Tone tells us how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic and journalistic are going to have a tone of some sort. Sometimes the emotion in a work is not as obvious as it is in others, or the lack of emotion might even end up revealing the tone. It could be unconcerned or objective.
Other times, the tone is quite complicated, making it one of the most important features of a text. Take for example Kevin Young’s ‘I am Trying to Break Your Heart.’ Here are a few lines from the poem:
I want to wear
your smile on my sleeve
your heart like a horse
or its leg. Weeks of being
bucked off, then
all at once, you’re mine—
In this piece, the poet crafts a speaker how goes back and forth between hating, loving and wanting to control his ex-lover. The poet’s attitude (or tone) can be summed up as passionate or devoted to his subject. No matter where he sends his speaker emotionally, he is invested in dealing with the situation emotionally.
The writer’s handling of the subject, meaning their depiction of it, should tell the reader something about them. This is where mood comes in. It is the result of this handling.
Here are some possible tones you might come across while reading and analyzing poetry: realistic, hilarious, ominous, direct, impartial, gloomy, meditative, angry and blithe.
Now is a good time to mention that it is possible for the tone to change in a piece of poetry. A poet might start out taking their time, carefully assessing a situation, but then as the narrative progresses, and events transform the emotional landscape of the verse, the tone might become unconcerned or distracted.
Why Does Tone Matter?
The tone is at the root of all poetry. You might ask instead, why do people love poetry? It taps into the reader’s everyday lives, the divine, the sublime, and everything in-between and tries to put them into words. Without tones in poetry, the words on the page would be bland, meaningless and perhaps even purposeless. If you have ever read a poem and felt something or thought the writer was feeling something while writing, well that’s the tone (and also the mood) is doing its job.