How to Analyse a Poem for Exams or Pleasure
Start Your Poetry Analysis
If you need to analyse a poem for an exam, or if you need to read a poem you've never seen before, what's the best way to go about it?
Read the title, then the opening few lines, sit back and think about what you've just read? Take it in bite size chunks? Or do you plunge straight in and read the whole thing through, sit back and think for awhile about how the poem made you feel?
Both are valid ways into the poem but what do you do once you're inside? How can you get to understand what the poet really means? How does the poem work?
This article will help you understand the poem in front of you and enable you to fully analyse the way the poet has constructed it.
On With The Poetry Analysis
There are various ways of going about the analysis of a poem in order to understand it better and also to pass an exam. I'm going to outline a method here which would be suitable for students as well as those who read for pleasure.
There are various elements that are common to all poems - subject matter, rhyme or lack of, rhythm and so on - and it is up to the reader to work out just what the poet is attempting to do with each element.
Reading is one thing, learning how and why is another. Analysis is about breaking down to build back up again, understanding the whole. In the end you'll gain a better appreciation of the poem.
Read Through Slowly
Focus on the title. Why has the poet chosen a title like that? What is the subject matter of the poem? Note down ideas you may have. If the lines aren't numbered count them and keep the number handy. Do the same with the stanzas.
- Scan the poem and delve a bit deeper into the subject matter. Pay attention to the shape of the words on the page, the size, the overall 'look' of the poem. Make a note of special lines,events,experiences.
Annotate A Poem
If you have to annotate a text you'll be expected to write down comments, ideas and explanations next to the text itself. You may underline words and phrases, highlight passages that are of interest and make a note of any criticisms you have.
Below is a video of an annotation of the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney.
How To Annotate The Poem
Have pen and paper ready should you need to take notes. Or annotate where appropriate.
Read through the poem as slowly as you can. What does the opening line suggest? Does it set the tone of the poem? Jot down any unusual words or phrases that catch your eye plus any questions or suggestions you may have. For example, some of the sentences may remind you of another poem you've read, or some recent event you've heard about or experienced could be relevant.
Repeat the procedure, this time reading at normal speed. Try to get into your mind the meaning the poet is trying to convey. If you're in an exam situation you may not be able to read out loud so read to yourself as clearly as you can, fully engaging with each word. Any notes you take may be of use to you later on so save them all.
- You may want to take a break of a minute or so to align your thoughts but don't lose concentration at this early stage. Your third read through should be like the first. Take your time as you go past what will be by now familiar territory. As you go along you'll be making mental snapshots of those sentences that are 'key' or of greater meaning to you. Better to write down any ideas that come to you.
Subject Matter of the Poem
Having read through the poem you have to ask the basic questions - What is the poem about? What is the subject matter of the poem?
Is it about love? Nature's beauty? Grief? Death? Loss? The Natural World? Human relationships?
The Theme, the Tone/Mood, the Feeling of the Poem
What Is The Tone (or Mood) of the Poem?
What is the basic tone created by the poem? Does this change as the poem progresses?
Who is speaking in the poem? Is it written in the 1st person, 3rd person? Is there a clear image of a person in the poem? Who owns the voice? Has the speaker a conscience, a role; do they mention other people? There could be several voices speaking in different parts of the poem so make sure you note down where they occur (number of line and stanza).
What is happening or has happened in the poem? Note down the theme or themes and any important events that are described.
Where is the poem set, both in time and space? In the present, past or future? Perhaps the poem is set in someone's mind, or back garden? How important is the geographical setting to the overall theme of the poem?
Language of the Poem
Typical questions you may get in an exam -
- How does the poet use language to convey mood and meaning?
- Analyse the poem paying attention to the relationship between subject and form.
- Explore the methods the poet employs to create tension within the poem.
Figurative or Literal Language?
Figurative language is the opposite to literal language.
If certain words of a poem do not connect up straight you can be sure they are figurative.
For example, one of Emily Dickinson's poems starts with the line:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
This is figurative use of language.
Literal use would be a line such as:
I felt a lump, on my forehead
How Language Creates Tone/Mood in a Poem
The language of a poem reflects it's origins and to an extent where it wants to go. It helps to define the poem and can be a useful connective when it comes to comparison.
For example, take We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks:
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
The language is terse, direct, modern, coming out of the minds and mouths of the young pool players.
Compare the above with this opening stanza of David Young's poem,
The Dead From Iraq.
They come back and stand in our midst,
young men in camouflage, heads shaved,
with undecided smiles, puzzled eyes.
We seldom happen to perceive them -
This is a more formal, descriptive type of commentary, almost like a news report. Both examples show how different kinds of language create a unique atmosphere for the poem to live in.
I, You, They? 1st, 2nd, 3rd person?
Here is an extract from 'Morning Poem' by Mary Oliver.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
Form or Structure of a Poem
The form or structure of a poem is determined by studying the lines, to see if they conform to set rules. There are many different forms a poem can take. Classical poetry usually has definite form, whilst a lot of modern poetry has indefinite form.
As John Lennard noted in his excellent book The Poetry Handbook, 'all lines have rhythm/s, and all poems form/s'.
Free verse for example can have lines of varying length that reflect everyday 21st century speech patterns; there is no traditional adherence to stress or metre (meter in American English) or syllable. Rhythm and rhyme may be unplanned and the latter may not happen at all.
The more common forms of poetry include :
- blank verse - unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter.
- couplet - two lines with or without rhyme.
tercet - three line stanza with or without rhyme.
- quatrain - four line stanza with or without rhyme.
- sonnet - fourteen lines usually of iambic pentameter with varied rhyme schemes. can be Petrarchan, Italian or English/Shakespearean.
villanelle - nineteen lines of five tercets plus a quatrain all in iambic pentameter. Lines 1,6, 12, 18 must repeat as must lines 3,9,15,19.
- sestina - six stanzas each of six lines ending in a tercet. End words of first stanza = abcdef must then become faebdc cfdabe ecbfad deacfb bdfeca with tercet eca or ace and include three remaining end words.
pantoum - quatrains with lines 2 and 4 of first stanza repeated in lines 1 and 3 of second.
A stanza, or verse, is a group of lines that make up the complete poem. Some poems are made up of many stanzas, others may have only one.
Example of blank verse -
The day is like wide water, without sound
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Wallace Stevens, from Sunday Morning.
A rhyming couplet -
From the private ease of Mother's womb
I fall into the lighted room.
Thom Gunn Baby Song
An example of a tercet -
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain - and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
Robert Frost Acquainted with the Night
An example of an unrhymed quatrain -
They shut me up in Prose -
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet -
Because they liked me "still" -
Emily Dickinson They shut me up in Prose 445(613)
Imagery In The Poem
As you read through the poem make a note of any strong images that the words describe or convey. Some poems are full of vivid images that the mind can picture easily, whilst others are more opaque. You may find images appearing in your mind's eye that are only indirectly related to the words on the page.
What do the images say to you? Why has the poet included them? Is special language used? Write everything down, it may be of use to you later when you come to build your analysis.
Two English poets
Contrast William Wordsworth's opening two lines with those of modern innovator Chris McCabe.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
metal tooth chatter of garden gates
wind rips up through the road; car disappears in the ear
Does The Poem Work For You?
Having read the poem two or three - or more - times you should have a feel for the poem as a whole. Do you like the poem? Does it give it you a buzz? Make you feel happy, warm, emotional, sad, angry?
- It's important to say if the poem works for you and why.
- Select certain lines or devices to back this up.
- Use a quote or two in appropriate places to support your findings in your summing up.
To help you further, here is an example of a classic Seamus Heaney poem, Digging together with a brief analysis.
Putting It All Together To Analyse Seamus Heaney's Poem
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.
Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Subject Matter of the Poem
The title immediately suggests a theme of digging, the action and the process. Someone is digging in a garden which parallels the poet's own internal digging, into the mind and soul.
Read Through The Poem Slowly
The poem begins in the present and the voice is that of the poet who has his pen in his hand ready for action (as snug as a gun). He is at home, perhaps in an upstairs room. He can hear his father digging in the garden.
As the poet watches the father's 'straining rump' the tense changes from present to past, going back twenty years to a field of potatoe drills worked by his father. The poet recalls picking up the new potatoes, their 'cool hardness' being something that he loved.
The poem has become a memory bank where a familiar scene is being replayed through the eyes of the boy, now grown up and a poet. There is some detail describing the 'old man's' digging technique and expertise.
In the next and longest stanza Heaney goes even further back into his family's history. The grandfather is evoked, 'digging down and down' into the peat bog, Toner's bog. The poet remembers taking his grandfather some milk, the bottle being 'corked sloppily with paper' ; he also cannot forget the smell of potatoe mould.
Theme, Tone/Mood, Feeling
The voice in the poem, 'I', must be the poet himself reflecting as he sits in his room, pen in hand. What is he reflecting on? His father certainly, plus the grandfather and the family history with regards to the work these men have done and are doing. The father is in the garden with a spade, the grandfather was out on the bog cutting peat.
Both of these activities are physical, demanding effort and brute strength. Both are strongly linked to the earth. The poet however has left these manual tasks behind. He has only a pen but by writing poetry he seems himself as a digger, digging down into the vocabulary to unearth a poem.
- So the theme is that of family history, the way different generations in a family express themselves.
- The tone is meditative, reflective which creates a feeling of quiet tension as the speaker reconciles the past with the present.
Use Of Language
The poet uses a quiet narrative to help describe the actions of his father digging. There are powerful combinations of words that place the meaning firmly in the mind - 'spade sinks into gravelly ground' ...'straining rump......Stooping in rhythm'. It's as if the poet is affirming the family history and his place within it by using both local and informal language. 'Toner's bog' ....'By God, the old man could handle a spade'.
Moving from the present to the past and back again Seamus Heaney accepts that the spade is not for him; his digging will be with the pen, his role as poet established. This poem might have been in danger of being labelled too sentimental were it not for the earthy language and steady matter of fact descriptions.
Form/Structure of Poem Digging
First impressions of this poem are mixed. Is it free verse or something more classical? It starts with a couplet, moves on to a tercet then a quatrain. Yet there is no rhyme scheme and the flow of the sentences suggests it is both formal and free - does this reflect what's going on in the poet's mind? He is thinking about the past but feels a need to break free.
There are lines of tetrameters and pentameters which echo common speech patterns but there are also lines that slow the poem down, allowing a break in time, as if the poet in his mind's eye is pondering on the future.
There are three main images in this poem - the poet with his pen, the father and grandfather both with spades. The present is merging with the past and 'comes up twenty years away', from garden to potatoe field then from field to peat bog, even further back in time. You have here two ancient Irish images forming in the poet's mind as he returns to the present, ready to dig with his squat pen.
Impact of Poem - Does It Work For You?
As a final thought you could write a line or two on your feelings, what the poem did for you and whether or not you liked it. Say why. Give reasons for and against and don't be afraid to give an opinion.
This is a thoughtful, rich and quietly emotional poem about family, generational blood ties and a father's influence.
Learn More About Poems Here
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2012 Andrew Spacey