Poetry Analysis Will Save Your Life

During my three years of studying English Literature at Cardiff University, I met many students who enjoy reading poetry and feel confident to analyse it, but also a few who seemed to have an innate fear of the medium. Sometime along their high school education, they had gained the impression that poetry is either so undefined a genre that almost anyone could claim to write it, or an elitist combination of complex metaphors and obscure hidden messages beyond their powers of cognition. This way of thinking is so contrary to my experiences of poetry that I am stuck speechless whenever I encounter it, unable to explain the central role the reading and writing of poetry has played in my life. As schools across England were faced with the looming possibility of the removal of this subject as a compulsory component in the 2021 GCSE exams this August, I felt compelled to share my experiences with poetry and argue for its importance for any literature curriculum.

Though I didn’t always feel as passionately about poetry as I do now, four years into a hobby of writing it. I didn’t spare the genre much thought until I was forced to study a number of established Bulgarian poets from the late 19th through mid-20th centuries as part of my preparation for the final high school Bulgarian Language & Literature exam called the ‘Matura’. Back then, the expectations for the analytical essay based on one of the set texts appalled me – instead of demonstrating our independent views on the work, students are encouraged to memorize the opinions of accepted critics and merely paraphrase their canonical readings in their writing. Not to mention that in a syllabus which includes fifteen authors, only one was a woman, in line with the deeply ingrained sexism of any literary canon in our patriarchal world. But during my lessons with a brilliant private teacher, something unexpected happened – I fell in love with classical Bulgarian poetry, with the symbolist miniatures of Pencho Slaveykov, the revolutionary experimentalism of Geo Milev and the feminist verses of Elisaveta Bagryana. More than that, I started writing poetry of my own, but in English. My early foray into the genre had a purely therapeutic purpose – I wrote to understand and overcome my emotional trauma and calm my ever-present anxiety. The activity enabled me to get to know myself more intimately, and encourages me to face and discuss my unspoken fears and desires while striving to create an artistic and ambiguous text to this day. Although not without its issues, my high school introduction to poetry analysis and writing revealed to me the potential of poetic expression to aid mental health as well as the sheer delight of attempting to explain deliberately difficult-to-understand texts.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my first lectures on Critical Reading at Cardiff University that I was introduced to the Western mode of literary analysis, and my eyes were opened to how much the Bulgarian educational system had failed me. Before, no teacher had encouraged me to defend my own argument instead of disregarding my opinion as ‘wrong’ because it didn’t correspond to their own. No one had invited me to take a New Criticism approach to a text, dismissing the biography of the author and focusing on the text as an independent entity whose meaning inevitably fluctuates with each new reader. No one had praised me for daring to argue with a published critic or for deriving a completely new meaning from a text they had been teaching for years.

This is the true beauty of literary analysis, which applies to poetry most of all thanks to its tendency to accommodate conflicting readings and its resemblance to a riddle of allusions and metaphors. By motivating students to pay attention to every miniscule detail in a poem, to justify the presence of every seemingly random word, and to conduct research that would enable them to offer a reading of a textual form that often defies interpretation, poetry analysis develops students’ intellectual potential. The skills most valued by top employers include critical and creative thinking, attention to detail, and the ability to digest complex information in order to find the threads that connect seemingly unrelated pieces of data in the digital age, all of which are developed by the literary analysis of poems. To give an example, in my essay on Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Cut’ for one of my undergraduate modules, I connected her comparison of the cut thumb to ‘turkey wattle’ with my overall argument about the poem’s depiction of ‘women’s domestic confinement in 1950s America as a patriarchal threat to their individuality, intellect, and sanity’. To assert that ‘women’s compulsory domestic confinement enables the sexual exploitation of their bodies, invoked through the image of the “turkey” as a symbol of both women’s inability to take flight from the cage of domesticity as well as their metaphorical consumption in the sexual act’, I employed both independent analysis of the poem and secondary research in citing Marina Warner’s study of fairytale conventions, From the Beast to the Blonde, for my final point. The development of such complex arguments as well as their robust defense are activities which encourage students to expand their mental capacities and become better thinkers and researchers, abilities which will be immensely useful to them no matter their future career.

So I was frankly disappointed to hear about the possibility of waiving poetry as a compulsory GCSE subject in England next year. Far from an exercise in the identification of literary devices, poetry analysis challenges us to think in an atypical manner and develops both our creativity and our critical thinking, which will always be vital skills to possess in our information-saturated society. Four years after falling in love with poetry, I’ve completed some of my most rewarding academic modules on this genre, and I still write poems which help me come to terms with myself and the world around me. I hope that students in England will continue to be encouraged to explore a field which is no less necessary and important for its frequent disregard.