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How to Annotate a Poem and Why

Updated on May 30, 2016
StephanieBCrosby profile image

Stephanie Bradberry is an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. Her academic career includes teaching, tutoring, writing and editing.

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

Fig. 1
Fig. 1 | Source

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

Fig. 2
Fig. 2 | Source

The benefits of using tools on the computer to complete annotations were many:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Take a listen to Billy Collins read the poem “Introduction to Poetry.”

Stephanie Bradberry
Stephanie Bradberry | Source

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.

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    • jojo29 profile image

      Jane Boucheirre 

      4 years ago from CA

      That's clever....

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      4 years ago from New Jersey

      Thanks, chef-de-jour.

      Your comment was too well composed and wisely stated to be other than whom you finally reveal who you are at the end. I was reading your lovely comment, and finally was able to say, "A-ha!" I had you pegged from the start :) Awesome words from an awesome person.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Stephanie, I really enjoyed this guided tour through the basics of annotation, an essential tool some might say for the thorough understanding of a poem. Students and lovers of poetry will find it useful I'm sure, (even if they're initially daunted by the name of such a master of the sonnet form - Mr Spenser!) because once they know how it's done, can apply their knowledge to any other poem.

      As an English and drama teacher - and composer of dubious poetry - I appreciate this well written, informative hub.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      5 years ago from New Jersey

      Hi Deborah Brooks,

      Thanks so much. However did you guess I am a teacher? But you have me pegged!

      Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing :)

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      this is a very good informative hub on poetry.. I am sharing this on Facebook on the poetry page.. nice to meet you..

      blessings to you

      Debbie

      You must be a teacher..

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Hello Camille Pegram. No problem. Anytime! Glad I could help.

    • profile image

      Camille Pegram 

      6 years ago

      Thank you very much.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      manatita44, I figure if this is the only life I have I better make the most of it. Thanks.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      6 years ago from london

      More than average: 'always working to be better,' 'good example for my kids.' Always hold your head high, and yes, the message of self-transcendence is one of zenith-height. Keep on working for the better. Many heavenly blessings.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Hello again, manatita44.

      Thanks for the compliment. As for a full life, well there is a lot on my plate, but I am always working to be better and getting to a point to be able to do all the things I enjoy without having to worry about "money" while setting a good example for my kids. Just an average gal I guess.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      6 years ago from london

      Quite so, Stephanie,

      Never in question. There are many who would benefit from your approach. You seem to enjoy a full life. Best wishes to a fellow writer.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      There are many writers and artists that do not care to have their work ripped apart for meaning. However, us teachers of literature would have nothing to do if we did not dissect the work of others.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      6 years ago from london

      Prefer to be creative and imaginary. The aesthetic or esoteric writer essentially draws from inspiration and does not like to dissect his work. Interestingly enough, I thought that Billy Collins was saying something similar.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Laurinzo Scott, please do not call me Ms. Crosby, way too formal and I am hopefully not that old. Thanks for the compliment and glad you found this hub of use.

    • profile image

      Laurinzo Scott 

      6 years ago

      Wow Ms. Crosby I am very happy to have run across this one... and yes it is so important to us writers to get what we feel accross. A common sense , educated approach... great!

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      You are quite welcome CloudExplorer.

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 

      6 years ago from New York City

      No problem @ Stephanie, anytime for you, oh thanks for reading my tribute to Whitney Houston, that was so thoughtful of you.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Hello AudreyHowitt. Thanks for reading. I am glad you found this article worthwhile. I am also in constant pursuit of making my writing better.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      6 years ago from California

      Very interesting hub--the longer I write, the more I think about truly understanding form and its function(s). Having tools to do so is important---I look forward t6o following you and reading your hubs!

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Thanks, CloudExplorer. I must say that I was not a big fan of poetry until undergraduate. But I really started liking poetry in my master's program because the professor did not force anything on anyone and stressed that there was no one way to read a poem or a "right" answer. As long as you could explain your thinking and process for the meter and rhythm chosen, you were fine. I really respected this and try to emulate it when I teach poetry units.

      I agree that annotation is a useful key to unlocking many things about a poem. I don't like when someone tries to say they know everything about the poem and their reading is the right and only one. I have seen the light go out in people's eyes when they encounter someone who instructs like this. The point is to explore and think, not dictate and dominate.

      Thanks for all your kinds words about my writing.

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 

      6 years ago from New York City

      Very interesting hub here, I like how you've examined poetry in such a not so well known way of using "annotation", and as to make it a convenient method of choice. Revealing what the true meaning of a poem is to the viewer who's intrigued to learn isn't easy at all with some poems.

      Many poets embed deep sublime forms of hidden messages to their audience and so annotation may be that key to unlock its not so obvious secrets.

      I love writing poetry, but the only technique I've learned to utilize in my writings are known as iambic pentameter, and it was taught to me as a child by my elementary school English teacher.

      I held tightly to her teachings and further developed my style of poetry writing years later, as a creative writer in high school and beyond. Today my poetry has sort of evolved into a technologically fueled twist of words mostly, because I loved science and technology so much throughout all my educative grammar school and college years experience overall.

      This hub is powerfully presented, and I commend you for doing a great job at providing such a useful well thought out informative piece of writing.

      Voted up as, awesome, useful, and interesting.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      JimmieWriter, then you really, really shouldn't be feeling bad. The M.S. focuses on teaching techniques whereas the M.A. focuses on the straight literature. So come out of hiding!

    • JimmieWriter profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      6 years ago from Memphis, TN USA

      Now I confess that I also have a MS in English education. (Hiding....)

      :-) Thanks for your gracious answer. You are right. We are always learning.

    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      JimmieWriter, don't feel bad about not knowing the term enjambment. That's the great thing about continuing education and always being willing and open to learn something new. I had a B.A. in English and did not know the term. It was not until my M.A. English program and a poetry seminar that I learned the term, along with a ton of others.

    • JimmieWriter profile image

      Jimmie Quick 

      6 years ago from Memphis, TN USA

      Enjambment is a new term for me. Thanks for the link. (I even have a degree in English! But there is always something new to learn, isn't there?) As a grammar nerd and literature lover, I enjoyed this hub. I don't think I've ever annotated a poem. (Maybe I forgot?) I have seen something similar to this for Bible study, though.

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