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How to write a Poetry Commentary

For the IB commentary, you are expected to explain a given poem or prose. While it is not to be
confused with a detailed explanation as you might expect in college which would be anywhere
from 5-15 pages in length, the commentary is less formulaic and structured than the World
Literature papers, but at the same time, it adheres to formal standard English.

There are several disagreements as to what constitutes a commentary. Some hold that by
nature, it is not formal--it can be a running "commentary"(hence the term, "commentary") of
what the examinee sees in a given poem. Though this approach runs the risk of seeming like a
literary version of a grocery list, as long as the examinee sees some overarching, organizing
method--an idea, concept, or literary device that the poet uses to hold the poem together
cohesively--the commentary need not be as tightly formulaic as the five paragraph thesis paper
(which is generally despised in most circles because it discourages divergent thinking).

Others say that this organic approach makes it impossible to surmise any actual literary analysis
through this approach. A beginning "thesis" of what the poem's focus, followed by organizing the
analysis into patterns, strands, or organizational groups, makes it easy to follow a persuasive,
holistic presentation.

All agree, however, on the paramount importance of framing one's literary analysis within the
terms and devices of poetry; one must both identify literary elements, analyze its purpose and
effect, and speak intelligently as to tone, diction, structure, mood, and form.

Below are some literary devices to get you started.

Accent: refers to the stressed portion of a word. An accent is used to place


emphasis on a word.

Note: accent and stress can be used interchangeably.

Allegory: A description that has a second, usually moral meaning.


Alliteration: is the repetition of initial (at the beginning) CONSONANT sounds
(if it's a vowel repetition, you would call it assonance. Assonance includes any
repetition of a vowel sound in any part of the word. It usually occurs in the
middle of words).
Allusion: refers to an event from an external content. It is understandable only
to those with prior knowledge of the reference in question (as the writer
assumes the reader has).
Apostrophe: Something that addresses an object or person or idea who is not
present as though he/she/it could reply.
Antithesis: The juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas to create a feeling
of balance (e.g Too black for heaven, and yet too white for hell)
Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds may also add to euphony.
Aubade: Poetry referring to either the dawn, a love song or about parting
lovers.
Ballad: A form of poetry in a specific meter meant to be sung. There is always
a repeating refrain and it is always narrative in form. See below for more
information.
Blank verse: Iambic Pentameter that doesn't rhyme. (Much of Shakespeare's
plays for example were written in blank verse.)
Caesura: A cut or break in a line, could be a comma or a semicolon.
Cacophony: Harsh sounding and generally unpleasant.
Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds NOT in the beginning of a
word (which would be alliteration). Enforces relation.
Continuous Form: Lines follow each other without any type of structural
organization except by blocks of meaning.
Didactic Poetry: Poetry with a directly morally teaching purpose.
Euphony: Pleasant sounding.
Extended Figure: An apostrophe, simile, metaphor, etc. which is developed
throughout a poem.
Imagery: Language which appeals to each of the five senses.

Visual imagery: Sight. The most frequent type.


Aural or auditory imagery: Sound.
Olfactory imagery: Smell.
Gustatory imagery: Taste.
Tactile imagery: Touch, tangibility.
Organic imagery: Human sensations, hunger for example.

Irony: Dramatic or otherwise, conveying an aspect that is intrinsically


unexpected or self-contradictory.
Metaphor: A comparison between two unlike things without using the
words "like" or "as".
Onomatopoeia: Words which are written to mimic a sound. (SHAZAM!
SPLAT! PLOP!)
Paradox: A statement which appears to contradict itself but makes sense
(usually in an abstract sense).
Personification: Animals and inanimate objects are given human
characteristics.
Phonetic Intensive: A word whose sound emphasizes its meaning.
Prose: Language which is not in meter.
Refrain: A repeated line, phrase, sentence, etc. which appears throughout
a poem.
Rhetorical Poetry: Poetry written in superfluous language with the
intention of being overdramatic.
Scansion: The process of measuring verse.
Simile: The comparison of two subjects using "like" or "as" or something
similar
Sonnet: See link.
Tone: The writer's attitude toward the subject.

Advanced Vocabulary for the Daring

Anaphora: Repetition of the same word or words from the beginning of sentences,
lines, or phrases.
Ars Poetica: A poem about poetry
Conceit: The comparison of two dissimilar things. "Shall I compare thee to a
summer's day"
Dramatic monologue: Narrator speaks to himself. The speaker is not the author.
Epiphany: A realization or comprehension of the essence of something.
Feminine Rhyme: Two syllable (Disyllabic) rhyme consisting of stressed syllable
followed by unstressed
Incantation: Use of words to create an archaic effect. (Opening scene of Macbeth
and the Weird Sisters)
Incremental repetition: Repetition of succeeding stanzas with small substitutions
of changes.
Masculine rhyme: Monosyllabic rhymes.
Metonymy: Substitutes the name of one thing with something closely associated
with it.
Synecdoche: Substitutes a part of one thing to represent the whole, or vice versa.
Pathetic fallacy: A reflection of the action/events through nature/weather. (A
thunderstorm during the creation of Frankenstein's monster sequence)
Persona: The character created by the narrator.
Synaesthesia: A blending of sensations.
Trope: A way of extending the meanings of words beyond the literal.

Types of Poems[edit]

Alexandrine: Twelve-syllable poetic line of French origin.


Couplet: A poem or section consisting of two successive lines, usually rhyming and
having the same meter and often forming a complete thought.
Elegy: A poem of loss and consolation.
Panegyric: Praise for an individual, a group of people, or a body.
Sonnet: A poem of fourteen lines, usually following a strict rhyme
scheme/structure.
Stichic: A poem which is a continuous sequence of lines without any division into
stanzas.
Villanelle: 19 lines divided into 6 stanzas 5 of 3 and 1 of 4.
Apostrophe: A poem directed to a person or thing not present/alive.

Step 1: Reading the Poem[edit]

Read the poem silently once. Take a mental note or actually write down if you can't
remember any impressions, emotions, or confusions the poem may originally stir.
Read the poem once more; try to understand its meaning or the course of events it
may describe.
Read the poem aloud if possible. If you're in an exam room you can read the poem
under your breath. Take note of the tone and speed of the poem.
Read the poem again and take notes about the literal and figurative context of the
poem. This should include its meaning on the literal level and any figurative
meanings it may include.
Read the poem again, this time looking for literary devices. These should be, but
not limited to:

Imagery
Assonance
Consonance
Onomatopoeia and Phonetic Intensive words
Metaphors, Similes, and Personifications.
Juxtaposition and Contrast

Once you're sure you've found these literary devices, proceed to look further
for:

What does the title suggest- is it related to our understanding of the poem?

Note: Compare your first impression of the title to its actual meaning.

Does the poem have an apostrophe?


Are sections cacophonic or euphonic? If so, do the previous literature features
make them so?
Is there any irony?
Does the poem have an extensive figure?
Is there a refrain?

Next, once you've gone through the poem's meaning and its literary
devices- it's time to look for form!

Note: Knowing a poem's scansion is not necessarily required. You don't need to
state this poem is written in dactylic hectometre, but its pretty obvious if a poem is
written in iambic pentameter and counting meter isn't too difficult.
Is the poem in a continuous form, a stanzaic form, or a fixed form? (Such as a
Ballad or a Sonnet)
Take note of the poem's structure- how many stanzas, how many lines, etc.
Make extra note of the author's tone and how this influences the poem.

Step 2: Looking for Detail[edit]

Now that you've found the poem's literal and figurative meanings, its form, and its
literary devices - it's time to get to work!

Make connections - in what ways do the poem's literary devices add to the poem's
meaning?
What effect does the writer's tone have on the reader's perception of the poem?
What effect does meter and form have on meaning?

An excellent way of keeping your entire commentary in focus is, asking


yourself these simple yet significant questions:

1) What's being said (content, maybe theme, character, ideas,


relationships, ideas, love, peace etc.)

2) How is it being said (stylistic devices, rhyme, structure, diction, etc.)

3) So What? (I.e. for what ends, purposes, extrapolation chances,


personal connection and response, etc.)

Remember it's not a grocery list of memorized terms- barfed out in a time
period of 2 hours. It is supposed to be an intricate and insightful response
to what you as a reader, understand from the text, the author's intended
message. The planning phase is perhaps the most important, even more
important than the writing phase (which comes naturally succeeding it, if
planning goes well the written should be equally responsive).
Step 3: Structuring your Commentary[edit]

There is no definitive structure to a poetry commentary; this isn't like writing a


history essay. However, structure is an important aspect in writing a poem
commentary and you can prepare yourself in advance by having some notion of the
order in which you will write. Here is an example of a possible essay structure:

Note: Everyone is different, if you want to write your poetry commentary in a


different form, by all means do so- this is merely a suggestion aimed at guiding
your writing.

Introduction

State the poem's title, author, and a small introduction to the poem's overall literal
meaning.
State the poem's form, and any important literary devices which appear throughout
it.
Write about an important aspect of the poem which you will further discuss in your
wildcard paragraph and eventually conclude in your last paragraph.

Paragraph One: Structure and Narration

Briefly mention the poem's structure. Make note of the use of Enjambment or
the juxtaposition of words.
Write about the poem's meter and its speed.
Make note of the poem's speaker (do not use narrator) and his/her tone.

Paragraph Two: Meaning

State the poem's literal meaning.


State the poem's figurative meaning.

Paragraph Three: Devices

Write about the poem's literary devices.


Write about important themes present in the poem.

Paragraph Four: Combine

Write how literary devices and meaning interconnect.


This paragraph should begin to bring things together.

Paragraph Five: The Wild Card

Introduce an important theme or aspect of the poem in great detail. This could be a
refrain, an extended figure or an apostrophe.

Conclusion

The conclusion should combine the Wild Card with the above paragraphs. In this
case, one could talk about how literary devices or the poem's structure aid in
supporting an extended figure.

Here is another suggestion for a


structure which requires about 10-15
minutes of planning, but is still just as
efficient-

Introduction

State the poem's title, author, and a small introduction to the poem's overall literal
meaning.
If any, state the relevance of the background of the author (i.e. their philosophies,
causes, a message..)
Construct a 'map' to your answer. Concisely, write one sentence on each idea that
will be put forth in the essay

Paragraph One: Idea One

Use PETER

Point: State the point you are trying to prove, e.g. The conflict in the extract
symbolizes change
Evidence: Give evidence for the conflict by quoting
Technique: State the literary features
Elaboration: Develop your point further and give a deeper explanation on your
point. Also state the reason for the point that the author was trying to make, or the
reason for which the literary feature was used
Response: Describe the emotions or ideas evoked into the reader, if any

Paragraph Two: Idea Two


e.g. Point: The first person narrative is used to gain empathy from the reader.
(Follow the same pattern as used for the first idea)

(An ideal commentary


has 3-5 ideas. Remember
to focus more on
developing the ideas than
to have more of them. 3
well developed ideas will
fetch more marks than 6
baseless points.)

Conclusion

(Off record: One must realize that a conclusion is usually just the introduction which
is paraphrased with a more conclusive tone and possibly a fact or two more!)
The conclusion must contain a brief summation of all the points you have made and
why were they the most important. It could also include some personal
interpretation that you are not confident about adding in the body of your essay.

Step 4: Example
Commentary[edit
]

Confused? Don't be!


Here everything will
be made clear as
together we'll
decipher a poem. Our
poem of choice is The
Daffodils by William
Wordsworth.

I wandered lonely as
a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,


When all at once
I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;


Beside the
lake, beneath
the trees,

Fluttering
and dancing
in the
breeze.

Continuous
as the stars
that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way,


They
stretched
in never-
ending
line

Along the margin of a bay:


Ten
thou
sand
saw
I at
a
glan
ce,

Toss
ing
their
hea
ds in
sprig
htly
danc
e.

The
wav
es
besi
de
the
m
danc
ed,
but
they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:


A
P
o
e
t
c
o
u
l
d

n
o
t
b
u
t
b
e

g
a
y
,

In such a jocund company:


I
gaz
ed--
and
gaz
ed--
but
little
tho
ugh
t

Wh
at
wea
lth
the
sho
w to
me
had
bro
ugh
t:
For
oft,
whe
n
on
my
cou
ch I
lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,


They
flash
upon
that
inward
eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;


And then my
heart with
pleasure
fills,

And dances
with the
daffodils.

Try to do it by yourself first- even if roughly.

Ready?
First impression: The poem is extremely euphonic and uses quite a bit of pleasant
imagery. When spoken, it rolls off the tongue naturally. This reinforces the poem's
joyful tone which proceeds through out the poem except for momentarily in the
fourth stanza where the first two lines are cacophonic. The poem deals with an
extended figure which may be considered an apostrophe.

Structure: The poem is in a stanzaic form of four stanzas of six lines each. The
rhyming scheme alternates at first, ABAB, but ends in a rhyming couplet CC which
adds to the euphony of the poem and the ease at which it's spoken. The lines are in
iambic tetrameter.

Note: Meter can be found by counting the syllables in each line and simply dividing
them by two. If this is the same for each line, then the poem is written in a specific
meter.
Speaker: The speaker is obviously the poet himself. By sharing his own first
experiences with such a crowd of daffodils the reader gains the same first
impressions.
Literal Meaning: The poet recalls his first experience of seeing such a
wondrous crowd of daffodils beside a bay. The blowing wind moves them in an
awesome formation, a spectacle of nature of which the poet remembers in
order to lift his spirits.
Figurative Meaning: Everyone has had their good experiences in life. Perhaps
it's the sensation of getting a new dog or seeing a beautiful bird take flight. It's
important for us to remember those experiences, in times when we are down.

Imagery: Lots of visual imagery

"Golden daffodils" (4)


"Sparkling waves" (14)
"stars that shine / and twinkle on the milky way" (7-8)

Kinesthetic imagery

"Fluttering and dancing in the breeze" (6)


"Tossing their heads in sprightly dance" (12)
"The waves beside them danced" (13)

Metaphors and Similes

"I wandered lonely as a cloud" (1)


"Continuous as the stars" (7)

Personification of the Daffodils

I saw a crowd / a host, of golden daffodils (3-4)


Tossing their heads in sprightly dance (12)
In such a jocund company (16)

Assonance

A host of golden daffodils (3)


Beside the lake, beneath the trees (6)
For oft when on my couch (19)
heart with pleasures fills (23)
Alliteration

Beside... beneath... breeze (5-6)


stars...stretch...shine (7-8)
glee...gay...gazed...gazed (13-15)

Repetition:

Dance (6), (12), (13), (24)


Gazed (15)

Wildcard: Importance of the Speaker

The speaker shows a great tranquility and appreciation of nature. The juxtaposition
of the first two lines of the last paragraph with the rest of the poem and the use of
the word "couch" suggest unhappiness with the material surroundings.

Great! Now that we've written down the basic aspects of the poem- it's time for us
to connect their meanings and effects!

The Commentary

"The Daffodils" by W
describes the poet's
spectacular field of
by a bay. He uses w
magnify such a sma
an attempt to demo
nature and memorie
dealing with many o
modern society. The
daffodils are the cen
which is written in a
a consistent rhymin
the use of literary de
intensive visual and
imagery, the reader
the same feeling of
simplistic spectacle
poet.

The poem is written


four stanzas each c
lines with each line
tetrameter. For the f
each stanza, the rhy
alternates as ABAB
rhyming couplet. Th
serves to reinforce t
euphony, with the e
consistent rhyming
ensure that the poe
smoothly. Indeed, th
poem may even ser
extended figure of th
the daffodils, we too
the product of its ge
The poem is told thr
the poet himself.

The poem describes


simplistic wonder of
a host, of golden da
situated "along the m
(10). The daffodils "
though not mentione
dance is most likely
wind. The poet is am
things, the sheer nu
comparing their num
number of stars in th
(7) and the intricate
produce. He then st
waves of the lake al
likely ripples once a
wind, but the effect
the flowers "Out-did
waves in glee"(13).
beautiful that the po
gazed" (17), clueles
(18) gained from the
then on, when the P
mood" (20), he reca
in his mind and his "
pleasures" (23) as h
the daffodils" (24).