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How to analyse a poem

How to Analyse a Poem

There is no right or wrong way to read a poem.

If you’ve been taught that at any point, you must be prepared to unlearn it.

Schools often teach you that there is a right or wrong way to read a poem. Including these reasons gets you extra marks.

If you’re analysing a poem for academic purposes, this may not be the post for you. This post aims to make you a better poet by learning from your predecessors.

The beauty of poetry is that it’s open to interpretation. Yes, some images can only mean one thing, but the best poems mean something different to everyone. That’s not because they’re poorly written, but because we project our own experiences onto what we read.

Poets must make deliberate decisions about every aspect of their poem. Things like a poem’s structure, its title, and even its use of punctuation are deliberate decisions made by the poet to reinforce—or sometimes contradict—the overarching theme or message of the poem.

In this post, we’re going to look at some of the areas you can analyse when reading a poem. Because there are so many different kinds of poetry, this isn’t an exhaustive list. It will give you some ideas of how to get started, though.

For some more ideas, check out Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at how to analyse a poem.

Title

Titles are important. Don’t gloss over them. Ever.

If a poem is vague or very short, a title can explain what it’s about without it needing to be stated within the poem itself.

It can also be used to set the scene if a poem is set in a particular time or place. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg did this a lot with his poetry.

Questions to think about

  • What is the purpose of the poem’s title? Does it reinforce the message? Does it set the scene? Does it do something else?

Epigraph

An epigraph is a short phrase—sometimes a quote—at the start of a poem.

Most poems don’t have epigraphs. If a poem does have one, it’s been put there for a purpose.

Sometimes it’s to pay homage to the poem that inspired it. Other times, it’s a quote to reinforce the poem’s message or explain what it’s about. It could also be a dedication to someone or something.

Questions to think about

  • What purpose does the epigraph serve?

Structure

There are lots of different kinds of poetic structure, and they all carry with them different assumptions.

Not using a structure is just as deliberate a decision as using one.

Starting off with a rigid structure and gradually falling apart could be used to symbolise discord or distress.

You can find a list of poetic forms here.

Questions to think about

  • What is the poem’s form or structure? Does it change as the tone of the poem changes?
  • Why do you think this structure was chosen? Does it reinforce or contradict the message of the poem?

Rhyming scheme

Not all poems have to rhyme. Free verse, for example, neither rhymes nor has a structure.

The use of a rhyming scheme can reflect many things. It could be related to its structure, to create a chant-like feel, or even to poke fun at the topic of the poem.

Questions to think about

  • Does the poem have a rhyming scheme? What is it?
  • Does the rhyming scheme change as the poem progresses? Why do you think this is?
  • Are there any forced rhymes in the poem? Do you think this is deliberate, or simply because the poet needed a word that rhymed?
  • Why do you think the poet chose this rhyming scheme over another?

Metre

Metre is the pattern of stressed or unstressed syllables in a poem. Stressed syllables are accented or longer, while unstressed syllables are shorter or unaccented.

Each pair of stressed and unstressed syllables makes a foot.

Here’s a quick look at a couple of the most popular:

Iambic pentameter

It took me years to get my head around what iambic pentameter is. Now I find myself writing in it without even realising.

Iambic pentameter has 10 syllables per line. The emphasis falls on every other syllable, like so: da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA.

Iambic tetrameter

Iambic tetrameter consists of four unstressed syllables and four stressed syllables.

It sounds like this: da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA.

There are lots, lots more combinations. It’s also worth remembering that free verse doesn’t need to abide by any of these rules. Which is both irritating and exhilarating.

If you want to find out more about feet and metre in poetry, Shakespeare Study Guide is a really useful resource that explains it much better than I can.

Questions to think about

  • What kind of rhythm does the metre create?
  • Does it feel childlike, chant-like, etc?

Punctuation (or lack of)

concrete-poem-poetry

The one time I wrote a poem without punctuation (see terrible screenshot above), it felt like I was selling my soul. But I did it because it was important to the message of the poem. It was an interesting experiment and helped to convey the narrator’s emotions, but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again any time soon.

Punctuation can also be used to emphasise a point. For instance a full stop halfway through a line forces you to pause. It breaks up the rhythm and can make an otherwise structured poem turn out very differently. It also goes against the traditional assumption that line breaks are a form of punctuation in themselves.

Questions to think about

  • Does the poem follow traditional grammar and punctuation? If not, why do you think this is?
  • Does the punctuation within the poem force you to read it in a particular way? What effect does this have?

Language use

Every word in a poem is chosen for a reason. It could be that they fit the rhythm, that they’re the right length for the shape of the poem, or that they have the right connotations for the poem’s theme.

Questions to think about

  • Are there any particular words that stand out to you?
  • Are there any words that are used excessively? Do they help to drive the point home, or do they become jarring?
  • Is it written in more than one language? Why do you think this is?

Narrative

Even the shortest poem can (and should) tell a story.

Questions to think about

  • What story does the poem tell?
  • Does it tell this story well?
  • How could it tell the story better? Does it need more imagery, more explanation, etc?
  • How much of the story is left open to interpretation? Why do you think the poet did this?

Imagery

Imagery is what everyone jumps to when they analyse a poem. Poems are well-known for invoking strong images and taking us to a different time and place in a short amount of words.

Creating an image in a poem doesn’t always have to be about a metaphor or a simile. It could also come from the shape of a concrete poem, or from the poem’s story itself.

It could also stem from the use of vivid language. For instance, saying that a character drinks a caramel macchiato instead of coffee. These small details give us a bigger insight into the character’s mind and makes them feel more real.

Questions to think about

  • What metaphors and similes does the poem use? Why do you think the poet chose to use these?
  • What other analogies does the poem use?
  • What image(s) stood out to you the most, and why?

Conclusion

When it comes to analysing a poem, there really is no right or wrong answer.

The most important tool you need to analyse a poem is an open mind. So long as you’ve got that, and you’re willing to get into discussions with people who will read the same poem completely differently to you, you’re all set 🙂

So, next time you read a poem, ask yourself:

  • How does it make you feel?
  • What images does it invoke?
  • How does it use language to get its message across?
  • What’s the overall message, theme, or topic?
  • Does the structure or rhyming scheme reflect the topic of the poem?
  • Does the poem use punctuation or line breaks in a creative way?
  • Is there a rhyme scheme? How does that tie in with the overall theme?
  • Does the title add an extra layer to the poem?
  • How do the metre and rhyme scheme work together? Do they invoke a particular feel?
  • What story does the poem tell?

How to analyse a poem

Over to You

What’s the first thing you ask yourself when analysing a poem?

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ABOUT
Kristina Adams

Kristina Adams is an author of fiction and nonfiction, writing and productivity blogger, and occasional poet. She has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Derby and an MA in Creative Writing from Nottingham Trent University. When she's not writing she's reading, baking, or finding other ways to destroy the kitchen.

Her latest book, Productivity for Writers, is out now.

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