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A Guide to Paraphrasing Poetry, With Examples

Updated on April 8, 2024StudentsWriting Tips

Paraphrasing poetry is a common creative and academic exercise that helps you gain a greater understanding of the art form. Paraphrasing, or rewriting, a poem is often necessary for essays, research papers, exams, or other academic writing to analyze or demonstrate an understanding of the original work.

Poetry is deceptively complex for typically consisting of such short texts. Words and punctuation are used economically, and devices like syllable count, sound, and rhyme often play bigger roles than in other writing. Knowing how to write a poem takes a certain skill, and paraphrasing a poem is no different.

Capturing the essence of a poetic verse is no easy task, so in this article, we explain how to paraphrase a poem and offer techniques, tools, and examples to get you started.

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What is paraphrasing poetry?

Paraphrasing a poem is rewriting poetry in your own words while paying attention to word choice, rhythm, rhyming, and other poetic devices.

There are two ways to paraphrase a poem:

  • Describe the poem in detail using prose or nonpoetic text to give readers a sense of what the original is like. Students employ this method of paraphrasing for academic writing assignments that call for both direct quotes and paraphrased prose in order to analyze a poem.
  • Rewrite the poem line by line or stanza by stanza in a poetic style, retaining the ideas, themes, and structure of the original but using new words or metaphors. Paraphrasing a poem in this way can teach aspiring poets about advanced techniques and acts as a helpful creative practice.

No matter which method you use, you still need proper citations if you’re using someone else’s ideas—even if you use your own wording.

Summarizing poems vs. paraphrasing poems

When summarizing poems, you take the entire work or large portions of the work and describe them concisely. For example, a two-page poem could be summarized in just a few sentences. Conversely, a paraphrase of a poem is roughly the same length and uses the same level of detail as the portion you’re rewriting.

Paraphrasing a poem example

Original poem

“Hope” (aka “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”), by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all, And sweetest in the Gale is heard; And sore must be the storm That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm. I’ve heard it in the chillest land, And on the strangest sea; Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.

Prose paraphrase

In the first stanza, Dickinson compares the concept of hope to a bird, relentlessly singing, and sitting atop our soul rather than a tree. The second stanza continues the analogy, demonstrating the tenacity of hope by describing the rare type of storm that could silence this bird while underscoring the positive effects hope has had on numerous people. The third and final stanza concludes in the first-person point of view, as the author admits she too feels hopeful and expresses a seeming sense of gratitude that hope is effortless and free (Dickinson, 1891).

Poetic paraphrase

Hope is like a happy bird and to our souls it tends. It sings bird songs and melodies and that singing never ends [. . . ] (Dickinson, 1891)

Why paraphrasing a poem is different from other paraphrasing

Regardless of what type of poetry you’re paraphrasing, you have to pay close attention to the details. Paraphrasing poetry takes more than just swapping out words with synonyms—you also have to account for tone, mood, and even the sounds or number of syllables.

While other paraphrases focus more on word choice and order, paraphrasing poetry benefits from focusing on abstract elements like tone or atmosphere. Try to isolate the overarching meaning of the original poem and identify its key themes, metaphors, and other literary devices.

Step-by-step guide to paraphrasing a poem

1 Read the poem multiple times for full understanding.

Before you start rewriting poems, it’s crucial to know them inside and out. Read and reread the poem to learn all you can about it, particularly its literary elements and structure. It also helps to take notes that you can use later.

2 Outline the major literary elements.

As you read the poem, try to identify the literary elements the poet uses: themes, events, imagery, metaphors, motifs, structure, etc. These literary devices will come in handy when you begin paraphrasing.

3 Rewrite or describe the poem from memory.

It can be difficult to get started with paraphrasing, especially when the original is right next to you. One helpful strategy is to rewrite or describe the poem from memory. This challenges you to come up with brand new phrasing to describe the poem because you probably won’t remember the original word-for-word.

4 Reread the poem and add missing parts or fix inaccuracies.

Rewriting from memory can help jump-start your creativity, but it shouldn’t be the final product. Chances are you missed some key parts from the original or perhaps made some minor mistakes that require fixing. In either case, take another look at the poem to find any issues with your paraphrase.

If you’re having trouble with certain parts of the rephrasing, you can also turn to Grammarly’s AI rewrites for suggestions on new phrasing. Grammarly’s free paraphrasing tool takes any excerpt under 500 characters and offers a few paraphrasing options for inspiration.

5 Revise the paraphrased poem.

Just like with other writing, the final step is to revise and proofread your work. Use Grammarly to check for clarity, conciseness, correct grammar, and more.

Paraphrasing a poem FAQs

Do you need to keep the same structure when paraphrasing poetry?

No, you can paraphrase a poem in prose writing, without worrying about lines, rhyming, or stanzas. However, rewriting poems line by line is a great creative writing practice, although it’s not necessary to do in formal writing.

How do you indicate the original lines or stanzas when rewriting poems?

If you are paraphrasing a single line in a poem, you can refer to it by its line number. Stanzas are a little trickier since they’re not usually numbered, but you can still state directly which stanza you’re referring to, as in “the second stanza” or “stanza 2.”

How do you cite sources when rewording poems?

Whether you’re rewriting poems, describing them, or quoting them directly, you need both an in-text citation and a full citation. The in-text citation is typically a parenthetical citation with the author’s name, date of publication, or page number placed in parentheses at the end of the passage. The full citation goes in the bibliography at the end of the work.

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