When I came up with this category of blog post, I intended it to focus on things I understood perfectly the first time, but are difficult concepts for people to grasp, if they ever do at all. (We all know the pain of going into an exam where one of the major topics is completely foreign to you.)
That being said, I accept that my knowledge is limited. I’d have to teach myself some things eventually, to get ideas for blog posts if nothing else. So why not start off with something I myself didn’t understand very well in class?
I asked a friend for the first thing that came to mind in regards to things that are hard to understand. She gave me something that wasn’t even given a full lecture’s worth of time in one of my English classes: annotating poems. Something I actually know very little about. Time to do some reading.
To me, it seems as though annotation is utilized as the simplest way to get students to understand the meaning behind a poem and literary devices in general. Perhaps the biggest failing of teaching a class to annotate poetry is the purpose behind it. It shouldn’t be used as a means to teach examples of similes or tone. But annotation isn’t as simple as learning what the poet’s intent was and what devices they used to accomplish it. Annotation is necessary for an instructor to be able to effectively teach a poem. It’s necessary to write an effective essay on a poem. It’s a tool that gives more genuine understanding for a poem than simply looking up the themes and metaphors online would provide.
So, how do you annotate a poem? What does annotating even mean? Well, annotating simply means to write explanatory notes. It’s a note taking process. But before we take notes, you need to read the poem. At least twice, preferably. First, read the poem for the information. “What is happening in the poem?”. Next, read it for the words. How does the poet tell this story? Third, read it out loud. Many poems are intended to be oral. You’ll be surprised at the things you didn’t notice the first two times you read it.
Once you’re familiar with the poem, read it a fourth time. Take notes. Underline everything that seems important, unusual, or just strikes a certain chord with you. Don’t underline things arbitrarily. Write down why you underlined it! If you see a lot of repetition, underline each instance in which its used and make a note of that somewhere that makes sense on the paper. You should actually end up with about as many notes as words in the poem! That’s when you know you’re starting to get at the true meaning behind those words.
I would argue that looking for literary devices is actually the last thing you should do. It’s not to say that it’s the least important, simply the last. That’s because you should already have a good understanding of what the poet has said before you analyze the devices they used to say it. Pretty much all poets choose their words very carefully, but if you don’t understand the point they are trying to make, you can’t figure out the pieces they used to make it.
Annotating poems isn’t difficult, either. It’s a simple process to piece together the poet’s meaning for yourself. You cannot be wrong. You may come to a conclusion that the poet wasn’t aiming for, but the information is still relevant. Many poems operate on several levels of significance. The best way to figure it out on that many levels is to spend some quality time looking at the poem and giving it your full attention. Enjoy it! It can be fun if you let it.