SAT Literature Subject Test
Cracking the SAT Literature Subject Test
Poetry Doesn’t Bite
Poetry has a reputation for being unnecessarily complex and hard to understand, but often the poetry passages are the easiest on the SAT Literature Subject Test. In this chapter, we’ll give you the tools with which you can successfully analyze poetry, including form, meter, and theme. We will also discuss classical and modern poetry, and there is a list of useful terms, as well.
WHAT IS POETRY?
In Chapter 6 we discussed the definition of poetry: “a rhythmic expression of feelings and ideas.” That’s a pretty vague definition, but we keep it vague on purpose. Poetry encompasses a broad range of material. It’s a category that ranges from the works of William Shakespeare to T. S. Eliot. Some people would even include the lyrics of songs as poetry, because song lyrics often have meter and rhyme.
The most useful way to approach poetry is first to be aware of the date it was written. Every poem will have the publication date at the bottom. For the purposes of the SAT Literature Subject Test, let’s assume everything written before 1900 is classical, and everything written after is modern.
Classical poetry has a very formal, rigid structure. Take a look at this poem, written anonymously in 1612:
This poem has a certain rhyme scheme—the scheme tells you which lines rhyme with which other lines. The rhyme scheme here is
Roses Are Red
A rhyme scheme is the
pattern of rhyme in
This means the first line rhymes with the second line, the third line rhymes with the fourth line, and the fifth line rhymes with the sixth line. (In seventeenth-century speech, “die” and “infancy” rhymed.) A set of two lines in a poem (often, although not always, rhymed) is called a couplet.
You may have heard of sonnets, quatrains, epics, and other poems. For the SAT Literature Subject Test, you don’t need to know them or tell them apart. Just remember that sometimes drama is written in verse (such as Romeo and Juliet).
Meter is the beat of the poem, like the drum beat in a song. You’ve probably heard of iambic pentameter (as used in Shakespeare) or anapests or tetrameter. For the SAT Literature Subject Test, you don’t need to know any of this. Just be aware of how the poem sounds—if the beat is uniform and steady or if it’s erratic and staccato—and then think about why that would be. A regular meter sounds soothing, like a pop song, whereas unmetered poetry can sound harsh or surprising.
Meter = The beat of the
Whenever you see an “ancient” date, a rhyme scheme, or a specific meter, you are most likely dealing with classical poetry. However, if a modern poet has chosen to use these devices, it’s probably to convey a sense of tradition or traditional themes.
Imagine reading a Shakespearean sonnet that was about urban crime or teenage drug use. Check the expiration date on your milk if this happens—something is wrong. Urban crime and teenage drug use were not the hot topics of pre-twentieth-century poetry. Classical poetry dealt with classical themes: love, love lost, beauty, death, or nature. Metaphors pretty much compare plants, animals, or situations to lovers, death, or truth (and all of truth’s subsections: loyalty, betrayal, yearning, unrequited love … you know, BIG THOUGHTS).
Classical themes are universal and general. A love poem often is more about love than it is about a lover. Also, on the SAT Literature Subject Test, most classical love poems are more about the one who loves and his feelings, emotions, and suffering than about the beloved. The poems could have been written to any Thomasina, Dika, or Harmonia on the block. Seldom are there any specifics about how the object of affection looks, acts, or feels, or who she is or what she says.
Try out some questions about the anonymous poem you read earlier.
What is this poem about?
Who is the narrator of this poem?
What do we know about the narrator?
What do we know about the beloved in this poem?
Is there a pattern of rhyme and meter?
Now use this information to answer these questions.
1. Which of the following can be found in the poem?
(B) Ascertainable rhyme scheme
(D) Change in perspective
2. Which of the following can be inferred from the poem?
(A) It is sunset.
(B) There will be trouble if she is found in his room.
(C) The woman will follow his wishes.
(D) They are both hungry.
(E) She makes him happy.
Answers can be found on this page–this page.
Just as music grew from formal sonatas and fugues to rock ’n roll and jazz fusion, so poetry has evolved from sonnets and other restrictive forms into free and blank verse.
Land of the Free
FREE VERSE is a poem without regular meter or line length.
BLANK VERSE is an unrhymed poem with a regular meter.
Free and blank verse are favorite forms for modern poets. Generally, the best way to decide if a poem is metered is to count the syllables. If the poem has a regular beat, then it’s blank verse. Most modern poems are written in free verse, however.
It’s wise to use what you know about a poet or a poem when you analyze modern poetry. Modern poetry is much more likely to be about social issues or current events than is classical poetry, although modern poetry can still tackle love and beauty. Like death and taxes, love and beauty are always with us—hence, the popularity of soap operas.
Take a look at the date the poem was written. Was it written after World War I (1914–1918), when people were shocked by the brutality of modern warfare? Around World War II, when pure evil raised its ugly head (1939–1945)? Just after the war, when most English language writers were exuberant and flushed with victory? After 1950, when mass production and television began to burrow their way into U.S. homes? During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, when issues of racial equality and women’s liberation were foremost in the public’s thoughts? Or was it written more recently, when environmentalism gained importance?
How Old Are You Now?
The poem’s date can
sometimes help you
determine its theme.
Take a look at the language the poem uses—its diction. Does it sound like someone speaking? If so, who does it sound like? Without resorting to stereotyping, does it sound like someone from the South in the United States? A British person? Is the language stilted or flowing, formal or full of slang?
What’d You Say?
Diction is the language
an author uses, his or her
Which issues would be important to the narrator of the poem? What’s the imagery the poet uses? Modern cities or ghettos? The countryside? A farmer might lament the loss of his land or how his way of life is slowly eroding, but he probably won’t care too much about the plight of the inner-city immigrant. Similarly, war refugees landing in the United States probably don’t worry too much about nature. In other words, city poems generally won’t use images of nature, and pastoral poems won’t use urban, industrial images.
He’s Got Issues
Think about the issues
that might be important
to the poem’s narrator.
All that being said, the point of departing from strict form and meter is to free the poet from convention, so that the poet doesn’t have to follow the rules we just explained. The above are just some general guidelines; if you read a poem that seems to defy the principles discussed above, then perhaps it’s just a poet stretching his or her wings, so to speak (metaphor alert!). Don’t worry about it, and go with your gut.
POETRAPHOBIA AND OTHER CURABLE DISEASES
People tend to fear poetry, which is completely unnecessary considering that there are real things to worry about, such as spiders and werewolves. Although it’s true that poetry can be somewhat daunting because it is not necessarily as clear as prose, it’s often easier to decipher a poem than it is to decipher a really complex sentence.
Poems are generally shorter than fiction; this means less reading and more time for analysis. This is good news, considering that the SAT Literature Subject Test is only one hour long. In addition, the entire poem is reprinted on the page. Usually, there is one overarching theme, in contrast to the many themes you’ll find in a novel. And it’s easier to break down a poem into its distinct parts. Often, each line or stanza is a new thought, idea, or image, so it’s easy to find specific references within a poem.
Poetry Versus Prose
Reasons that poetry is often easier to interpret than prose:
• Poems are generally shorter
• Usually, the entire poem is printed on one page
• Often, poems have just one theme or idea
• Poems are easier to break down into distinct parts
The mistake most people make when approaching a poem is trying to read the whole thing before answering the questions. Poetry can be a tough nut to crack (another metaphor alert!) because it’s pretty dense, so it assaults you with a bunch of images, which, taken individually, can help you form a picture of what the entire poem is about.
You’ll want to break down the poem into bite-sized pieces by reading and digesting it stanza by stanza. Read one stanza and brainstorm the meaning of that stanza; THEN move on to the next stanza. Poems will seem a lot less daunting this way.
Let’s take a look at some modern poetry.
* a spitoon is a receptacle for spit (usually in a public place)
So what do you notice right off the bat? Well, there are names of cities. (Urban themes!) There is steam, smoke, and slime. (Dirty cities!) Someone is calling for a “boy.” (Power!) Money is changing hands. (Commerce!) Then there’s all this religious stuff. (Lofty themes! BIG THOUGHTS!)
See? We already know a little bit about what the poem is about. But let’s look closer. See if you can find some of the literary techniques you learned about in Chapter 6. Make sure you write down the answers in the space provided.
What are some examples of alliteration?
Which words are repeated? Why do you think the author does this?
Where does the author use allusion?
Now let’s try some specific questions about the poem.
1. In line 31, “a bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord,” the author is most likely
(A) making an analogy
(B) describing a glorious church scene
(C) using alliteration to emphasize a point
(D) comparing the bowls to the cymbals on the following line
(E) suggesting that poetry is like prayer
2. The list of cities in lines 2-5 implies
(A) the narrator is educated in geography
(B) the narrator is reading a newspaper
(C) the poem could be occurring in any of these cities
(D) the poem is an extended analogy
(E) the cities are symbols of oppressed people
3. In lines 20-21, “Two dollars buys shoes for the baby” is an example of
(B) haphazard alliteration
(C) repetition of a phrase
(D) economic calculation
(E) illustrative allusion
4. The narrator of the poem is most likely
(A) in charge of the hotel maids and janitors
(B) generous with his tips
(C) proud of his work
(D) an outspoken critic
(E) a stingy father
How did that go? Now we know even more about the poem, and we’re ready to answer some general questions.
5. The narrator is best characterized as
(A) honest and reverent
(B) selfish and complaining
(C) ignorant and obliging
(D) hard-working and dutiful
(E) religious and childlike
6. Which of the following best describes the nature of the poem in its entirety?
(A) A realistic pastoral scene
(B) An eloquent description of a place
(C) A religious allegory
(D) A didactic narrative
(E) An impassioned portrait
7. The rhythm of the poem adds to the poem’s theme in which of the following ways?
I. It mimics the actions of the speaker.
II. It contrasts the secular with the divine.
III. It adds to the lyricism of the poem.
(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) III only
(D) I and II only
(E) I, II, and III
8. The last three lines emphasize which of the following?
(A) The hopelessness of the speaker’s situation
(B) The emptiness of the speaker’s job
(C) The fragility of the speaker’s faith
(D) The speaker’s perseverance
(E) The comfort the speaker finds in his spirituality
9. The lines “Hey, boy!” (11, 16, 30, 35) are most likely
(A) the speaker calling his son
(B) a derogatory command
(C) an impolite greeting
(D) an urban colloquialism
(E) the speaker’s conscience
It’s Not What It Seems
Although this looks like a
line-reference question, it’s
asking about the function of
a word repeated
throughout the poem—a general
question about theme.
10. The poem suggests that
(A) poverty is arduous
(B) thriftiness is a virtue
(C) brass is a recently discovered metal
(D) imagination offers escape
(E) good things come to those who wait
By the way, “Brass Spittoons” was written by Langston Hughes, one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Answers can be found on this page.
Now try the techniques on this poem.
What are the examples of similes?
What are the examples of metaphors?
What is an example of personification?
Is there rhythm and meter? Describe.
What do you think is the main idea of the poem?
Be More Specific
Don’t forget to do specific
1. The poem implies
(A) boats are unlike books
(B) it is better to have a vehicle for the body than for the mind
(C) there are more books than boats
(D) books are excellent ways to experience the world
(E) the author values the practical over the frivolous
2. In line 3, “coursers” most nearly means
(A) swift horses
(B) slow skiffs
(D) ancient chariots
(E) poetic devices
3. The diction of the poem is characterized by
(A) an abundance of description
(B) lofty syntax
(C) forceful actions
(D) humorous word play
(E) awkward contrasts
4. Which of the following does the poem imply?
(A) The poor are less likely to travel than the rich.
(B) Saved money should be put toward travel.
(C) Literature is an inexpensive means of escape.
(D) Literature should be free.
(E) Literature can touch a person’s soul.
5. It is reasonable to infer that
(A) the speaker prefers action to passivity
(B) the speaker thinks there is great power in the written word
(C) the speaker enjoys travel narratives
(D) the speaker has an active fantasy life
(E) the speaker values frugality as a virtue
6. In line 5, “This traverse” refers metaphorically to
(A) the journey across the river of life
(B) the path toward wisdom
(C) getting lost in a book
(D) the process of education
(E) the inevitability of old age
7. The speaker’s tone is best described as
(A) cheerfully lecturing
(B) forcefully instructive
(C) tirelessly proactive
(D) gently persuasive
(E) selfishly sincere
“There Is No Frigate Like a Book” was written by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Her simple poems are filled with imagery. Answers can be found on this page.
Now try the techniques out on this next poem. Instead of writing down answers to questions, think about alliteration, rhythm, personification, theme, etc., while you’re reading. Don’t forget to do the specific questions first.
1. The author of the poem uses all of the following EXCEPT
(A) expressive punctuation
(B) a particular rhyme scheme
(C) regular meter
(E) Dickensian allusion
2. The question “O Death! where is thy sting?” can best be described as
(A) harshly rhetorical
(B) dubiously questioning
(C) gently taunting
(D) gravely earnest
3. Which of the following is NOT an active verb?
(A) “Quit” (line 2)
(B) “Draws” (line 11)
(C) “Tell” (line 12)
(D) “Sounds” (line 15)
(E) “Ring” (line 15)
4. The three stanzas differ in that
(A) the first is directed at nature, the second at the soul, and the third at angels
(B) the first speaks of dying, the second speaks of the loss of sense, and the third speaks of life after death
(C) the first stanza describes death as purely painful, the second describes the loss of sense, and the third describes angels
(D) the speaker of the first stanza is mortal, the speaker of the second is angelic, and the speaker of the third is death
(E) the first stanza welcomes death, the second stanza taunts it, and the third stanza reluctantly accepts it
5. By “frame” (line 2), the author most likely means
(A) a picture of the world
(B) a previously held image of death
(C) a cage for the soul
(D) a metaphorical skeleton
(E) the mortal body
6. The overall theme of the poem is best stated as
(A) death is sublime even though it is painful
(B) death is the victory of heaven over the soul
(C) death can be resisted but it always eventually wins
(D) even if one suffers in this life, the next life will be better
(E) pain is only temporary; death is eternal
7. The style of the poem can best be described as
(A) ornately romantic
(B) playfully suggestive
(C) harshly critical
(D) elaborately descriptive
(E) emotionally cryptic
8. The questions in the last two lines serve mainly to emphasize
(A) the speaker’s surprise at how little death hurts
(B) the mental ecstasy of death overshadowing physical pain
(C) the battle that is fought between the body and the soul
(D) the speaker’s antagonistic relationship with death
(E) the transient nature of death
FYI, the poem is by Alexander Pope, who lived from 1688–1744. Answers can be found on this page.
Let’s try a more recent poem.
1. What is the effect of using “silver” to describe the “horn” (line 4)?
(A) To imply that the horn is not as valuable as a golden horn
(B) To foreshadow any item that may be used in the “hunt” (line 8)
(C) To be alliterative with the word “sound”
(D) To indicate that the image would be bright
(E) To symbolize the beauty of wealth
2. Given in context, the word “hallo” (line 11) is probably meant to convey which of the following?
(A) A form of greeting
(B) Another form of the word “hollow” (line 1)
(C) An echo
(D) A sound that hounds might make such as baying at the moon
(E) A variation on the word “halo”
3. The attitude of the author toward the reader is best described as
(A) openly hostile
(B) gently insistent
4. The author is most likely addressing the poem to someone
(A) who has lost touch with what is important
(B) who is ashamed of her background
(C) who has become very wealthy
(D) who is about to die
(E) who is vain
5. In this poem, the images are meant to convey which of the following?
I. Someone who has been committed to an insane asylum
II. Someone who has lost passion for life
III. Someone who has been filled with passion
(A) I only
(B) II only
(C) II and III only
(D) III only
(E) I, II, and III
6. The repetition in the poem most likely
(A) helps the rhyme scheme
(B) emphasizes the main theme
(C) chastises the reader
(D) reveals the speaker’s anger
(E) contrasts the laziness of the person addressed
By the way, “Madman’s Song” was written by William Rose Benét in 1921. Answers can be found on this page.
Did you get all that?
Make sure you remember the following before moving on:
• Rhyme scheme is the manner in which lines rhyme with other lines.
• Meter is the beat of a poem—the syllable count.
• Identifying a poem’s theme is often the key to answering general questions.
• Modern poetry often breaks free of classical restraints and conventions.
• There’s no need to fear poetry!