Citing a Poem in MLA Style
When you’re writing about a source, it’s important to be able to show where your information is coming from. This is especially true when you’re using information that is directly quoted from another source. Citing your sources not only helps to create a sense of credibility but also allows your readers to find the original sources if they want to learn more.
Like any other reference material or sources consulted, Poems are cited in writing projects using in-text citations. In-text citations are brief, unobtrusive references that direct readers to the works-cited-list entries for the sources you consulted and, where relevant, to the location in the source being cited.
In-text citations of poems follow the ground rules of verse works such as plays and songs, which often provide line numbers in the margins. According to the MLA Handbook Ninth Edition, we are obliged to omit page numbers altogether when citing verse works and cite by division (act, scene, canto, book, part) and line, separating the numbers with periods.
The line numbers are always placed after the quotation marks and before the period at the end of the sentence. The example below refers to act 1, scene 5, lines 35–37 of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
- The division must be included if each begins anew with line 1.
- If you are citing only line numbers, do not use the abbreviation l. or ll., which can be confused with numerals; instead, use the word line or lines.
- When it has been established that the numbers designate lines, you can give only the numbers.
However, in the case of poems, the author’s last name is used in place of divisions such as act, scene, canto, and part. An in-text citation of a poem looks like this: (Author’s Last Name, Line Numbers). For example, the in-text citation for the poem “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman would appear as
If you do not mention the author’s name, title, or both in your prose and therefore must include such information in the parenthetical citation, separate with a comma the author’s name or title from the word designating the division of the work being cited.
(Beowulf, lines 145–46)
MLA Style Short Quotations
To indicate short quotations (four typed lines or fewer of prose or three lines of verse) in your text, enclose the quotation within double quotation marks. Provide the author and specific page citation (in the case of verse, provide line numbers) in the text, and include a complete reference on the Works Cited page.
Punctuation marks such as periods, commas, and semicolons should appear after the parenthetical citation. Question marks and exclamation points should appear within the quotation marks if they are a part of the quoted passage, but after the parenthetical citation if they are a part of your text.
If you are going to quote a line of verse within your text, whether it be part of the line or the entire line, you should enclose it in quotation marks within your text just like you would a line of prose. If you are quoting a line of verse that is part of a larger unit (like a paragraph, scene, or stanza), set the quotation off from your text as a block. This is according to MLA Ninth Edition.
For example, to cite the opening line of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as it appears in an anthology, you would write:
Frost begins “The Road Not Taken” with the famous lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .”
In her poem, Bradstreet observes that life is ephemeral: “All things within this fading world hath
end. . .”
If you want to emphasize a particular part of the quotation, you can use italics. For example:
Frost begins “The Road Not Taken” with the famous lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . .” and he concludes the poem with the equally well-known phrase, “I took the one less traveled by.”
You may even choose to combine two or three lines from the source in this manner. To indicate to your reader where the line breaks occur, use a forward slash with a space on each side (/), as shown in the example below. Remember to use double quotation marks, and to put the slash in between the two lines. If you want to cite more than three lines, you’ll need to use block quotes.
Reflecting on the “incident” in Baltimore, Cullen concludes, “Of all the things that happened there / That’s all that I remember.” Cullen concludes, “Of all the things that happened there / That’s all I remember” (11-12).
If a stanza break occurs in the quotation, mark it with two forward slashes (//). If a line break occurs within a stanza, mark it with one forward slash (/). Remember to use double quotation marks and to put the slash in between the two lines.
The Tao te ching, in David Hinton’s translation, says that the ancient masters were “so deep beyond knowing / we can only describe their appearance: // perfectly cautious as if crossing winter streams….”
A more elaborate explanation of how to cite verse works such as Poems using short quotations has been elaborated extensively in the OWL Purdue Manual.
MLA Style Long Quotations
According to MLA Ninth Edition:
- If a quote is longer than four lines of prose or three lines of verse, put it in a block of text by itself and leave out the quotation marks.
- Type the whole block of text—indentation and all—double-spaced just like the rest of your paper.
- Do not put quotation marks around indented long quotations. Do not add quotation marks not present in the source
- Start the quote on a new line, and indent it 1/2 inch from the left margin while keeping the double spacing. Unless the quotation involves unusual spacing, indent it half an inch from the left margin!
- Your citation in parentheses should go after the final punctuation mark. Keep the original line breaks when you quote a poem. (Double-spacing should be used throughout your essay.)
The in-text citation for a verse quotation set off from the text in this way, if required, follows the last line of the quotation (as it does with prose quotations). Therefore, Poetry follows and adheres to the principles of long quotations previously mentioned.
To cite a long quotation of a poem in MLA format, start by introducing the quote, usually with the author’s name and a reference to the work. Then, provide background information about the poem if needed. After the quotation, add citations. Here is an example:
In “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” Wordsworth writes about the beauty of nature. He says:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot wrote,
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
T.S. Eliot indicates the speaker’s hopelessness by ending each of the sections with the Sanskrit word shantih, which means “peace” (Eliot 21).
- Keep block quotations from a poem close to the original
When citing long sections of poetry (four lines of verse or more), keep formatting as close to the original as possible.
In his poem “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke explores his childhood with his father:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We Romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself. (qtd. in Shrodes, Finestone, Shugrue 202)
If the citation will not fit on the same line as the end of the quotation, it should appear on a new line, flush with the right margin of the
- Block verse quotation where the citation does not fit on the same line as the end of the quotation
Making a couplement of proud compare
With sun and moon, with earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first-born flowers, and all things rare,
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems.
(Shakespeare, sonnet 21)
A hanging indent should be applied to a line that is too long to fit within the right margin. This will ensure that the line that follows it is indented further than the rest of the block.
- Block verse quotation with hanging indent
If the line spacing and indentation in the source text are not typical, make sure to recreate it as precisely as you can. This includes the indentation within the lines as well as the spacing between the lines.
- Block verse quotation reproducing indents and spacing in the source
When a verse quote starts in the middle of a line, the line should stay where it is in the source and not be moved to the left margin.
- Block verse quotation reproducing a partial line shown in the source
- Citing dialogue from a poetry
Block quotations should be indented half an inch from the left margin and line breaks should be followed exactly when citing dialogue from a poetry.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.” (lines 36–39)
You may also integrate the quotation into your prose, but be sure to designate any line breaks with a slash.
In the poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” Robert Lowell, a conscientious objector (or “C.O.”), recounts meeting a Jehovah’s Witness in prison: “‘Are you a C.O.?’ I asked a fellow jailbird. / ‘No,’ he answered, ‘I’m a J.W.’” (lines 38–39).
Adding or Omitting Words in Quotations
When leaving out words from a poetry quote, use the standard three-period ellipses. When leaving out one or more full lines of poetry, however, space out the periods so that they are about the same length as a full line in the poem:
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration . . . (22-24, 28-30)
Read more about adding and Omitting words here