Poetry is often one of the more difficult forms of literature that students are asked to write about. It doesn’t have a consistent structure, sometimes doesn’t have a plot or characters, and is rife with symbolism.
But one of the most frequently asked questions on writing about poetry is how to quote a poem in an analytical essay.
Fortunately, I know a thing or two about quotes, and I’m here to help you out with yours. Before we get into how to quote a poem, though, let’s talk about why and when you should do it.
Why Quote a Poem in the First Place?
Quotes, when used correctly, can be an incredibly powerful tool. However, students and writers often fall into one of two traps:
- They use quotes indiscriminately without thinking about the most effective way to incorporate them into their writing (we’ll talk about this in the next section).
- They don’t use any quotes at all because they think their writing is good enough to stand on its own.
But here’s the thing… you’re not writing poetry. You’re writing about a specific poem. And that means you’ll have to reference it.
The best literary critics always quote the literature they’re critiquing—it’s part of the job description.
But this begs the question: why is it part of the job description? Why do critics (and students) need to quote the poem in the first place? There are two simple answers.
The first is to give credit where credit is due.
If you’re writing about the poem, you’re going to be talking about the ideas, symbols, and concepts described in it. These aren’t your ideas—they belong to the author. Quoting gives the author that credit.
Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty of space within your essay to share your own original ideas—and you’re strongly encouraged to do this.
The second answer is that quoting a poem gives validity to your writing.
Think about it. Would you trust a movie review if the reviewer doesn’t give you some details about the movie? Would you trust a food critic who couldn’t tell you the ingredients in a dish? Of course not!
You can think about your essay the same way.
Quoting a poem shows your reader that you understand it enough to pick out the important details. These details are the main ingredients of the poem.
Whether you’re comparing and contrasting two poems or writing a regular ol’ literary analysis on a single poem, you’re picking the details out and talking about how they reflect the tone, mood, symbolism, or some other element of the poem(s).
When to Use Quotations
All the technical details about how to quote a poem properly are relatively easy to learn. The hard part is knowing when to quote.
As I mentioned before, some writers fall into the trap of quoting without thinking about how a quote is useful in the essay.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this issue. When to use a quote often depends on the length of the poem, the required length of the essay, your individual writing style, your thesis statement, and a host of other things.
But just because there’s no easy answer doesn’t mean you should give up. Here are the two biggest tips on when to use a quote.
Tip #1. Quote only when necessary
Whenever you’re about to use a quote, ask yourself what it adds to your essay. If it serves as supporting evidence, that’s great. If it simplifies your writing, that’s good too.
Too many people go to great lengths to dance around the symbol or whatever they’re talking about to avoid quoting. That’s making more work for yourself and ultimately makes your essay more confusing to read.
If you’re going to talk about the meaning behind the words, explain what the words are and then talk about the meaning.
Tip #2. Use quotes as supporting evidence for your arguments—not the arguments themselves
This is true with quoting any form of literature.
You’re never going to find your argument in the poem itself. You develop your own argument and explain why you think you’re right. That explanation needs specific evidence, which may come in the form of a quote.
For example, when analyzing “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, your argument may be that the Raven symbolizes the narrator’s near-neurotic mourning over Lenore.
You could point to the line “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore” being repeated so often as a sign of the narrator’s neuroticism, sadness, and feeling of loss.
Getting the balance right can be tricky.
Want more examples? Check out how these students use quotes as support in their essays:
- The Theme of Work in Harvest Song by Jean Toomer, On Dumpster Diving by Lars Eighner, I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen, and the We Can Do It Image
- The Struggles of Immigrants in the United States and the Search for Identity in The Latin Deli: Prose and Poetry, a Poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer
No matter how many examples you see, though, as with any skill, using quotes the right way takes a little time and practice—and a little technical know-how. We’ll get into that now.
How to Use Punctuation When Quoting a Poem
Punctuation for quoting poetry is mostly the same as quoting anything else when it comes to punctuation. However, because of the way poems are formatted, there are a couple extra things to be aware of.
First, let’s review ending punctuation. In any type of quote, if there’s a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence you’re quoting, it goes inside of the quotation marks.
Let’s look at part of “The Raven” again. The original line (line 8) is, “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” This phrase ends in a period.
If you use this as a quote on its own, you would include that period and put it inside the quotation marks. The same would be true if the quote ended in an exclamation point or question mark.
However, the rules change somewhat when you’re using the quote as part of a larger statement. Look at the following examples:
What did Poe mean when he said, “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor”?
Poe writes, “And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor,” which shows [insert well-written, beautifully articulated analysis here].
In the first case, you’re asking a question about the quote. You use a question mark but put it outside the quotation marks.
In the second case, you continue the sentence after the quote. You change the ending punctuation to a comma so that you have one continuous sentence.
The biggest change in punctuation when quoting a poem, as opposed to longer-form literature, is the use of slashes. This is done when you’re quoting two or three lines of poetry. The slashes denote a new line. They each have a space preceding and following them.
This is how our example would look:
Poe states, “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (7-8).
If the quote you’re using is more than three lines, simply use a block quote (without quotation marks or slashes) and try to keep the formatting as close as possible to the original poem.
Crediting the Author
The last two components you need to learn when you’re figuring out how to quote a poem are where to put the author and the line number(s).
Many students would write, “Poe said this,” “Shakespeare wrote this,” and so on. But doing that several times within your essay just gets redundant and boring. Sometimes you may only be using one- or two-word quotes as part of an explanation.
Other times, you might just not want to start yet another sentence with the author’s name. That’s fine. Simply put the author’s last name in parentheses with the line number(s) directly after the quote.
That would look something like this:
“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain / Thrilled me–filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before” (Poe 13–14).
Notice that there’s no punctuation mark between the author and the line numbers—just a single space.
The line numbers are important to include no matter where you mention the author. Just remember that they always go in parentheses after the quote.
Note, however, that sometimes you’ll need page numbers instead of line numbers.
When in Doubt…
Still not sure you got the punctuation quite right? That’s okay—not even the professionals get it right 100% of the time. But the professionals have something many students don’t—editors.
Fortunately, the Kibin editors are just a click away. They’ll help out with quotes or whatever else you’re not sure about.
So now that you know how to quote a poem, it’s time to start actually doing it—happy writing!