proof by directing the reader to the first and last stanzas to find “lens,” “dusk”, and “daily dark”.

The selection of these particular diction choices demonstrates the writer’s knowledge of the term “diction” and how to support a conclusion the student will make by the end of the sentence that the speaker’s attitude toward the world around him is “not the brightest”. The writer gives a follow-up sentence to further convince the reader of the previous point about the speaker’s dim view by adding, “All the words and phrases used just fall flat, filled with connotations of dullness…”

Using the transition, “however”, the A response goes on to further explain that the juggler’s description contrasts with that of the speaker’s in its lightness, by again providing both specifically-quoted words and complete one or two full sentence follow-ups to the examples. In that way, the writer clarifies the connection between the examples and their use and meaning. Nothing is left unexplained–unlike the B response, which claims Wilbur uses personification, then gives a case of a quoted passage about the balls not being “lighthearted”.

After mentioning the term, the B essay writer merely concludes that Wilbur used personification without making the connection between “lighthearted” and personification. The writer might have written one additional sentence to show that balls as inanimate objects don’t have the emotions to be cheery nor lighthearted, only humans do. Thus, Wilbur personifies the balls. Likewise short of support, the writer concludes that the “life” of the balls through personification adds to the mystery and wonder–without further identifying the wonder or whose wonder and how that wonder results from the life of the balls.

Write a Brief Conclusion

While it’s more important to provide a substantive, organized, and clear argument throughout the body paragraphs than it is to conclude, a conclusion provides a satisfying rounding out of the essay and last opportunity to hammer home the content of the preceding paragraphs. If you run out of time for a conclusion because of the thorough preceding paragraphs, that is not as fatal to your score as not concluding or not concluding as robustly as the A essay sample (See the B essay conclusion).

The A response not only provides a quick but sturdy recap of all the points made throughout the body paragraphs (without repeating the thesis statement) but also reinforces those points by repeating them as the final parting remarks to the reader. The writer demonstrates not only the points made but the order of their appearance, which also showcases the overall structure of the essay.

Finally, a conclusion compositionally rounds out a gracious essay–polite because it considers the reader. You don’t want your reader to have to work hard to understand any part of your essay. By repeating recapped points, you help the reader pull the argument together and wrap up.

Write in Complete Sentences with Proper Punctuation and Compositional Skills

Though pressed for time, it’s important to write an essay with clear, correctly punctuated sentences and properly spelled words. Strong compositional skills create a favorable impression to the reader, like using appropriate transitions or signals (however, therefore) to tie sentences and paragraphs together, making the relationships between sentences clear (“also”–adding information, “however”–contrasting an idea in the preceding sentence).

Starting each paragraph with a clear topic sentence that previews the main idea or focus of the paragraph helps you the writer and the reader keep track of each part of your argument. Each section furthers your points on the way to convincing your reader of your argument. If one point is unclear, unfocused, or grammatically unintelligible, like a house of cards, the entire argument crumbles. Good compositional skills help you lay it all out orderly, clearly, and fully.

For example, the A response begins the first body paragraph with “In the first and last stanzas, no alliteration beyond ‘daily dark’ appears, evoking a tone that could hardly be described as cheerful”. The sentence, with grammatically-correct commas inserted to section off the lead-in phrase, “In the first and last stanzas,” as well as the dependent clause at the sentence’s end, “evoking a tone that…,” gives a road map to the reader as to the paragraph’s design: alliteration, tone, darkness. Then the writer hits all three of those with a complete explanation.

The next paragraph begins with a rather clunky, unwieldy sentence that nevertheless does the same as the first–keys the reader to the first point regarding the speaker’s view of the world and the devices and elements used to do so. It’s clear the writer tackles the speaker’s view, the juggler’s depiction, and diction choice–both as promised from the beginning in the thesis statement of the introductory paragraph and per the prompt. The writer uses the transition “In the first and last stanzas”, to tie the topic sentence to the examples he or she will use to prove the topic sentence; then the writer is off to do the same in the next paragraph.

So by the time the conclusion takes the reader home, the writer has done all of the following:

  • followed the prompt
  • followed the propounded thesis statement in exact order promised
  • provided a full discussion with examples
  • included quotes proving each assertion
  • used clear, grammatically correct sentences
  • wrote paragraphs ordered by a thesis statement
  • created topic sentences for each paragraph
  • ensured each topic sentence furthered the ideas presented in the thesis statement

Have a Plan and Follow it

It’s easier than it sounds. To get a 9 on the poetry analysis essay in the AP Literature and Composition exam, practice planning a response under strict time deadlines. Write as many practice essays as you can. Follow the same procedure each time.

First, be sure to read the instructions carefully, highlighting the parts of the prompt you absolutely must cover. Then map out a scratch outline of the order you intend to cover each point in support of your argument. Try and include not only a clear thesis statement, written as a complete sentence but the topic sentences to each paragraph followed by the quotes and details you’ll use to support the topic sentences. Then follow your map faithfully.

Be sure to give yourself enough time to give your essay a brief re-read to catch mechanical errors, missing words, or necessary insertions to clarify an incomplete or unclear thought. With time, an organized approach, and plenty of practice, earning a nine on the poetry analysis is manageable. Be sure to ask your teacher or consult other resources, like albert.io’s Poetic Analysis practice essays, if you’re unsure how to identify poetic devices and elements in poetry, or need more practice writing a poetry analysis.

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Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing Tips [ Poetry | Fiction ]

If you are writing a poem because you want to capture a feeling that you experienced, then you don’t need these tips. Just write whatever feels right. Only you experienced the feeling that you want to express, so only you will know whether your poem succeeds.

If, however, your goal is to communicate with a reader — drawing on the established conventions of a literary genre (conventions that will be familiar to the experienced reader) to generate an emotional response in your reader — then simply writing what feels right to you won’t be enough.  (See also “Poetry is for the Ear” and “When Backwards Newbie Poets Write“)

These tips will help you make an important transition:

  • away from writing poetry to celebrate, commemorate, or capture your own feelings (in which case you, the poet, are the center of the poem’s universe)
  • towards writing poetry in order to generate feelings in your reader (in which case the poem exists entirely to serve the reader).
  1. Know Your Goal
  2. Avoid Clichés
  3. Avoid Sentimentality
  4. Use Images
  5. Use Metaphor and Simile
  6. Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words
  7. Communicate Theme
  8. Subvert the Ordinary
  9. Rhyme with Extreme Caution
  10. Revise, Revise, Revise

Tip #1 Know Your Goal.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you get there?

You need to know what you are trying to accomplish before you begin any project. Writing a poem is no exception.

Before you begin, ask yourself what you want your poem to “do.” Do you want your poem to explore a personal experience, protest a social injustice, describe the beauty of nature, or play with language in a certain way? Once your know the goal of your poem, you can conform your writing to that goal. Take each main element in your poem and make it serve the main purpose of the poem.

Tip #2 Avoid Clichés

Stephen Minot defines a cliché as: “A metaphor or simile that has become so familiar from overuse that the vehicle … no longer contributes any meaning whatever to the tenor. It provides neither the vividness of a fresh metaphor nor the strength of a single unmodified word….The word is also used to describe overused but nonmetaphorical expressions such as ‘tried and true’ and ‘each and every'” (Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction and Drama, 405).

Cliché also describes other overused literary elements. “Familiar plot patterns and stock characters are clichés on a big scale” (Minot 148). Clichés can be overused themes, character types, or plots. For example, the “Lone Ranger” cowboy is a cliché because it has been used so many times that people no longer find it original.

A work full of clichés is like a plate of old food: unappetizing.

More creative writing tips.

Clichés work against original communication. People value creative talent. They want to see work that rises above the norm. When they see a work without clichés, they know the writer has worked his or her tail off, doing whatever it takes to be original. When they see a work full to the brim with clichés, they feel that the writer is not showing them anything above the ordinary. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this paragraph is chock full of clichés… I’ll bet you were bored to tears.)

Clichés dull meaning. Because clichéd writing sounds so familiar, people can complete finish whole lines without even reading them. If they don’t bother to read your poem, they certainly won’t stop to think about it. If they do not stop to think about your poem, they will never encounter the deeper meanings that mark the work of an accomplished poet.

Examples of Clichés:

  • busy as a bee
  • tired as a dog
  • working my fingers to bone
  • beet red
  • on the horns of a dilemma
  • blind as a bat
  • eats like a horse
  • eats like a bird

How to Improve a Cliché

I will take the cliché “as busy as a bee” and show how you can express the same idea without cliché.

  1. Determine what the clichéd phrase is trying to say.
    In this case, I can see that “busy as a bee” is a way to describe the state of being busy.
  2. Think of an original way to describe what the cliché is trying to describe.
    For this cliché, I started by thinking about busyness. I asked myself the question, “What things are associated with being busy?” I came up with: college, my friend Jessica, corporation bosses, old ladies making quilts and canning goods, and a computer, fiddlers fiddling. From this list, I selected a thing that is not as often used in association with busyness: violins.
  3. Create a phrase using the non-clichéd way of description.
    I took my object associated with busyness and turned it into a phrase: “I feel like a bow fiddling an Irish reel.” This phrase communicates the idea of “busyness” much better than the worn-out, familiar cliché. The reader’s mind can picture the insane fury of the bow on the violin, and know that the poet is talking about a very frenzied sort of busyness. In fact, those readers who know what an Irish reel sounds like may even get a laugh out of this fresh way to describe “busyness.”

Try it! Take a cliché and use these steps to improve it. You may even end up with a line you feel is good enough to put in a poem!

Tip #3 Avoid Sentimentality.

Sentimentality is “dominated by a blunt appeal to the emotions of pity and love …. Popular subjects are puppies, grandparents, and young lovers” (Minot 416). “When readers have the feeling that emotions like rage or indignation have been pushed artificially for their own sake, they will not take the poem seriously” (132).

Minot says that the problem with sentimentality is that it detracts from the literary quality of your work (416). If your poetry is mushy or teary-eyed, your readers may openly rebel against your effort to invoke emotional response in them. If that happens, they will stop thinking about the issues you want to raise, and will instead spend their energy trying to control their own gag reflex.

Tip #4 Use Images.

“BE A PAINTER IN WORDS,” says UWEC English professor emerita, poet, and songwriter Peg Lauber. She says poetry should stimulate six senses:

  • sight
  • hearing
  • smell
  • touch
  • taste
  • kinesiology (motion)

Examples.

  • “Sunlight varnishes magnolia branches crimson” (sight)
  • “Vacuum cleaner’s whir and hum startles my ferret” (hearing)
  • “Penguins lumber to their nests” (kinesiology)

Lauber advises her students to produce fresh, striking images (“imaginative”). Be a camera. Make the reader be there with the poet/speaker/narrator. (See also: “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell“)

Tip #5 Use Metaphor and Simile.

Use metaphor and simile to bring imagery and concrete words into your writing.

Metaphor

A metaphor is a statement that pretends one thing is really something else:

Example: “The lead singer is an elusive salamander.”

This phrase does not mean that the lead singer is literally a salamander. Rather, it takes an abstract characteristic of a salamander (elusiveness) and projects it onto the person. By using metaphor to describe the lead singer, the poet creates a much more vivid picture of him/her than if the poet had simply said “The lead singer’s voice is hard to pick out.”

Simile

A simile is a statement where you say one object is similar to another object. Similes use the words “like” or “as.”

Example: “He was curious as a caterpillar” or “He was curious, like a caterpillar”

This phrase takes one quality of a caterpillar and projects it onto a person. It is an easy way to attach concrete images to feelings and character traits that might usually be described with abstract words.

Note: A simile is not automatically any more or less “poetic” than a metaphor. You don’t suddenly produce better poems if you replace all your similes with metaphors, or vice versa. The point to remember is that comparison, inference, and suggestion are all important tools of poetry; similes and metaphors are tools that will help in those areas.

Tip #6 Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words.

Concrete words describe things that people experience with their senses.

A person can see orange, feel warm, or hear a cat.

Poets use concrete words help the reader get a “picture” of what the poem is talking about. When the reader has a “picture” of what the poem is talking about, he/she can better understand what the poet is talking about.

Abstract words refer to concepts or feelings.

“Liberty” is a concept, “happy” is a feeling, and no one can agree on whether “love” is a feeling, a concept or an action.

A person can’t see, touch, or taste any of these things. As a result, when used in poetry, these words might simply fly over the reader’s head, without triggering any sensory response. Further, “liberty,” “happy,” and “love” can mean different things to different people. Therefore, if the poet uses such a word, the reader may take a different meaning from it than the poet intended.

Change Abstract Words Into Concrete Words

To avoid problems caused by using abstract words, use concrete words.

Example: “She felt happy.”

This line uses the abstract word “happy.” To improve this line, change the abstract word to a concrete image. One way to achieve this is to think of an object or a scene that evokes feelings of happiness to represent the happy feeling.

Improvement: “Her smile spread like red tint on ripening tomatoes.”

This line uses two concrete images: a smile and a ripening tomato. Describing the smile shows the reader something about happiness, rather than simply coming right out and naming the emotion. Also, the symbolism of the tomato further reinforces the happy feelings. Red is frequently associated with love; ripening is a positive natrual process; food is further associated with being satisfied.

Prof. Jerz belabors Kara’s point:

Extension: Now, let’s do something with this image.

She sulked in the garden, reticent...hard; Unwilling to face his kisses -- or unable. One autumn morn she felt her sour face Ripen to a helpless smile, tomato-red. Her parted lips whispered, "Hello, sunshine!"

OK, the image has gotten embarrassingly obvious now, but you can see how the introduction of the tomato permits us to make many additional connections. While Kara’s original example simply reported a static emotional state — “She felt happy,” the image of the ripening tomato, which Kara introduced as a simple simile to describe a smile, has grown into something much more complex. Regardless of what the word “tomato” invoked in your mind, an abstraction like “happy” can never stretch itself out to become a whole poem, without relying on concrete images. –DGJ

Tip #7 Communicate Theme.

Poetry always has a theme. Theme is not just a topic, but an idea with an opinion.

Theme = Idea + Opinion

Topic: “The Vietnam War”

This is not a theme. It is only a subject. It is just an event. There are no ideas, opinions, or statements about life or of wisdom contained in this sentence

Theme: “History shows that despite our claims to be peace-loving, unfortunately each person secretly dreams of gaining glory through conflict.”

This is a theme. It is not just an event, but a statement about an event. It shows what the poet thinks about the event. The poet strives to show the reader his/her theme during the entire poem, making use of literary techniques.

Tip #8 Subvert the Ordinary.

Poets’ strength is the ability to see what other people see everyday in a new way. You don’t have to be special or a literary genius to write good poems–all you have to do is take an ordinary object, place, person, or idea, and come up with a new perception of it.

Example: People ride the bus everyday.

Poets’ Interpretation: A poet looks at the people on the bus and imagines scenes from their lives. A poet sees a sixty-year old woman and imagines a grandmother who runs marathons. A poet sees a two-year old boy and imagines him painting with ruby nail polish on the toilet seat, and his mother struggling to not respond in anger.

Take the ordinary and turn it on its head. (The word “subvert” literally means “turn upside down”.)

Tip #9 Rhyme with Extreme Caution.

Rhyme and meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed words) can be dangerous if used the wrong way. Remember sing-song nursery rhymes? If you choose a rhyme scheme that makes your poem sound sing-song, it will detract from the quality of your poem.

I recommend that beginning poets stick to free verse. It is hard enough to compose a poem without dealing with the intricacies of rhyme and meter. (Note: see Jerz’s response to this point, in “Poetry Is For the Ear.”)

If you feel ready to create a rhymed poem, refer to chapters 6-10 of Stephen Minot’s bookThree Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. 6th ed., for more help.

Tip #10 Revise, Revise, Revise.

The first completed draft of your poem is only the beginning. Poets often go through several drafts of a poem before considering the work “done.”

To revise:

  • Put your poem away for a few days, and then come back to it. When you re-read it, does anything seem confusing? Hard to follow? Do you see anything that needs improvement that you overlooked the first time? Often, when you are in the act of writing, you may leave out important details because you are so familiar with the topic. Re-reading a poem helps you to see it from the “outsider’s perspective” of a reader.
  • Show your poem to others and ask for criticism. Don’t be content with a response like, “That’s a nice poem.” You won’t learn anything from that kind of response. Instead, find people who will tell you specific things you need to improve in your poem.

26 May 2000 — originally submitted by Kara Ziehl, as an assignment for Prof. Jerz’s technical writing class
01 Aug 2000 — modified and posted by Jerz
30 Nov 2001 — minor edits by Jerz
21 July 2011 — minor refresh
22 May 2013 — added intro before the tips.
24 Dec 3017 — minor formatting tweaks

See Also:

Handouts > Creative Writing > Poetry Tips

Poetry is for the Ear —Whatever poetry you write or read, learn to listen with the ears of your audience. Pay attention to the sounds the words make, even if you write in free verse.

Getting College Credit for your High School Poems –Poems that perfectly record how you felt about events in your life probably won’t work as submissions for college writing classes. Most professors will expect you to revise in-progress poems.


About This Page
Kara Ziehl, a UWEC creative writing major, compiled these tips in order to help students in my English 110 (“Introduction to College Writing”) class. I have fine-tuned and expanded her text somewhat, but I think she did an excellent job — this is now required reading for budding student poets in my classes. –DGJ

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