How to Analyze Poetry

Do you feel like reading and analyzing poetry is like trying to decipher an ancient, lost art? Well, never fear! Whether you’re working on an assignment for school or just critiquing it for fun, the process of analyzing poetry is easier than you think. Think about how the poem makes you feel, and look for clues in things like the poem’s setting, characters, and imagery. Even the author’s own life can give you clues into the poem’s meaning!

[Edit]Steps

[Edit]Read the poem more than once.

  1. Start by reading the poem to yourself, then read it aloud. Take your time while you’re reading—every word and line in a poem is important. Read the poem all the way from start to finish at least once. Then, go through it again, but this time, say the poem out loud. You might be surprised how much better you understand the poem after you hear the words![1]
    Analyze Poetry Step 1 Version 2.jpg
    • You might also search online for audio or video recordings of people reading the poem out loud—their tone and inflection might be a little different from yours. If you can find a clip of the poet reading their own poem, even better!
    • Try writing down your first impressions while you’re reading, like how the poem makes you feel and what you think it’s about, as well as any questions you have about it.

[Edit]Analyze the title.

  1. Look for clues to the poem’s meaning in its name. While you probably read the title before you ever even read the poem, give it a little more attention after you’ve read through the text a few times. Sometimes the title can give you an important clue to the deeper meaning of the poem. It can even change your interpretation of the poem completely!
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    • For instance, it might seem like you’re reading a poem about an egg, but if the title is “Broken Heart,” you might realize it’s about how fragile the speaker feels after a painful loss.[2]
    • In some cases, the poem might simply be titled something like “Sonnet 47.” That might not seem like it gives you much information, but from that, you can determine that the poem is in the sonnet form and is part of a series of numbered sonnets written by the same poet.

[Edit]Listen to the rhythm of the poem.

  1. Ask yourself if the poem should be read fast or slow. Some poems seem like they should be read quickly, with the words almost tumbling over each other, while other poems seem like they should be read slowly and maybe even solemnly.[3] The rhythm will be part of the overall meaning of the poem. Think about how the rhythm makes you feel as a listener.[4]
    Analyze Poetry Step 3 Version 2.jpg
    • For example, you may notice that there are a lot of short, clipped lines in the poem, creating a jumpy rhythm. Or you may notice there are a lot of long lines that flow on into the other, creating a more fluid rhythm.
    • The meter of the poem—or the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables—will also play into the rhythm.
    • Like most things with poetry, this can be different depending on who’s reading the poem. Don’t worry about what’s right or wrong. Instead, just think about how the poem seems to you.

[Edit]Notice how the poem is separated or broken up.

  1. Poems are often divided into sections called stanzas. Stanzas are usually separated by a skipped line in a poem. Look at the poem and count how many stanzas there are. Consider how the stanzas relate to each other or transition into one another. Also think about how they’re different from each other.[5]
    Analyze Poetry Step 4 Version 2.jpg
    • Ask yourself, “Why would the poet organize the stanzas this way?” “What does the structure of the poem have to do with the meaning of the poem?”
    • Poems can also be divided into numbered sections instead of stanzas.
    • Try writing down a quick summary or title for each stanza of the poem. This may help you see how they all fit together in the larger scheme of the poem.

[Edit]Determine the rhyme scheme, if there is one.

  1. Notice if the rhyme scheme follows a certain pattern. Usually, poems will rhyme at the end of a line, but some poems will include rhymes within the lines, as well. Ask yourself whether the rhyme scheme makes you pay more attention to certain words—does that add to your interpretation of the poem?[6]
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    • Label each set of rhyming syllables with a letter to track the rhyme scheme. For example, if the first and third lines end with “cat” and “bat,” you would label those lines with “A.” If the second and fourth lines end with “there” and “scare,” you would label them with “B,” so the rhyme scheme would be “ABAB.”
    • If you notice there are different rhymes used later in the poem, use “C” and “D” and so on to note them.
    • Certain types of rhymes will follow a set rhyme scheme. For instance, a ballad usually has a rhyme scheme of “ABCB.”[7]

[Edit]Identify the form of the poem.

  1. Use the rhyme scheme and meter of the poem to determine the form. While some poems are written in free verse—meaning they don’t have any form—many poems follow a set pattern. Some common poem types include sonnets, sestinas, limericks, and haikus. Sometimes, the form of the poem will give you clues as to what the author was trying to communicate.[8]
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    • For example, a poem that has 3 lines and follows a 5-7-5 syllable pattern is probably a haiku. You might talk about how haikus are traditionally meant to evoke a vivid image or emotion.[9]

[Edit]Identify the speaker and the audience.

  1. Remember, the speaker isn’t always the poet. Read through the poem to find clues about who’s talking—see if you have an impression about how old they are, whether they’re male or female, and what their personality is like.[10] Then, think about who they’re talking to. Sometimes, it might be you, the reader, but other times it will be to a specific person or group of people.[11]
    Analyze Poetry Step 7 Version 2.jpg
    • Also, ask yourself whether the same person is speaking throughout the person, and whether they’re speaking to the same person the whole time.
    • For example, if you were analyzing the poem “Digging” by Seamus Heaney, you may notice the poem is in first person and the speaker is the only person talking in the poem. However, there are three characters in the poem: the speaker, his father, and his grandfather.[12]

[Edit]Rewrite the poem in your own words.

  1. Go through the poem line by line. Think about what each line is saying, then try to reword it in a way that makes sense to you. When you’re finished, go back and read your paraphrased poem—does it change anything about what the poem means to you?[13]
    Analyze Poetry Step 8 Version 2.jpg
    • Notice which lines seem to really stand out and give the poem meaning. Especially pay attention to the last lines, as they’re usually especially important.[14]
    • Sometimes you’ll lose certain details in your paraphrasing, so don’t rely on this copy for your full analysis. For instance, you might not get the same imagery, and the words might not evoke the same emotions. However, it can help you get a sense of the poem’s basic meaning.[15]

[Edit]Think about the tone of the poem.

  1. Ask yourself what emotions you feel when you read it. The poem’s tone can best be described as its mood.[16] Think about how the word choice, imagery, and even rhythm of the poem impact the tone. You’ll naturally bring some of your own personal experience into this, so don’t worry if you have a different interpretation than someone else, as long as you can support your position with the text.[17]
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    • If the poem mentions banners waving, trumpets, and parades, the tone might be celebratory and triumphant, for instance.
    • If it deals with snow, bare trees, and still air, the tone might be sad or lonely. However, you might also feel like it has a certain romantic aspect, as well.

[Edit]Notice the setting of the poem.

  1. Pay attention to where and when the poem takes place. The setting of the poem can give you information about what’s going on—maybe it takes place in a certain era or culture, and that might inform what the characters are experiencing. The poem might also take place in a certain season or even time of day. All of that can be important when you’re trying to dig into the deeper meaning.[18]
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    • For example, if you’re reading a poem about a mother who dreams of traveling the world, it might have very different interpretations if it’s happening in modern-day America than if would if it were set in an earlier time or in a culture where women are currently oppressed.
    • Think about the meaning of the seasons—a poem set in spring might be about new life and hope, while a poem set in fall might be about fading life.
    • The time of day can hold symbolism, as well. For instance, nighttime is often associated with themes like loneliness or romance, whereas morning tends to be a time of promise.

[Edit]Circle words that appear more than once in the poem.

  1. Pay close attention to repeated words. They’re often important, speaking to the larger meaning of the poem. Consider what the repeated words have to do with the poem as a whole—what concept do they emphasize when they’re mentioned more than once?[19]
    Analyze Poetry Step 11 Version 3.jpg
    • For example, you may notice in the poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, the words “daddy,” “Jew,” and “you” appear multiple times. They are used in different ways each time they are mentioned, giving the words many different meanings in the context of the poem.[20]

[Edit]Identify the imagery in the poem.

  1. Imagery is anything that evokes one of your five senses. Notice whether any words or phrases paint a picture you can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel in your mind. These images help you form your interpretation of the poem, so take the time to really experience them as you read. Then, ask yourself why the poet chose those images, and what they’re trying to get across with them.[21]
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    • For example, if the author mentions “snow in the moonlight,” in your mind’s eye, you might picture soft light glinting off the snow, feel the chilly night air, and even smell the clean, cold scent of snow.
    • You may then discuss how these concrete images add to the themes or main ideas in the poem. They may also move you emotionally as a reader and give you a clear sense of the speaker’s point of view.

[Edit]Identify any metaphors and similes in the poem.

  1. Use the comparisons to get insight into poem’s theme. Think about the imagery and characters in the poem and ask yourself what they might symbolize. Similes are easiest to identify because they compare one thing to another with the words “like” or “as.” Metaphors can be more subtle—an owl in a poem might be a symbol for wisdom, or a flying bird might suggest freedom.[22]
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    • Certain symbols are common in poetry, like a snake representing betrayal or dishonesty or a budding flower representing life and hope.

[Edit]Determine the theme.

  1. The theme focuses on the purpose of the poem. It’s more of the big-picture of what the poem is about. Themes tend to be something that almost everyone can relate to, even if the poem itself is about something very specific or regional.[23] Common themes in poetry include life, death, love, heartbreak, family, hope, and loneliness.
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    • When you’re trying to figure out the theme, think about how everything in the poem—including the tone, setting, speaker, and imagery—all connect with each other.[24]
    • For example, in Heaney’s poem “Digging,” the speaker looks at the different ways his family works. The speaker works with a pen and paper to dig for the truth and for survival, while his family dug the earth for potatoes to eat and live. The poem explores themes like “family,” “survival,” and “individual expression.”

[Edit]Read more about the poet’s life and work.

  1. Look into the biography of the poet. Consider their other published works, as well as their professional and personal life. Notice if there are common themes or a common style to the poet’s work. Then, compare the poem you’re analyzing to those other works, or think about how their life might have influenced the themes in the poem you’re reading.[25]
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    • Check online for a biography of the poet. Read more of the poet’s other works online or at your local library to get a better sense of their style and interests.

[Edit]Sample Analysis

[Edit]Video

[Edit]Related wikiHows

[Edit]References

[Edit]Quick Summary

  1. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  2. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  3. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  4. [v161665_b01]. 11 December 2020.
  5. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  6. http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/Ten-Tips-for-Analyzing-Poetry.pdf
  7. https://www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/ballad
  8. http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/Ten-Tips-for-Analyzing-Poetry.pdf
  9. https://literarydevices.net/haiku/
  10. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  11. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  12. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47555/digging
  13. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  14. http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/Ten-Tips-for-Analyzing-Poetry.pdf
  15. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  16. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  17. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  18. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
  19. [v161665_b01]. 11 December 2020.
  20. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48999/daddy-56d22aafa45b2
  21. https://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/How-to-Analyze-a-Poem.pdf
  22. https://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/How-to-Analyze-a-Poem.pdf
  23. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/how-to-analyze-a-poem-in-6-steps
  24. https://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/How-to-Analyze-a-Poem.pdf
  25. https://writingcenter.tamu.edu/Students/Writing-Speaking-Guides/Alphabetical-List-of-Guides/Academic-Writing/Analysis/Analyzing-Poetry
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