Poetry Comparison Essay

Assignment: Compare two poems from the textbook that deal with a common theme that is important to you, such as identity position (e.g., a cultural identity, a relational identity such as being a parent or child) or defining life experience (e.g., the experience of combat). Your paper will explain how the poems use some of the poetic devices we’ve been discussing to express distinct attitudes towards their common subject. It will point out the similarities and differences in the ways the two poems do this. Therefore, you will need to compare and contrast the general tones of the poems as well as how they use 2-4 poetic devices to create those tones. Poetic devices you might want to consider include diction, imagery, figurative language, sound (including rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and meter), and form.

Your audience for this paper is other students who have read these poems. You can assume that your reader has the poems in front of them, so you don’t need to quote the whole poem, though a brief paraphrase might be useful. You will need to quote specific lines, phrases, or words to point out specific features of the poems. Your purpose is to help your reader see the differences and similarities in the two poems and, consequently, to better understand how each one works to create its particular effects or meanings.

Your paper should be 800 – 1000 words long, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins. Use of secondary sources (other than our own textbook) is not allowed for this assignment. If you have questions about the poem, ask the instructor.

Here are some possible topics, though you might choose a pairing of poems from the textbook on a different topic. Choose two of the poems on a subject and explain how they represent the theme differently, and the tone they take toward it. How does each poem use 2-4 specific poetic devices to create its tone?

  1. Gender: “Barbie Doll,” “The Changeling,” “The Kind of Man I am at the DMV,” “Mr. T—,” “To the Ladies,” “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”
  2. Racial Oppression: “Still I Rise,” “We Wear the Mask,” “I, Too,” “Harlem,” “The Weary Blues,” If We Must Die,” “America,” “The White House.”
  3. Family Relationships: “Those Winter Sundays,” “My Mother,” “Morning Song,” “In the Park,” “Daystar,” “Elena,” “Mothers and Daughters,” “Eden,” “To a Daughter Leaving Home,” “My Father’s Song,” “The Business,” “Begotten,” “My Papa’s Waltz,” “This Be the Verse,” “Marks,” “The Victims.”
  4. War: “To Lucasta” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Jundee Ameriki,” “The Call”
  5. Homelands: “Africa,” “A Far Cry from Africa,” “The Latin Deli: An Ars Poetica,” “Heaven,” “Postcard from Kashmir, “Escape from the Old Country”



  1. Pick two poems dealing with a common theme.
  2. Read each one through a few times, including out loud, to begin to get a general sense of the claims it is making about its subject and the tone or attitude towards that subject that you hear in the speaker’s voice. Keep in mind that tone may change over the course of a poem.
  3. Try to make sense of any tricky or ambiguous lines. Ask questions if you need to.
  4. Use the list of questions below to help you identify the specific poetic devices used in each poem. Pay special attention to lines or passages that seem important to establishing the poem’s general meaning or tone. Consider how the specific poetic devices seem to be contributing to the poem’s meaning, tone, or effects.
  5. Note similarities and differences between the poems’ general meanings, claims, or tone. Note similarities and differences between the way the poems use specific poetic devices to create those meanings, claims, or tones. Your paper doesn’t need to discuss all the formal elements on the list below, just 2-4 that seem to play an important role in creating the poems’ tones.


There are two general ways to organize a comparison/contrast argument of this sort. One way would be to discuss each poem separately: that is, say everything you have to say about poem A and then say everything you have to say about poem B. At some point, either in the discussion of poem B or in a concluding section of the paper, you need to point out the similarities and differences you’ve discovered, both the general ones and the specific ones. The second way to organize such an argument would be to discuss comparable aspects of the poems one at a time: thus, you might have a paragraph or two on how each one uses imagery, followed by a discussion of how each one uses figurative language, followed by a discussion of how each one uses rhyme, etc.

For most papers on this assignment, I think the first approach would probably work better. It allows you to offer a more coherent reading of each poem, rather than making your reader skip back and forth between the two poems. The second approach might work for two poems that are very similar, such as two different Shakespeare sonnets. If you like the second approach, be sure to give your reader a quick overview of the similarities and differences you will focus on at the beginning of the paper, to help your reader stay oriented.

Whichever approach you take, I’d recommend outlining this paper before you begin drafting it. Sometimes outlines can be stifling, but the organization of this sort of paper will probably be

pretty straightforward in most cases. Of course, if you come up with a neat or useful insight after you’ve made your outline, find some way to adjust the outline to fit it in.

Keep in mind that you will probably not want to write about all the poetic features and devices you identify in each poem. Rather, you will want to pick the ones that seem important in creating each poem’s distinct tone, effect, or meaning.

Create a rough draft of the paper and get and apply feedback before submitting the final draft.

Get to Know Your Poems

Having picked the poems you’ll be writing about in the Poetry Comparison Essay, take the following initial steps to begin exploring each one:

  1. Try to decide the subject and theme of the poem:

Subject: what is the poem about?

Theme: what does the poem seem to say or feel about its subject?

  1. Figure out how to read the poem aloud. Follow the punctuation.
  2. Attempt to paraphrase the poem. Are there any words or lines whose sense is not clear to you?
  3. How would you define the tone of the poem? Is the tone consistent throughout or does it change? What poetic devices create the poem’s tone?
  4. Identify words, phrases, or lines which for any reason seem to stand out when you read them. Can you explain why they do? Do they stand out for a reason? Are they particularly significant in the poem?
  5. What is the structure of the poem? Does it seem to be a closed form or open form poem? Why? If closed form, what are its important formal structures (e.g., line lengths, rhyme scheme, stanza form, etc.)? In either case, does it seem to be broken into parts, sections, or steps?
  6. Identify all imagery in the poem. What kinds are there? You might want to list the imagery in order to see what the sequence of images suggests.
  7. Identify all figurative language in the poem. What specific kinds of figurative language do you find (e.g., metaphor, simile, personification, metonymy, etc.)? What effect does the figurative language have? What do the figures suggest about the things they denote?
  8. Find examples of alliteration, assonance, or other interesting uses of the sounds of words. Do these uses of sound “echo” the sense of the poem?
  9. If the poem rhymes, does it follow a structured rhyme scheme? Do the rhymes create a strong sense of rhythm in the poem? Do they highlight important words? Do you notice internal rhymes?
  10. Does the poem contain caesura that interrupt the rhythms of certain lines? What effects are created at the ends of lines? What lines are end-stopped or run-on? Does the poem sound musical, conversational, rough, smooth?
  11. Scan the poem for stressed and unstressed syllables and for significant pauses. Do these rhythmic devices enhance the poem’s effectiveness? Does the poem follow a particular form or meter?
  12. Review your responses to the above questions. Begin to note ways in which these features of the poem work together to contribute to the poem’s meanings or effects.