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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
- 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
- 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:
- 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 it’s 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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-
- 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.)
- (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
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 thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
- Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
- In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- Beside... beneath... breeze (5-6)
- stars...stretch...shine (7-8)
- glee...gay...gazed...gazed (13-15)
- 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 Daffodils" by William Wordsworth describes the poet's sight of a spectacular field of daffodils situated by a bay. He uses worldly imagery to magnify such a small feat of nature in an attempt to demonstrate how both nature and memories are important in dealing with many of the woes of a modern society. The personified daffodils are the center of the poem which is written in a stanzaic form with a consistent rhyming scheme. Through the use of literary devices and intensive visual and kinesthetic imagery, the reader is able to adopt the same feeling of awe at this simplistic spectacle as once felt by the poet.
The poem is written in stanzaic form of four stanzas each consisting of six lines with each line written in iambic tetrameter. For the first four lines of each stanza, the rhyming scheme alternates as ABAB, but ends with a rhyming couplet. This stanzaic form serves to reinforce the poem's euphony, with the ending the consistent rhyming scheme serving to ensure that the poem progresses smoothly. Indeed, the structure of the poem may even serve to reflect the extended figure of the poem, for like the daffodils, we too are entranced by the product of its general simplicity. The poem is told through the eyes of the poet himself.
The poem describes in detail, a simplistic wonder of nature, a "crowd, / a host, of golden daffodils" (3-4) situated "along the margin of a bay" (10). The daffodils "dance" (6) and though not mentioned directly, this dance is most likely caused by the wind. The poet is amazed at two things, the sheer number of daffodils, comparing their numbers to the number of stars in the "the milky way" (7) and the intricate dance that they produce. He then states that the waves of the lake also danced, most likely ripples once again caused by the wind, but the effect the wind had on the flowers "Out-did the sparkling waves in glee"(13). The sight was so beautiful that the poet "gazed and gazed" (17), clueless of the "wealth" (18) gained from the experience. From then on, when the Poet is in a "vacant mood" (20), he recalls this experience in his mind and his "heart [fills] with pleasures" (23) as he too "dances with the daffodils" (24).
(Note: this commentary isn't the best example... the use of the quotes at the end is exactly what IB doesn't want. Additionally it's far too short - a commentary should be about one thousand words)