Poem Analysis Steps
Before you break the poem apart, identify its basic content. You should be able to summarize your poem. Creating a summary will focus your thoughts about the poem. However,
HOW TO ANALYZE A POEM
Read the poem all the way through at least twice. Read it aloud. Listen to it. Poetry is related to music, so the sound is important. You listen to your favourite CDs many times; the principle is the same. It takes time to fully appreciate and understand a work of art. Make a note of your first impressions or immediate responses, both positive and negative. You may change your mind about the poem later, but these first ideas are worth recording.
LITERAL MEANING AND THEME
Before you can understand the poem as a whole, you have to start with an understanding of the individual words. Get a good dictionary. Look up, and write down, the meanings of:
- words you don’t know
- words you “sort of know”
- any important words, even if you do know them. Maybe they have more than one meaning (ex. “bar”), or maybe they can function as different parts of speech (ex. “bar” can be a noun or a verb). If the poem was written a long time ago, maybe the history of the word matters, or maybe the meaning of the word has changed over the years (“jet” did not mean an airplane in the 16th century). An etymological dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary can help you find out more about the history of a particular word.
Start your search for the theme by looking at the title of the poem. It was probably carefully chosen. What information does it give you? What expectations does it create? (For example, a poem called “The Garden of Love” should cause a different response from the one called “The Poison Tree.”) Does the title tell you the subject of the poem (ex. “The Groundhog”)? Does the title label the poem as a specific literary type? (ex. “Ode to Melancholy”; “Sonnets at Christmas) If so, you should check what characteristics such forms have and discuss how the poet uses the “rules.” Is the title an object or event that becomes a key symbol? (see Language and Imagery)
Next you might consider the tone. Who is peaking? Listen to the voice. ? Is it a man or a woman? Someone young or old? Is any particular race, nationality, religion, etc. suggested? Does the voice sound like the direct voice of the poet speaking to you, expressing thoughts and feelings? Is a separate character being created, someone who is not necessarily like the poet at all (a persona)?
Is the speaker addressing someone in particular? Who or what? Is the poem trying to make a point, win an argument, move someone to action? Or is it just expressing something without requiring an answer (ex. A poem about spring may just want to express joy about the end of winter, or it may attempt to seduce someone, or it may encourage someone to go plough in a field.
How is the poem organized? How is it divided up? Are there individual stanzas or numbered sections? What does each section or stanza discuss? How are the sections or stanzas related to each other? (Poems don’t usually jump around randomly; the poet probably has some sort of organization in mind, like steps in an argument, movement in time, changes in location or viewpoint, or switches in mood.)
SOUND AND RHYTHM
Poetry is rooted in music. You may have learned to scan poetry-to break it into accented/unaccented syllables and feet per line. There are different types of meter, like iambic pentameter, which is a 5-beat line with alternating unaccented and accented syllables.
LANGUAGE AND IMAGERY
Every conclusion you have drawn so far has been based on the language and imagery of the poem. They have to be; that’s all you have to go on. A poem is only words, and each
has been carefully chosen. You began by making sure you understood the dictionary meanings of these words (their denotative meaning). Now you have to consider their visual and emotional effects, the symbols and figures of speech (the connotative meaning).
Look for the concrete pictures, or images, the poet has drawn.
Poem Analysis Steps
Poem Analysis Steps