Monday, July 18, 2016

How Do You Annotate Poetry?

Pandora's Box
Flickr Credit: Vicious Bits
Annotating poetry is the bomb dot com. If it weren’t for the lessons received from my 12th grade English teacher, college would be a heck of a lot harder. Poetry is everywhere and it’s a complex thing, so coming up with a system to understand it has been a true lifesaver for me.

I like to learn by doing, so I’ll demonstrate how I annotate through a reading of “Pandora” by Topaz Winters, which was originally published on her blog. (Thanks for letting me use your poem, Topaz!) For your convenience, here is the poem:

And I could’ve kissed you. Right there,
you with that dance and me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. Who knew people could be sunlight.
Add that to the things I’ve learned
while trying and failing to wrestle this year into submission:
one, a body is a prayer, not a temple.
two, is it really so selfish to want to be the one thing you’ll never say out loud?
three, the closet/the humming box/the things that come out of both of them.
four, yes, you idiot, of course I’m in love with you.
How many times do I have to tell you before you pick up the goddamn phone?
So me, I’m over here choking myself to sleep and you, you’re
busy kissing all the tornadoes in Kansas good night.
Like there’s anything more mutual than waiting.
Like there’s anything left, except for maybe everything.
Telephone cord dangling like something burnt to death,
the closet/the humming box/the things that are best left closed.
Me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. It’s been a long year.
Me with the look on my face that says
goddamn. Just look at that,
darling. Just look at you dance.
–Topaz Winters (source)

Gorgeous, right? But maybe also a lot to take in? I get that. That’s why I have my system.

1. Get Some Context

It can help to know where the writer is from, what year it was written, some personal history, and many other details if you can get them. For now, these are Topaz’s thoughts in her original blog post:
“Here is a poem about love. […]It is also a poem about destruction and sadness and waiting and Greek mythos. And it is a poem about healing. And music. All things, after all, are about music.”

Even if you’ve never heard of Topaz before, you have a few themes to start from and an idea of what Topaz might care about.

2. SOAPSTTone It

This is a common teaching tool that gives focus to your investigation of a text. It’s super tedious with prose, but my go-to method for poetry.

Subject: What is the poem about? Give an overview of the topic. *For “Pandora,” I might say this poem is about love in the face of evil.

Occasion: What is the (temporal) context in which the poem is written? Note if the poem takes place during a particular season or after a certain event, etcetera. I like to think of it as, “Upon _____, the speaker wrote this poem.” *Upon seeing her lover dance, the speaker wanted to end the silence.

Audience: Who is the poem speaking to? Observe whether the poem is addressed to any particular person or idea. *The speaker addresses her lover. 

Purpose: What is the reason for this poem? This is the message the poem tries to convey, the ultimate point, the meaning intended in the poem. It helps to do this part last, when you have all the details.

Speaker: How does the speaker characterize his or herself? This is not the poet (necessarily) but only what we know of the speaker from the actual poem. *Words to describe Pandora (our speaker) include struggling, frustrated, enamored, queer, and silent. 

Title: What is the poem’s title? My teacher added this in because a poem’s title often informs us of the subject matter. *For example, “Pandora” alludes to the woman who unleashed all evil upon the world. This indicates that “the humming box” refers to Pandora’s box from mythology.

Tone: What is the speaker’s attitude? This is usually conveyed through the word choice and literary devices present in the poem. I tend to accomplish this in the next two steps.

3. Word Sort

Now I like to grab a few highlighters and start sorting words. By highlighting common themes, I can pick out the speaker’s focus and feelings. In this poem, I highlighted disasters (like those of Pandora’s box), love words, time words, and words referring to speaking aloud.

(Click to see full size)

4. Pick Out Literary Devices

At this stage I pick out significant pieces of language (here’s a list of literary devices, should you need them). This is everything from metaphors to sibilance to allusions. This poem alludes to Pandora (of course) and the Biblical 1 Corinthians 6:19. She also uses apostrophe to address her lover, who is not present (to us, anyway).

And, of course, there’s a lot more that one could do, but this is where I like to get started. I would encourage you to pull out a piece of paper and SOAPSTTone this poem yourself and figure out the purpose of the poem yourself! (If you need some hints, headers with stars have my own interpretations in white.)

What does your SOAPSTTone of “Pandora” look like? Do you have a system for annotating poetry?


  1. This is really great. :) I've done a lot of poetry analysis, but nothing as specifically focused and organized as this method. So thank you. :) *nods* And also, thank you for reminding me about this poem because it's my favorite of Topaz's poems, and she is a genius, and yeah. :P

    1. I've found it helpful myself. :) I hope you find it useful yourself sometime. And yes, Topaz is an amazing writer!

  2. I've used a lot of SOAPSTone in English class, but it's nice when I can connect my critical analysis skills to stuff I read for pleasure. I haven't done this a lot with voluntarily read poems though (a lot meaning not at all). I guess I also just like the feeling a poem can give without being analysed? (or maybe I'm just lazy. Probably a combination). I often feel like bloggers don't do critical analysis enough, and focus on the feels, but here I am being a hypocrite and not doing critical analysis and focusing on a poem's feels :) This is super helpful though. I don't think I've read this before, and it's lovely (Topaz is rather, eh?).

    1. XD Well, not everyone gets as excited about poetry as I do. And I'm not saying you can't enjoy a poem without analyzing it, but for me, I never enjoy it nearly as much until I've done such an analysis. Topaz is absolutely a lovely writer! (Part of the reason why I asked her about doing this.)

  3. THIS IS SO GREAT. Although I do quite enjoy analysing poetry, I've been plagued by English teachers who just want me to regurgitate their opinion rather than teaching me how to formulate mine. *sighs*
    Anyway! I've never heard of SOAPSTone before -- that might just be because I'm in the UK though haha, It's really cool to see someone else's annotating technique, especially with such a wonderful poem. :) I'm definitely going to bookmark this for future reference!

    1. I THINK SO TOO. That's really sad, actually. I've heard unfortunate things like that before, that teachers just want to hear their own voices repeated back to them, and I'm always disappointed to hear that.

      I don't know if you guys have anything similar to College Board over in the UK? They might have something similar? But I would not know. Especially since College Board seems to have a semi-international influence. Glad you enjoyed this post, Eve!


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