In this answer, I shall explain how poetic techniques emphasize the poet's message and how to explain this in your essays. This answer will focus on why poets use these devices, rather than a list of poetic devices and how to spot them.
When writing an essay on poetry, it is vital that instead of simply pointing out the poetic techniques the poet has used, that you explain HOW these affect the poet's message. This is particularly important for exams in which the poems are 'seen' poems, rather than 'unseen' poems.
Students do need to do the same thing when writing an essay on ‘unseen’ poems, and I would be happy to explain to any students who wished me to tutor them how to do this. However, in this answer I shall focus on preparing ‘seen’ poems.
When preparing for an exam that includes 'seen' poetry, it is wise to take a methodical approach. First, you should consider the theme of the poem you are studying. For the sake of example, let’s say you are studying poetry that explores relationships. Within these poems common themes you may encounter could include love, intimacy, trust- or conversely, the feeling of loss.
The poem ‘Ghazal’ by Mimi Khalvati is based on a relationship, and was part of the GCSE Anthology ‘Moon on the Tides’. The word ‘Ghazal’ is actually a name for a particular type of poem that typically explores the pain associated with love, yet still celebrates the beauty of love. Thus we can expect the themes in this poem to be both loss and an ode to love.
Within the poem Khalvati utilises alliteration, for example “you are the breeze, blow through me”. Notice the ‘b’ is the subject of alliteration. ‘B’ is a plosive sound, meaning that in order for the mouth to sound this sound, air must first be blocked to a part of the mouth creating pressure. When this pressure is released and air is allowed to pass through the mouth again, the sound is produced. Here we have identified two poetic devices, and now we shall consider their effect upon the poem’s meaning.
Consider why using alliteration and a plosive sound might emphasize the theme of love within the poem. Well, we know the theme of this poem is both the beauty of love and the pain it causes. Perhaps then Khalvati uses plosive sounds to represent the sense of separation between the two lovers. The stop of air in the reader’s mouth perfectly represents the imperfect union Khalvati mourns within the poem. The alliteration perhaps represents Khlavati’s plea for her lover to “pursue me”, and the two ‘b’ sounds occur in quick succession, as if the sounds are in a chase.
In the above example, you should notice how I have linked the techniques to their explanations, rather than focusing on the explanation itself. See that I have tried to think of how the technique may mimic the theme of the poem. I have tried to think of how the two words beginning with ‘b’ placed next to each other may represent the feeling of romantic pursuit.
You can use this method for every poem and sound technique you may come across. In a war poem you may want to reflect on how a plosive sound would affect the reader differently than it does in a romantic poem. In a war poem the plosive sound would also serve well to reflect death, or perhaps the feeling of fear. More obviously, the plosive sounds may mimic the sound of bullets or bombs, or perhaps even the feeling of shell shock after an explosion.
I use another particular technique that I developed during my own GCSE’s that makes learning these explanations easy, and organizes them onto one piece of paper per poem. I have tested out this technique with a GCSE class at the school I used to attend, during a teacher experience day that I took part in. The teacher who supervised my lesson was so impressed with this technique that she now gives out a template of it to her GCSE pupils to fill in themselves. I would be happy to share this technique with any students who wish me to tutor them.
Ghazal by Mimi Khalvati
- Length: 629 words (1.8 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Khalvati uses a charming and seductive persona to readily demonstrate the feelings the speaker has for their beloved who is unattainable and beyond their reach and to also explore the different aspect of love such as love can be calm and contemplative as suggested by the ‘grass’ and ‘breeze’ . The relationship is first conveyed through the statement ‘if I am the grass and you the breeze, blow through me’ this is very sentimental and has a big emphasis on the power and beauty of nature contrasted with the easily changeable and equally powerful human emotion but it also establishes a very slow pace as to which the relationship is building. Also the underlying symbolism of the imagery being conveyed gives the reader a feeling of unease at the nature of power in this relationship. For example if you are a ‘breeze’ how powerful are you really from influence of the speaker I think this gives the impression that the love may not be genuine and the relationship maybe built on just the attractiveness of the speaker. Also ‘grass’ is very weak and I think this further emphasises how weak, manipulated and easily controlled the beloved is and that the beloved is presented as powerless to resist his or her feelings in the relationship whether they be true or not. Also ‘if’ makes the speaker sound wistful and full of desire for a relationship that is unfulfilling but beginning the couplet with ‘if’ creates a condition which is usually fulfilled in the second half.
Also the relationship is presented through Form. Ghazal contains at least ten shers each of them a single stanza but each developing a central argument for the speakers love and the shers also contains its own metaphor in which to express the speakers longing. The shers are also linked through a refrain which runs throughout the poem for example ‘woo me’, ‘cue me’ and ‘tattoo me’ which are all euphemisms for a romantic relationship and are seductive phrases that are targeted to the beloved from the speaker. This builds a powerful repetitive rhythm which lends itself to persuasion and suggests Khalvati’s first name, Mimi (me me). It is almost as if each refrain is a knocking at the door of the beloved’s heart and, with enough knocking, the door must surely open. In the last sher Khalvati signs her name ‘twice the me’ which is ghazal convention but she is not doing this exactly.
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The speaker offers herself as a symbol of victory for the beloved. For example ‘laurel leaf in your crown’ which presents the theme of love. We associate laurel leaves with roman emperors and they often won these after long struggles. This imagery suggest the beloved is hard to reach and presents the theme of impossible love as this gives the reader the impression that the relationship is likely to be beyond their reach. This also suggests that even though the relationship has been difficult that the beloved will be rewarded when he ‘places his arms around her bark’. The metaphorical language of the ‘tree’ suggests that the love is solid and everlasting. But the strange part of this image is ‘arms never new’ which gives the reader a sense that the lover is fantasising about a physical relationship and that her words are sentimental and not based on facts. This statement is also alluding to Apollo the god of music and reminisces about how he chased his love, a nymph through a forest and then nature changed her to laurel tree. Then Apollo embraced the tree and made a crown out of evergreen leaves. So the ‘laurel leaf’ suggest that the love between the speaker and the beloved is eternal and that Khalvati is imagining herself in her lovers arms but still admitting like Apollo and Daphne there ‘arms never knew’ which suggest that they have never shared a physical embrace.