How to Read Poetry and Analyze a Poem
An excerpt from a wonderful poem by Billy Collins entitled, "Introduction to Poetry":
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
In these lines, and throughout his poem, Collins provides a clear summary of the problem many people have with reading poetry. Put simply, reading poetry is, for too many people, painful and confusing instead of entertaining and full of insight.
I see symptoms of this all the time. Every year I stand before my classes and ask a simple question, “How many of you love poetry?” In a class of twenty-five to thirty students, two to five students will raise their hands. Ten to fifteen of them think its okay…“if I have to.” The remaining ten to fifteen of them would prefer to watch paint dry or—gulp—actually listen to me lecture rather than read a poem.
Sadly, the focus of many schools, which is where most of us encounter poetry for the first (and only) time, is to teach students how to dissect a poem in search of what the poem means. This focus on meaning destroys whatever sense of adventure and exploration students may have initially brought to the study of poetry, and this waning sense of anticipation and joy is at the root of appreciating poetry both as a reader and writer.
This article is designed to provide an alternative way to think about poetry. I have discovered over years of teaching poetry that most students—and many adults—need to unlearn much of what they understand about how to read poetry in order to really enjoy it, appreciate it and successfully analyze it. Here I provide the basic tools and understandings you need to take a new approach.
Why Understanding Poetry Can be Difficult
Most of our training teaches us to ask this question whenever we read poetry: “What does it mean?” For many kinds of writing this is a very useful approach, particularly when to goal is to successfully answer multiple choice test questions like those so commonly found in academic circles. Since both fiction and nonfiction prose are primarily designed to convey information of some kind, seeking to understand what they mean works well.
Unfortunately, this question tends to be misleading when reading poetry because of a fundamental difference in the way poetry is written. When poets write, their attention rests first and foremost on the kind of word experience they are creating for the reader. That is, poets work to craft an experience more so than to convey information. Whatever a poem might “mean” is a secondary consequence of the way the words of a poem shape the reader's experience.
Learning to read this kind of writing requires a different mind set.
Reading Poetry as an Adventure in Exploration
The adventure of reading a poem comes in exploring and testing out the word-based experience that the poet has created. Do not begin by seeking out what the poem means. Instead, begin by asking questions about how the poem is put together. Simply notice things and then ask yourself, “Why would the poet do that?” Instead of trying to understand the whole poem, just try to answer these smaller questions. Doing so will eventually lead you to a truer understanding of “what the poem means.”
Understanding why this works so well in poetry is most easily understood by comparing poetry to sculpture. Read the following two paragraphs about how a sculptor creates her art:
When a sculpture begins creating, she may or may not have any clear sense of what the sculpture will look like. Instead, she works with tools to shape the medium in which she has chosen to work—clay, marble, wood, or stone. As she sculpts, the form of the sculpture begins to take shape. After hours or days or years of feeling out the shape and texture and form, what the piece is meant to be finally becomes clear and the sculpture is declared finished.
One would find it strange to ask, “What does the sculpture mean?” Certainly, it engenders many questions, creates value and provides a meaningful experience for those who look at it, but, in the strictest sense, it does not really “mean” anything.
Now read the paragraphs below, which are identical to those above, except that all references to sculpture have been replaced by references to poetry:
When a poet begins writing, she may or may not have any clear sense of what the poem will look like. Instead, she works with tools to shape the medium in which she has chosen to work—words. As she composes, the form of the poem begins to take shape. After hours or days or years of feeling out the shape and texture and form, what the poem is meant to be finally becomes clear and the piece is declared finished.
One would find it strange to ask, “What does the poem mean?” Certainly, it engenders many questions, creates value and provides a meaningful experience for those who read it, but, in the strictest sense, it does not really “mean” anything.
This is how poetry works. What confuses people is that the medium in which poetry is “sculpted” is words, and words, by their nature, have “meaning.” People logically assume, therefore, that a poem would have “meaning” in just the same way. A poem’s meaning, however, lies in something beyond the meaning of the words themselves, or even the collective meanings of the words taken together. Like the sculpture, the meaning of a poem lies in the experiencing of the poem itself.
The right question to ask when reading poetry is one first identified by the poet John Ciardi: “How does a poem mean?” The question sounds odd, but it places your attention in the right place for analyzing a poem with genuine understanding because the meaning of any poem is deeply woven into how the poem was written. Asking lots of questions around how the poem is written leads to genuine understanding and appreciation.
For Further Study...
If you find that this article inspires you, I highly recommend the reading of John Ciardi’s book, How Does a Poem Mean. He goes into far greater depth on the subject with far more artistry than I am capable of providing here.
Understanding the Structure of a Poem
Reading a poem with insight into how it was written begins with a look at the poem’s structure. Before even reading the poem, one should briefly glance over the following:
- How many stanzas does the poem have?
- How many lines are there per stanza (particularly if there is any pattern to it)?
- Are there any visual considerations?—pictures, odd font choices or strange arrangements of words?
- Do any of the lines rhyme, and, if so, is there a pattern?
- Is there any repetition of words, phrases, sounds or rhythms?
- How is punctuation used?—is it traditional, non-traditional or even completely absent?
Did anything strike you as unique or interesting or odd? The primary focus at this stage is to notice things and then ask yourself, “Why?” Taking this approach will establish a preliminary sense of how the poem was put together, allowing you to more easily follow the movement of the words and ideas.
Imagery in Poetry
Imagery in writing refers to words that a writer uses to generate a sensory picture for the reader. Many are visual, but any words that create a sensory experience for the reader—sight, sound, touch, taste or smell—count as imagery. Poets are very specific and very particular about the images they invoke, so watch out for them and pay attention to when, where and how they are included. Always follow up your observations with the question, “Why?”
Recognizing Figurative Language in Poetry
“Figurative Language” refers to a specific set of tools that poets (and other writers) use to bring depth to their writing. They are ways of using language in such a way that it plays on the reader’s ability to creatively connect different images, ideas and experiences. Recognizing them and watching for when, where and how they are used is central to understanding how a particular poem means:
Simile, Metaphor, & Symbolism: One of the poet’s greatest poetic devices is to use the power of language to call up vivid images, ideas, and experiences in the mind of the reader and then combine them in creative and interesting ways.
- Simile: when two things are compared using like or as (i.e. her anger raged like a storm).
- Metaphor: when two things are set up as if they were the same thing (i.e. her anger was a storm raging through the room).
- Symbolism: when the poet uses an image to represent an idea (like a single fallen soldier in a poem representing the army of an entire country).
Personification: when the poet gives human characteristics to non-human things or animals. This technique can create interesting and revealing situations, comparisons, and “what if” scenarios.
Sound Devices: sound is a part of the experience of reading, whether we read aloud or not. Poets are very sensitive to how their writing sounds and the “musical” kinds of effects that this sound can have.
- Rhyme: whether it occurs in a regular pattern or just randomly, it creates a special sound that makes the reader take notice.
- Alliteration: the purposeful repetition of the same sound over and over again.
- Onomatopoeia: words meant to mimic sound (i.e. bang, smash, pow, oink, ruff, etc.).
- Sound-based Word Choice: poets will sometimes pay very close attention to the kinds of vowel and consonant sounds present in the words they choose. They will listen for the repetition of these sounds and how they play against each other.
- Made-up Words: poets will sometimes make up words to get at the sound experience they want to create for the reader. Watch for this when it happens.
- Word Repetition: the repetition of words can be very powerful and can also create a special sound in the reader’s ear.
Becoming familiar with these writing tools will allow you to more easily notice them and then pose the question, “Why?” Pursuing the answers to these questions will help to unravel the puzzle presented by a given poem.
Poetry Analysis in Action
Here I will walk through in writing what would go on in my head as I read this poem by Emily Dickinson. Written out, this appears quite involved, but it simply represents an active engagement with the poem that would take far less time in actuality.
There is No Frigate Like a Book
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
—Emily Dickinson (Public Domain)
The poem is two stanzas long with each stanza having four lines. Within the stanzas, lines 2 and 4 rhyme. The rhythm looks like it will be regular as the lines are of similar lengths, and punctuation is used in the traditional way. I notice no repetition or patterns immediately other than the repetition of stanza form.
Question: Why is the poem so short?
Most of her works are. She likes to be concise.
Question: Why is it in such a tightly structured form?
The full-rhyme structure gives it power and makes it sound like a declaration of something important.
There is not much imagery here to address, although I did notice here how the “frigate” becomes a “chariot” in the last two lines.
Question: Why would she do this?
A chariot is much more elegant and glamorous than a frigate, which is fitting to the way it “…bears a human soul!” Perhaps this is the reason.
In any case, the author here is clearly more concerned about conceptual ideas than concrete sensory experience.
Similes: a frigate to a book and a courser to a page, ending with a chariot.
Metaphor: the poorest get to take the journey, too, “Without oppress of toll.”
Alliteration in line 4 with Personification: “…prancing poetry” & “…poorest” & “oppress.”
Metaphor Extension: this frigate is a “chariot” bearing the “human soul” and it is frugal. The word frugal seems important, but I’m not entirely sure what it means.
Question: Why does the mode of transportation keep getting better each time it’s mentioned?
A frigate is very common and welcoming, a courser is sleeker and faster, and a chariot is more elevated and noble—certainly more suited to bearing a soul. Each of these is a reflection of what books can be like, depending on which ones you read.
Question: Why does she include the poor in lines 5 and 6?
Books are inexpensive and largely available to anyone. You don’t have to have money to go on this kind of adventure. It occurs to me, however, that you have to be able to read to go on the journey and, particularly at the time this was written, you had to have money to get the education necessary to learn to read. Still, I get her point.
Question: Why the alliteration & personification?
The repetitive “p” sound gives the poem a sense of how poetry “prances,” which is a wonderful bit of imagery I had not noticed before.
Question: Why does Dickinson use the word “frugal?”
“Frugal” means economical. Who’s economical here?—the chariot. Ah, it is economical because it is willing to take the poor along with the rich. That is, all readers are welcome!
I also love how books bear the human soul, revealing how Dickinson feels about the intimacy one can share with an author when reading her writing.
The poem is about the joy of reading and how it is readily available to all. The individual lines make specific points about the nature of the journey while the structure of the words and their sounds and repetitions actually embody this joy in the way the reader experiences them. This is what the poem “means.”
Conclusion: Poetry is Like a Puzzle
Poetry is like a puzzle. The pieces have to be sorted, arranged, organized and then placed in order to get a sense of the overall picture. And, like puzzles, poetry becomes more and more enjoyable the more of them you work your way through.
Take up the adventure and read some more poetry!