Poetry analysis is one of the more complicated tasks students receive—but it doesn’t need to be hard! Analyzing poetry is no easy task, but break it down into four simple stages, and it begins to make a bit more sense. To show you how it’s done, let’s look at Edward Fields’s 1992 poem, “The Telephone.”
Stage One: Preparing
Approaching a poem without knowing its context—when it was published, what country it was published in, and who the author was—is like groping for a light switch in a dark, unfamiliar room. Sure, you might find it, but it will be difficult, and you might stub your toe in the process.
To make things easier (and to keep all your metaphorical toes unstubbed), start with a few simple questions: who, what, when, where, and why? We know “The Telephone” was published in 1992 and written by Edward Fields. So, how can we use these facts to our advantage?
Read a bit about Edward Fields, and you’ll learn a few important things. First, he was born in 1924, meaning that this poem was published when he was nearly 70—and that he watched the telephone develop from an appliance with a separate mouthpiece and receiver to something handheld and tiny. Second, he spent much of his life living in Greenwich Village, a vibrant LGBTQ community in New York City. So, when he speaks about telephones, subways, and friendship, you have the context to understand the experiences he describes.
Stage Two: Engaging
If you’re a poetry novice, you might not know that reading poetry is different from reading prose. When reading a poem, there are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind:
- Take it slow. Poetry hinges on subtle details and deliberate wording. Read too fast, and you’ll miss the point entirely.
- When first reading, note the sounds and ideas that stick out. Identify the elements you understand and find interesting—they will become guideposts and lifelines for those you can’t quite grasp.
- Read the poem once, then twice, and maybe even a third time. Poetry can be deceptive, so rereading can help you notice the nuance you may have missed the first time.
- If something doesn’t make sense, move on. Getting bogged down in a specific line will only hinder your ability to understand the poem as a whole. Plus, you can always revisit it later!
Stage Three: Analysis
What does “analyze the poem” even mean? Luckily, nearly every poem contains the same basic elements. Once you know what they are, you’ll always know where to start and what to look for.
An easy starting point is the speaker. Who—or, in some cases, what—narrates the poem? Sometimes, the speaker is simply the author. More often, though, the speaker is someone else. It could be a historical figure, a mythological character, an abstract idea, a tangible object, or something else entirely. In “The Telephone,” the speaker is someone who lives in a “tangle of subways and buses” and is kept company by an “electronic device” that brings him “the good news of his friends.”
Next, ask yourself: How is the poem structured? Is it split into many stanzas or just one? How many lines does each stanza have, and is there a pattern to it? Knowing a poem’s form and structure can help you identify the type of poem and provide additional information about its purpose and context. “The Telephone” consists of a single unrhymed stanza, which implies a sense of casualness and familiarity.
The last main element is the subject, which refers to the overarching idea, theme, or topic the poem is about. In “The Telephone,” the title implies that the subject is a telephone, but the poem indicates it is instead the joy the telephone brings the speaker.
Stage Four: Examining
Now that we know the poem’s speaker, structure, and subject, we can begin to make connections between them.
Consider how these pieces connect and create a unified meaning. What tools does the poet use to shape these elements into a meaningful observation about the world? Examining these ideas can help you piece together the speaker’s message.
Much of “The Telephone” is conveyed in a straightforward, first-person style. Line ten, however, introduces an imagery-laden simile that defines the speaker’s feelings. He explains that when his telephone is silent, he is “like a bear in a cave/drowsing through a shadowy winter.” The image evokes a sense of dullness and darkness, equating life to winter’s cold slumber.
Yet when the phone rings, the speaker is restored to an almost animal joy, able to “stretch and amble into the sunshine.” The juxtaposition of hibernation and revival, of winter and summer indicates the feelings the telephone evokes; in its presence, the speaker experiences joy, while in its absence, life loses its sparkle.
Poets often use poetic devices to clarify and tie together the main elements of a poem. Once you have identified a poem’s broad shape, identifying these devices and how they work can help you unravel the poet’s meaning.
Everyone interprets poetry differently—that’s part of its beauty! But if you find it hard to know where to begin, fall back on this four-part structure; it makes it easier to get started and, from there, notice the subtlety of the poet’s technique and argument. For practice, check out our five favorite fall poems. Now, you’ll know just where to start!