Is it necessary to use the same grammatical person & tense when paraphrasing a poem?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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  • Whenever one writes about a literary work, be it a poem, short story, drama, novella, or novel--even an essay such as those by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the Transcendentalists, one should always employ what is known as the literary present. The use of the present tense when discussing a literary work is appropriate since the author of the work is communicating to the reader at the present time.  For instance, one would write,

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" the use of the unreliable narrator enhances the horrific effects of the narrative.

  • Similarly, the use of the present tense works when reporting how other writers have interpreted the work one is discussing. For example, one would write,

Critic Samuel Elston agrees that Poe's unreliable narrator is an effective tool in his essay "Poe's Unreliable Narrators."

  • The use of the same person is not always appropriate in discussions or analyses of literary works.  If, for instance, the poem or literary work is written in first person, a discussion of the work should be in third person. For instance in writing about a poem in which the poet/speaker narrates, one would write using third person singular, 

The speaker expresses his (or her if the poet is female) concepts of ideal beauty in the second stanza as he writes, "________"

-----To summarize, the use of the literary present in third person is appropriate for discussion and analysis of a literary work.


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