How to write a personal response essay to a poem

Personal response: developing a viewpoint

Ideas and attitude

When you’ve got to know a poem, you can begin to understand the ideas and attitudes in it. Ask yourself, what else is happening in the poem? What do you think the speaker feels? What do you think the poet might have been trying to say?

If you were reading the poem aloud, what kind of voice would you use? Would you be angry? Happy? Excited? Or something else? How would you want an audience to react when they heard it? Read a number of poems aloud in different tones. Which one fits best?

Sample answer unseen poetry

When tackling the unseen poem, discuss the three T’s – themes , tone and techniques AKA ideas , feelings and style of writing. Don’t feel you have to be complimentary about the entire poem and don’t feel you have to discuss every line. Oh, and obviously I’m at a big advantage here: the poem isn’t unseen to me because I wrote the bloody thing!

Red = tone / feelings

Purple = techniques / style

Green = personal opinion / response

Bold = flow (connectives / linking phrases)

Write a personal response to the poem “Mother” by Evelyn O’Connor.

What first strikes me is the depth of love and admiration the poet feels for her mother. She compares her to the sun in an extended metaphor which runs the entire length of the poem. The comparison is a clever one, for how else would we survive without the warmth and protection offered to us by the sun and by our beloved mothers?

I also like how the transition from present to past is achieved as she “orbit[s] the past, a seething mass of nuclear energy” and offers us vivid images of her childhood through the use of very active verbs “swimming…splashing…eating“. There’s a lovely music in the internal half-rhymes of “so / don’t, past / mass, gingerbread men / then, eclipse / crisp” and the focus on food captures the innocent joy of being a kid: she remembers “Easter chocolate nests, plum puddings at Christmas, gingerbread men and now and then éclairs oozing cream down greedy fingers“. The way the layout of the poem mimics the action being described also made me smile, as the cream – and the poem – flows down the page. For me this flashback sequence is the strongest section of the poem.

However, there are times when the rhymes don’t really work – “sea / library” seems a bit forced, and the poem borders on cliché on occasion, particularly when she observes “doubtless we could search to the ends of the earth for something you would not do for us“. Furthermore, for me the final line seems hopelessly naive “the sun keeps shining and never will die” although this could perhaps be testimony to the poet’s firm belief that she simply could not survive without her mother , who “never burn[s] out” and “never burn[s] up“.

Nonetheless , I do like how the poem captures the universal truth that it’s hard to really get to know your parents (“once I saw a solar eclipse…but it was over all too quickly and my vision blurred”) particularly if you grow up in a big family where there are “so many… always wanting, needing, asking, pleading, bleeding dry your store of selfless love“. The poem captures ‘big truths’ but perhaps not in a very original way.

How to Write a Response to a Poem

For many young readers, the first classroom encounter with poetry is met with confusion, as unfamiliarity with the basics of meter, rhyme schemes, rhythm and verse structure make interpretation seem difficult. If you are a student with the assignment of interpreting a poem, you can proceed by analyzing the poem in terms of structure, language and meaning.

Analyze the poem’s structure, which includes questions about the form of the poem, its genre, use of meter (rhythmic structure) and rhyme scheme. Notice whether the poet adopts a traditional form, such as the sonnet or haiku, or the modern convention of free verse. The number of syllables in each line is a clue to its structure, as is the arrangement of verses (stanzas.) Rhyme schemes are typically analyzed using the shorthand of matching letters (for example, «ABAB ABAB.»)

Comment on the poet’s use of language. If the word choice seems unusual, ask why the poet chose these particular words. Notice the ways in which the language sounds like music, paying attention to such elements as tone, pitch, rhythm and melody. Take note of uses of metaphor, simile, metonymy, alliteration, symbolism and imagery.

Interpret the meaning of the poem. What is the main idea the poet is trying to communicate? What mood does the poem attempt to establish, and what kind of emotional response does it evoke in a reader? Note the use of literary techniques such as irony, foreshadowing, suspense, narrative voice and setting.