It’s exam time, and you’re faced with a poem you haven’t seen before. How do you write about it?When I was studying for A-levels, a very wise man (ie, I can’t remember who it was) advised a group of us to use the acronym STRIVE as a framework. STRIVE stands for
- Subject. It’s possible to have a poem which is just a random collection of sounds — or even a carefully constructed collection of sounds — but 99% of poetry has a subject. The subject is what the poem is about —or, at least, the starting point. Quite often the clue is in the title. John Donne’s poem The Relic is about a ‘bracelet of bright hair about the bone’ dug up when Donne’s grave is eventually broken up again. John Keats’s To Autumn is, very obviously, about Autumn. Some poems are slightly more cunning. Browning’s My Last Duchess is about a murder. Generally, though, you don’t have to look far to find the subject, and, if you are under exam conditions, you should name it, and then move on.
- Theme. The theme is what the poem is ‘really’ about. It’s been said that all serious poetry is about God, sex (or love) and death, and that great poetry is often about more than one of them. The subject of Blake’s Tiger Tiger is, on the surface of it, a Tiger. But when you consider it further, it becomes clear that the poet is really interested not in the Tiger, but in the ‘immortal hand or eye’ that created it—in other words, God. The Relic, mentioned above, is about the power of love. Identifying the theme requires more reflection than the subject.
- Rhythm. Rhythm is one of the defining characteristics of poetry. Prose, of course, has its own rhythms, but poetry has rhythms which are much more apparent and distinctive. To appreciate a poem’s rhythm, read it silently-aloud — that is, speak it in your mind’s ear. Ask yourself, what are the distinctive rhythms of this peom. The Relic has a barking, biting rhythm to begin with, which is brought up suddenly sharp with ‘a bracelet of bright hair about the bone’. The rhythm in a good poem directs the reader’s ear to the most important parts. The rhythms in My last Duchess are much closer to speech—and direct the ear to hear the anger and then madness in the speaker’s voice. In free verse, there is no particular poetic form, and so rhythm becomes all important, as it is the only thing that holds the poem together. The love song of J Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot’s first great poem, is strongly rhythmic, but has no particular form — even the number of stresses or syllables in the line vary. Eliot uses rhythm to break, to challenge, to cause flow and stop. Alliteration and rhyme within the line are part of the rhythm, and should be commented on when they are important.
Once you’ve done STRIVE, you should have identified the main features of the poem. This is fine for an exam, when you’re under time pressure to critique a piece you’ve never seen before, but, ultimately, there is much more to a poem than a list of six things. The secret to poetry is reading it aloud, and reading it actively so that it sinks into you.