How to Annotate a Poem and Why
Annotating a poem is certainly not an exercise in futility. In order to understand the importance and purpose of annotating a poem, you first need to know the definition of “annotation.” An annotation is a marking done by the reader on a written work to help bring attention to or comment on a word, phrase, connection, or any aspect of the writing that the writer finds interesting, of note, or of potential importance.
Many students “hate” reading poetry because they think they do not understand the art form or what the poem means. (Just read Billy Collins' poem about how most students approach poetry and poems, “Introduction to Poetry.”) But annotations can help anyone find meaning in a poem. Poems are subjective and therefore take on a different connotation for each reader. It is when someone tries to impart his or her meaning on someone else as the only interpretation that people can get turned off by poetry. With annotations, one can at least come to have an appreciation for what is written in the poem and the stylistic elements used.
Sample Annotated Poem
Here is an example of my annotations for “Sonnet 75” by Edmund Spenser. Figure 1 shows the printed poem with annotations. These annotations were computer generated, as this annotation process was originally submitted for a course assignment. Since this was the end product of an assigned work, it could not be assumed the professor would understand what my annotations meant. As such, a key, much like the kind used for maps, was included. This is what you see in figure 2.
Key for Annotations
The benefits of using tools on the computer to complete annotations were many:
- If I made a mistake, all I had to do was hit “control + z” to undo the previous action. This saved me from having to print out a new copy of the poem and start over again.
- I could easily duplicate the annotation in any place in the poem by using copy and paste. This is even easier when using the shortcut keys “control + c” and “control + v.” Complicated symbols were easy to duplicate without variance in presentation.
- Smaller markings that would be almost impossible by hand were easy. Imagine tracing over just one letter every time you wanted to indicate internal rhyme or use color coding.
- It was easy to save a copy anywhere for future reference, like for this hub.
Why Annotation is Important
Any student that is asked to go through the annotation process often wonders why. As mentioned above, annotations help bring attention to or comment on a word, phrase, connection, or any aspect of the writing that the writer finds interesting, of note, or of potential importance. Just looking at a poem in black and white does not make many aspects of style or devices stand out. Once a poem is annotated, you can start seeing connections that help to answer the overarching questions when studying poetry: 1) What does the poem mean? and 2) How does that poem mean? The difference in these questions often confuse students. All you need to know for now is that you cannot answer the second question without annotations; however, you only need an opinion to answer the first question. Here are some things to consider as to the importance of making annotations:
- You can see if there is a regular interval for the use of certain devices, like repetition and rhyme to highlight the theme of the poem.
- Does the punctuation used say something about the speaker of the poem? Hesitant, disruptive, confident, rambling, etc.? For example, a lot of end-stopped lines could be symbolic of someone that has complete thoughts, whereas a lot of enjambment could signal a speaker without restraint.
- If there is only a one-time occurrence of a device or certain word or punctuation being used, is the poet and/or speaker trying to draw specific attention to it? If so, does this help to progress the theme or another aspect of the poem?
Of course the list is endless for how annotations can help anyone find meaning in a poem. To see how annotations develop into finding out what and how a poem means, click here to see an example of an essay that brings all these elements together.
Links for More Examples of Annotating a Poem
- How a poet annotates poems: http://www.davidwheldon.co.uk/annotated_poems.html
Take a listen to Billy Collins read the poem “Introduction to Poetry.”
About the Author
Stephanie Bradberry is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, Education and Business and as a high school English teacher. She runs a home-based business, Naturally Fit & Well, LLC, which includes her all-natural, handmade, and customizable product line, Bradberry. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.