Alabama A & M University Maya

Purpose:  The purpose of a comparative paper is to enhance your understanding of 2 poems by examining specific elements of each poem in relation to one another.  By isolating and analyzing individual aspects of two poems you can discover a deeper meaning and characteristic of each work.  You may choose to compare either two overly similar poems or two seemingly very different poems.  You may choose to focus on one, using the other as a lens through which to view the other, or you may give equal time to both.  See handout “writing a compare/contrast essay Download writing a compare/contrast essay” and “Writing about poetry Download Writing about poetry” (located in Module 07: Readings and Resources)

Assignment:  Write a formal paper in which you formulate and support a central argument based on a comparative analysis of a specific idea or element in two poems.  Your central argument must be arguable, worth writing about (provides insight), persuasive, focused, well developed, well supported, insightful, logical, coherent, and relevant to the texts.

One of the perils of writing a comparative paper is the temptation to produce what is sometimes called a “laundry list” paper, i.e. a mere listing of similarities and differences that is not organized by a clear motive (or central argument) and does not develop a strong thesis.  To avoid the “laundry list” comparative paper problem, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Key terms are an especially important consideration when dealing with more than one work. Remember that two different authors might use the same word in very different ways; the similarities and differences between their ideas has to be determined by not just what they say but by what they mean.  During the writing process remain open to different definitions of your key terms.  If you start with a dictionary definition and measure the texts against it you will probably end up with a laundry list—and a starchy one at that.  Instead, try to tease out definitions from the poems themselves. (One way to do this is to consider what a concept is not for the various authors).  Remember: you don’t have to define the words per se; you just need to talk about how they work in the poems you are discussing.
  2. When choosing a topic for a comparative paper, it is especially important to keep in mind the question of motive. If two peoms are totally different, there is probably little point in discussing them together; if, on the other hand, they are too similar, there may be little for you to say.  The fact that there are similarities between two nineteenth-century poems about cursed ship captains will hardly be surprising, nor will the fact that there are differences between an ancient epic and a Romantic lyric.  The essential thing is to develop a comparative analysis that will shed new light on one or both of the poems.  A good question to ask your self is whether or not the comparison offers some insight into the poems which might not be reached if they were considered in isolation.

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