Reading poetry can be a deeply personal experience, yet many readers find the process intimidating, as if every poem they pick up is the start of a never-ending hunt for meaning riddled with symbols and puzzles that are nearly impossible to decipher.
While it’s true that a lot of poetry involves symbolism and figurative language, what really matters is what it means to you. But if you want a more fulfilling reading experience, it helps to know just what you should be looking for in your analysis.
What Does It Mean to Analyze a Poem?
Some poems are written just for the pleasure of reading them—the ones that are just lovely in themselves, even on the surface level. Many poems, however, require a little deeper digging to get to the poet’s intended message.
Poetry analysis includes investigating a work’s form, content, structure, and history with the goal of obtaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work.
Poems, like almost all other forms of art, often tell us something about the author’s views on society, love, contemporary issues, or a variety of other topics that can be connected to larger, universal themes.
However, sometimes poems are written just to be read and enjoyed, in which case the goal of your analysis is to figure out your own take on the work.
What Is the Structure of a Poem?
The structure of a poem refers to the way it is presented to the reader. Different types of poems have different formats, but most are composed of the following elements:
- Stanzas: These are the groups of lines that are separated by a space in poems. Like paragraphs, stanzas are used to organize ideas.
- Form: The form of a poem includes a number of elements, including line length, line breaks, speed, arrangement, and rhythm.
- Rhyme: Some types of poems, like sonnets, call for specific rhyme schemes, while others are free verse. Therefore, the rhyme scheme (or lack thereof) can be an important part of a poem’s structure.
Below, you’ll find an example of a poem’s structure and rhyme scheme in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27.
Sonnet 27 by Shakespeare
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed, A
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; B
But then begins a journey in my head, A
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired: B
For then my thoughts (from far where I abide) C
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee, D
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide, C
Looking on darkness which the blind do see: D
Save that my soul’s imaginary sightE
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view, F
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night, E
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new. F
Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind, G
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find. G
How Do You Analyze a Poem?
Below are 8 steps for successfully analyzing a poem. By following these steps, you will be able to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the text.
1. Read the Poem
First, of course, you should read the poem. This may seem obvious, but many readers need to be reminded that when analyzing a poem, it helps to read through it once, without stopping to look for symbols or do too much analysis.
Simply give it a run-through and see how it makes you feel. What are your first reactions, thoughts, or interpretations? Don’t overthink it—just make a note of your overall response to the poem.
Underline or highlight any words that are unfamiliar to you so that you can go back and look them up later. You can also mark any lines that stand out to you, whether that’s because they seem peculiar or you simply like how they sound.
2. Identify the Type of Poem
Being familiar with the different types of poems can be helpful when it comes to analyzing poetry. Although in contemporary poetry the rules are less binding, some themes are typically associated with specific forms.
Sonnets, for example, tend to discuss love, whereas haikus usually have themes related to nature. A poem’s form probably won’t tell you everything about the work, but it can offer some clues to point you in the right direction.
3. Consider the Title
You can also look to a poem’s title for important clues. They might hint to a poem’s theme, or work ironically in opposition to the poem’s main idea.
Once you’ve read through the poem once, reread the title and ask yourself whether it changes how you think about the poem (or perhaps vice versa). Does the title imply multiple things at once? What images or ideas does the title evoke in your mind, and how do they relate to the body of the poem?
4. Who Is the Speaker?
The speaker can provide lots of insight to the point of view and perspective from which the story is told. If the poem is told in the first person, for example, the text automatically takes on a more personal feel. If it’s a third-person omniscient speaker, on the other hand, it might have a more universal feel.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Whom do you think the speaker is addressing?
- What can you infer about the speaker’s age, gender, or background? How does this help you to interpret the poem?
- Does the speaker seem detached from the subject or their audience?
5. Describe the Mood and Tone
Why do you think the writer wants to convey those feelings? What do you think is their goal or purpose? Are they perhaps trying to remind you of anything? Answering these questions can help you to identify the underlying messages of a poem.
6. Highlight Key Symbols and Imagery
As you go through a poem a second or third time (which you definitely should do), highlight or underline any key symbols that you see. These might come in the form of colors, animals, descriptions of the weather, allusions, or other forms of imagery.
Be sure to review our list of the most common symbols in literature to help you out with this one. You can also do a quick research on any potential symbols that you’re not sure about.
Paraphrasing is the art of rewriting a text in your own (often simplified) terms. This might seem like a pretty daunting task when it comes to poetry, but once you’ve identified key symbols and analyzed the mood and tone, the task is become more doable.
Remember that paraphrasing is not the same as summarizing; you should “translate” each line into simpler, more concrete terms, so your paraphrase should be about as long as the poem itself.
Of course, some lines might still remain a mystery to you, but that’s the fun of poetry—the experience is different for everyone! So just give each line your best shot, and write down what it means to you.
8. Write Down a Theme
Finally, your analysis should lead you to some kind of universal theme or idea. Unlike a story’s subject, which is simply the foundational topic, a theme contains an opinion about a larger idea and can be applied universally (not just to that specific story).
How to Write Poetry
Analyzing literature, especially poetry, can lead you to a greater understanding and appreciation for the work, and for the art of writing.
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