Since one of the three essays on the AP Exam deals exclusively with poetry, it follows that your teacher will have a unit on it. And, of course, I will too! So without further ado, here’s some poetry tips for you.
Like other forms of composition, poetry is filled with devices to help poets get their message across. Sometimes, literary devices can be used in terms of poetry – tone, diction, symbolism, etc. However, there are devices strictly limited to analyzing poetry, which I will list here. Disclaimer: there may be other poetic devices in existence.
Blank Verse: unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter
Couplet: two paired lines
Octave: eight paired lines
Quatrain: four paired lines
Refrain: a repeated stanza/line
Rhyme: repetition of similar sounds
Perfect Rhyme: the sounds are identical (i.e.: hand, band)
Feminine Rhyme: involves 2+ syllables, final is unstressed (i.e.: motion, ocean)
Masculine Rhyme: the final syllable of each line rhymes and is stressed (i.e.: snow, go)
Slant Rhyme: the sounds are “close enough” (i.e.: heart, dark), or appear so on paper (i.e.: cough, bough)
Sestet: six paired lines
Stanza: a “unit” of a poem – think verse of a song
Volta: a shift in the poem (i.e.: beginning with questions, switching to answers halfway through)
These two are quite similar and may be a little confusing…
Rhythm: the pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables – each unit of rhythm is called a “foot”
Depending on the number of feet, the poem is referred to as monometer (1 foot), dimeter (2), trimeter (3), tetrameter (4), pentameter (5), hexameter (6), heptameter (7), octameter (8), etc.
Meter: the particular type of rhythm found in a poem – the most common types are:
Anapest (anapestic): duh-duh-DUH (i.e.: anapest)
Dactyl (dactylic): DUH-duh-duh (i.e.: strawberry)
Iamb (iambic): duh-DUH (i.e.: behold)
Spondee (spondaic): DUH-DUH (i.e.: Mayday)
Trochee (trochaic): DUH-duh (i.e.: doctor)
Put it together, you get ____ic ____ameter! For example…
Iambic Pentameter: Shakespeare’s favorite. 10 syllables, alternating unstressed-stressed (duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH duh-DUH). If there is one type of rhythm/meter you should be familiar with, it’s this one.
Types of Poetry
Again like literature, there are different types of poems. If you can identify the type of poem you are analyzing, it shows a higher level of understanding than if you just refer to the poem as “the poem” every time. And again, there may be other types of poems that I do not list here.
Ballad: narrative poem, originally sung
Elegy: poem lamenting the death of someone
Epic: poem celebrating achievements of heroes
Free Verse: poem that doesn’t conform to one line length, meter, rhyme scheme, etc.
Lyric: short and very emotional poem, typically songlike
Ode: the long and elaborate version of a lyric poem, praising something
Pastoral: poem describing life of people in the countryside
Sonnet: poem with 14 lines
Petrarchan Sonnet: made up of an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines)
Rhyme Scheme: A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A [volta] C-D-E-C-D-E
Shakespearean Sonnet: made up of three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet (2 lines)
Rhyme Scheme: A-B-A-B C-D-C-D E-F-E-F G-G
Strategies for Analyzing Poetry
Analyzing poetry is nearly the same as analyzing literature. You still answer the prompt. You still write the essay using Acts, Facts, Abstracts, and Tying it Back. You still find devices and analyze the role those devices play in the work.
However, poems are usually short, and you may find yourself asking “Can I really find enough stuff to analyze to write a whole essay?” Don’t worry. You will. But, if you find yourself getting stuck, here’s a few things you should definitely look for when analyzing poems.
What’s weird about the poem? Most poets do NOT stick exactly to the format of a specific poetry style. Sometimes they don’t follow their own pattern within the poem. The rhyme scheme may change, there may be slant rhymes thrown in with perfect ones. If the poet changes something from the format you learned, it is for a reason. Analyze it. Analyze it a lot.
Is there a volta? If your poem has a volta, you’ve just hit analyzing gold. Why’d the poet change something? What does it mean? Why change then? Why not change later? What sort of effect does the change give the work as a whole? What does it meaaaaaaan?
What words is the poet using? Diction is just as important in poetry as it is in literature. See if anything stands out – fancy words, childish words, etc. And interpret it based on the meaning of the poem. Bring tone in there too.
Does it rhyme? This seems ridiculous, but hear me out. Rhyming makes things not sound like speech, it takes away from the realism of it all. To an extent, it may even make the poem appear childish. However, it is expected (at least nowadays) for poems to rhyme. Is the poet rebelling against the norm? Why?
Where can you use symbolism? Poetry is filled – FILLED – with symbolism. Use it. Use it often, use it well.