Writing About Poetry

Updated on July 23, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.



When writers write about poetry, they do so from a chosen rhetorical focus based on the purpose they wish to achieve. Examples of a "rhetorical focus" regarding writing about poetry include but are not necessarily limited to the following:

  • Analysis
  • Explication
  • Criticism
  • Scholarship
  • Commentary

In this article, I examine each rhetorical focus using the following Langston Hughes poem to suggest the issues that each focus would likely address:

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Rhetorical Foci for Writing About Poetry

The rhetorical focus of the writer determines what the discourse about a poem addresses.


The analysis of a poem includes separating the poem's features into their distinct elements and then describing those elements. For example, the analysis of the poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," would point out any poetic devices such as metaphor: river as soul; simile: "soul has grown deep like the rivers"; personification: "its muddy bosom"; theme: cosmic voice declaring unity of humankind, and any others that the analyst might deem relevant to understanding the poem.


A writer explicates a poem to show how its poetic devices imply its message. For example, in the Hughes poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," the use of the metaphor and then the simile of the river as blood in veins and ultimately as the souls of humankind implies that all human beings are related to one another physically as well as spiritually. The personification of the "muddy bosom" contributes to the relationship between the river and the human body. Thus, the theme of the poem that focuses on the unity of humanity is spoken in a cosmic voice.


If the critic focuses on the poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," s/he would evaluate the poem's overall success in terms of its clarity, its importance, and/or its appropriate use of poetic devices.


A scholarly focus on Hughes' "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" would likely begin by explaining the use of the term "Negro," especially because that term has become passé in modern parlance. It would also set the context for the speaker claiming, "Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans." The scholar would likely supply the date and reasons for the president's visit to that southern city and then suggest what that historical reference adds to the poem.


Unlike the writer of analysis, explication, criticism, or scholarship, the commentarian's main focus is on the overall meaning and effect of the poem. Thus the commentarian may employ any, all, or none of the tools of the analyst, explicator, critic, and scholar to offer his/her informed opinion regarding the poem's meaning.

It should be remembered that the reading of a poem varies greatly from the reading of an expository piece of prose. A poem essentially functions to express artistically and often dramatically what it feels like to experience life as a human being. Thus, any comprehensive statement about what any specific poem is doing remains someone's opinion, and some opinions are more informed than others.

Commentaries may criticize a poem for any number of reasons from poor execution to faulty information. In that case the commentarian would necessarily have to rely upon historical and scholarly research, as well as on a knowledge base regarding the appropriate employment of poetic devices, which is the purview of the critic.

Writing as a Commentarian

My personal choice of rhetorical focus as I write about poetry is that of the commentarian. I might also add that I am, in fact, the one who coined that term and function. If you place the term "poetry commentarian" in the Google search engine, the only exact hit you will get is mine in an article here at HubPages. Otherwise, you get the suggestion for "poetry commentary," a term that I did not coin.

My main purpose is to offer my informed opinion about the overall meaning of the poems I address. The only dissecting I do is that I address each poem's stanza or movement. But the purpose remains that same, to offer my studied opinion about the poem. That may, sometimes, include the poem's effect on readers, but meaning through commentary is always my intended goal.

For that reason, my commentaries never employ the title, "Analysis of 'Such and Such Poem'." My simple title of each commentary that focuses on the poem contains only the poet's name and the title of his/her poem.


Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


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