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Poetry Analysis

Section One: What is a critical appreciation? It is not:

- an opportunity to let your emotions spill out;

- asking you to judge the poem as good or bad;

- a hunt for scattered “poeticisms” like similes or alliterations;

- a hunt for a single ‘message’ which the poet has cunningly hidden, or which your lecturer or tutor already ‘knows’.

The critical appreciation (or analysis) is:

- your reasoned response to the poem’s invitation to use both imagination and logical argument to join in a kind of conversation about the poem’s subject;

- an attempt to explain what a poem is ‘about’, and why it is written the way it is;

- an attempt to elucidate, as far as possible, the poet’s view of the poem’s subject;

- a description of how poetic techniques help to enhance the feelings evoked by the words themselves, ie. how form reflects content;

- organised into clear, cohesive paragraphs From the Rhodes University English Department’s “Essential Resource Pack” last accessed 16 May 2011

Section Two: What to look for in a poem.

When you look at poetry you are looking at the balance between content and form. You need to look at 1.) The poet’s concerns or themes (I prefer to call them concerns. “Themes” sounds like it is straight out of a high school study guide). This is the subject matter of the poem, and everything that follows helps you to figure out and then comment on the concerns of the poem. 2.) Setting (i.e. is this poem set in a city, or the country? To what extent does the setting reflect the poem’s concerns? Remember in “Gentling a Wildcat”, the setting told the reader it was pastoral and therefore commenting on human life. It is not just a poem about a cat that dies).

3.) Diction (i.e. word choice. You can also call it “language”). Poetic techniques like alliteration, puns and onomatopoeia can be included here.


(remember those?) repeat themselves. 5.) The form/structure or lack thereof (i.e. is it in regular stanzas with a regular rhythm, is there a rhyme scheme? Is the poem free verse?) 6.) The tone of the speaker: is it ironic or serious, joking or playful? Think of it as the tone of voice you use when you read it aloud. Does your voice sound mournful? Does the tone change at any point in the poem? 7.) The register of the speaker: is it formal or informal, colloquial or grand?

The rhythm/meter. Remember you can only use the word “meter” if the feet

8.) The historical and poetical context of the poem. This involves research into the

time that the poet was writing in, as well as biographical information on the poet. For example, the historical context of the poem, “Thuthula” is the Eastern Cape war between Ndlambe and Ngqika over Thuthula, and later over land and tradition. The poetical context is that J.J.R. Jolobe wrote the poem in the first half

of the twentieth century. He had a missionary education, and his poems are

therefore written in Western form and he views his subject matter with a Christian humanist lens, like many other poems by black poets of that era.

When you explore these different aspects of poetry, you will find that it is almost impossible to talk of one without the other. The word choice gives you an idea of the setting, the historical and poetical context will inform the form, the form will inform the rhythm and so on.

Most importantly, never forget that you are writing about the concerns of the poem. The poet is trying to communicate something, not get you to put together a puzzle with a definitive answer.

Section Three: Case Study of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “blues for district six”

How did I approach this poem? 1.) I read it through several times (once aloud). If there are no line numbers already, I pencil those in to make my referencing later on quicker. I take special note of the title during these readings. Is it significant (as in “Gentling a Wildcat”) or is it simply a marker (as in “Thuthula”)? This title clearly is

significant. It tells us what the poem is about (District Six) and that it is a “blues” for District Six. What is a “blues”?

A “blues” is a twelve-bar musical piece that originated among African-

Americans, but has its roots in Slave music that developed from African forms. Jazz also makes extensive use of blues forms and rhythms. 2.) I check for difficult or obscure words. The words are fairly simple so I don’t need to look any up in a dictionary. I don’t – however – know where Hanover Street is, although I know it is somewhere in District Six. Nevertheless, I know this particular street was particularly significant because it is mentioned twice in the poem. I therefore know I have to look it up when I do some historical research. Hanover Street was known as the “main artery” of the district: the busiest street full of people. 3.) I know about Abdullah Ibrahim and District Six because of previous reading, but I want specific details about the poet and the place about which he is writing. Presuming I’m pressed for time and/or a bit lazy, I start at Wikipedia. That leads me to a guardian newspaper profile ( about Abdullah Ibrahim with his relation to District Six. This is a more reliable and well-written source than the Wikipedia one, and I can get some background information. I

also looked up District Six on YouTube and found some documentaries made by the District Six Museum. I discover that:

Abdullah Ibrahim is an incredibly famous and well respected jazz musician (he began as Dollar Brand) who lived near District Six as a child and young man. I also learn that District Six was the heart of Cape Town jazz before the forced removals. I learn that Ibrahim believes that music is about healing, not just entertainment. The “blues” of the title is a pun: the poem is a blues piece of music for District Six, as well as the depressed feeling he gets (i.e. having the blues) because District Six has been moved and the buildings were demolished. It also explains all the musical imagery in the first stanza. Since District Six was demolished between 4.) The setting shifts from the first to the second stanza, and the diction plays a large part in this change. It is (physically) District Six in both, but the figurative setting changes. In the first, there is sound and evidence of movement and people. Notice the parallelisms: the bay is emerald in the first and it waves, it’s waters are clear. In the second the bay is moaning, it mourns and its waters are murky. The south-easter (the wind) the lion’s head is sleeping in the first stanza, he is hungry in the second. The dock is noisy in the first and deserted in the second. 5.) I take a look at the form and notice it is so unstructured that the lack of poetic structure must be a statement in itself. There is no punctuation and no capital letters. This is free verse, but the words can flow like music in this form. Knowing what I know about the poet, the idea comes to mind that the free- flowing poetry is more like jazz. Also, this poem was clearly written some time after 1968: we are well into the era of protest poetry, which is free form on principle. 6.) The form and the style are intricately connected. The style is highly symbolic and musically poetical, there isn’t a personal voice in this poem, and so it wouldn’t really be approproate to talk about the tone.

Section Four: How would I organise and write my critical appreciation?

The English Department website (to borrow from their excellent source material once again) advises:

- ORGANISE your approach. There are two main ways:

(a) part by part from beginning to end (stanza by stanza, or section by

section); this means you have to decide what parts ‘hold together’ by virtue of their focus or pattern. Then write a paragraph clearly focussed on that part only. The advantage: you show how form and content correlate; you show

how poetic techniques work together to form a complete, complex effect.

(b) by themes, or ideas (one paragraph per idea). This can be more interesting

than (a), but is also more tricky to control; it’s more difficult to be complete in

your discussion; and it means you have to be much better prepared before

you begin writing. The advantage: it allows you to prioritise ideas from the start, instead of leaving them for your conclusion.

- INTEGRATE quotations (your evidence) seamlessly into your own

sentences; don’t just tag them onto the end, or stick them ungrammatically in

the middle. Use short quotations, even single words, which are directly relevant to or supportive of the overall point you are making, rather than long ones.

- INTRODUCE the poem clearly. Briefly spark interest with a quote or other

intriguing start (NEVER write, “This essay is going to discuss…” boring!!). Contextualise the poem and poet in its period and place, as far as is necessary to an understanding of the poem. Briefly describe its subject, speaker/hearer set-up, physical setting, occasion or event, and overall form, as necessary and relevant. In one sentence ‘map out’ your approach – part by

part, thematically, or whatever, using key words as ‘signposts’. (Then pick up these signposts, in the same order, at the beginnings of the relevant paragraphs.)

- CONCLUDE strongly. Sum up your claims about the deepest themes and broadest ideas contained in the poem, and their implications. [See ‘Introductions and conclusions’.] SOME USEFUL HINTS

- Start shallow, work deeper. Describe first, then interpret. First outline the subject (literal matter or situation), end with the theme or themes (underlying, broad, abstract ideas).

- Be selective in your choice of supportive detail; you may not have the space to unpack absolutely everything in the poem.

- Don’t confuse paraphrase (saying the same thing in your own words) with

interpretation (arguing, with evidence from the poem, for a certain reading of the unstated implications of what is on the page).

- what seems to escape paraphrase is exactly what is poetically interesting;

don’t back away from that ‘difficulty’. Pursue the questions that arise.

- As a rough rule of thumb: 80% interpretation (your claims about the poem’s

implications, and explanations of how it works on ideas and feelings), 20% ‘technical’ stuff (use of specific techniques; just enough of this to convince

your reader that you know what the techniques are and how they function).

- Do NOT write a single paragraph devoted to ‘metaphors’, or ‘sound

effects’: this is a sure way to destroy the poem. Don’t ‘pull the poem apart’; explain how it is an integrated whole.

From the Rhodes University English Department’s “Essential Resource Pack” last accessed 16 May 2011