At first, analyzing a poem may seem like an intimidating task, especially considering the myriad poetic forms out there. It’s important to note, however, that a poem can have different meanings for different readers. Many poems are intentionally left open-ended and refuse to resolve their internal tensions. As poet Billy Collins says, you should not be trying to beat a confession out of a poem.
Let’s look at how to analyze a poem in 7 steps:
1. Read the poem aloud multiple times
Reading a poem aloud is necessary for analysis. It’s important to read a poem multiple times before attempting to dig for deeper meanings. Pay close attention to the rhythm and punctuation of the poem, the stressed and unstressed syllables, for these are intentional decisions made by the poet. Make note of anything that stands out from your readings of the poem, such as word choice, characters in the poem, and the rhyme scheme.
2. Review the title
The title often contains important clues for understanding the piece. After reading the poem, reflect on the title and determine how or if it relates to your understanding of the work. Does it tell you anything about the poem’s subject, tone, or form? Does it illustrate a specific time, place, or action?
3. Identify the speaker
It’s important not to confuse the poet with the “speaker” of the poem. More often than not, the speaker is a character, just like in a novel or play. The speaker will not always reveal a name, but using context clues, you can determine the persona, point of view, and the audience the speaker is addressing.
4. Consider the mood and tone
Once you’ve identified the speaker, you’ll have more insight into the attitude or mood of the poem. Consider the speaker’s tone and delivery. For instance, does the speaker’s voice change throughout the piece? Is the voice active or passive? Are they speaking directly to the reader or to another character?
5. Highlight the use of poetic devices
There are hundreds of poetic devices or techniques writers employ to enhance the effects of their works. Poetic devices are tools that can create rhythm, enhance a poem’s meaning, or intensify a mood or feeling. While you do not need to include every device in your analysis, it’s a good idea to include the significant techniques that contribute to the overall meaning of the poem.
Some poetic devices to highlight include:
- Metaphor – a comparison between two different things
- Simile – a direct comparison between two things using the words “like” or “as”
- Onomatopoeia – the use of a word that imitates the sounds of what the word mean
- Assonance – the repetition of vowel sounds
- Alliteration – the repetition of consonant sounds
- Personification – giving human traits to non-living/non-human things
- Imagery – words that evoke the senses, creating images, sounds, and sensations in the mind of the reader
6. Try paraphrasing
Before writing your analysis, it may be helpful to rewrite the poem in your own words. This does not mean condensing the poem, but working through the lines of the poem one by one. Now that you’ve become familiar with the poet’s figurative language and use of poetic devices, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned to determine what’s at the heart of the piece. But remember, avoid the notion that there is “one true meaning.”
7. Identify the theme
After paraphrasing, you should now have a better idea of the ideas of the poem. From those ideas, you’ll be able to create a theme. Essentially, the theme of a poem is the message the poet is trying to convey. A theme will often relate to a bigger idea or a universal truth.
At this point, you’re ready to begin writing your analysis. You’ve read the poem multiple times and dissected all the pertinent aspects that embellish the poem with meaning. Remember, don’t expect a definitive reading. There can be many different interpretations other than your own. But as long as you are thorough and justify your analysis with evidence, your interpretation is as valid as any other!
For a more in-depth review on to how to analyze a poem, visit eNotes’ How-To Series.