Poetry Analysis: How To
Reading poetry is something that practically every student has to do sooner or later, and with that, a poetry analysis or two is often assigned. A good poetry anaylsis will require reading skills and writing skills. Many students hate poetry, and even for some of the students who enjoy reading poetry, completing a poetry analysis can be a real headache. Frankly, some young people don’t know how to analyze a poem. This isn’t usually their fault – they might have a literature teacher who hasn’t properly armed them with the skills necessary for completing an effective poetry analysis. If you fall into this category, don’t despair. I’m a retired literature and writing teacher, and I’m here to help!
Before You Begin...
Some teachers allow their literature students to choose a poem to be analyzed, while other educators will assign a specific poem. If you have the opportunity to select a poem, choose one that “speaks to you.” Don’t let your choice be based solely on the length of the poem. Some short poems can be very difficult to analyze, while there are plenty of medium-length poems that are fairly simple and easy to understand. Remember, too, however, that you don’t want a poem that’s too simple. In such a case, you won’t have much to discuss in your paper. What’s most important is for you to choose a poem that you can understand, and if you can relate to the theme of the poem, your paper will be stronger and more convincing.
Before you begin with the actual poetry analysis, read the poem several times to make sure you understand the literal meaning of the poem. You’ll also need to learn a little about the poet because this knowledge might give you some valuable insight about the poem. I’ll use my favorite poet, Thomas Hardy, as an example. If you were to read “The Man He Killed,” by Hardy, you’d be able to understand a lot more about the poem if you were familiar with Hardy’s views on meliorism, war, and man’s inhumanity to man.
It also helps if you know when the poem was written and what was going on in the world at the time. For example, several of William Blake’s poems were about England’s Industrial Revolution and its devastating effects on humanity. Without this knowledge, poems like “The Chimney Sweeper,” “The Tyger,” and “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” might be exceedingly difficult to analyze thoroughly.
How to Analyze a Poem
Once you fully understand the literal meaning of poetry, you can begin your poetry analysis. You’ll need to identify the speaker in the poem. Is it the poet, or someone else? Remember that the speaker can be an animal or even an inanimate object. Also, sometimes a poem has more than one speaker.
To whom is the speaker speaking? The speaker might be talking to himself, to another person, to an animal, or to an object. He might also be addressing the public or an abstract idea like love, hate, courage, or fear.
Your teacher might also want you to identify the type of poetry your poem is. For example, is it a lyrical poem, a narrative poem, or a dramatic poem? You might have to be more specific and decide if the poem is a ballad, a sonnet, a haiku, an ode, an elegy, a villanelle, a tercet, or another form of poetry. You might also be required to identify the rhyme scheme.
Does the rhythm or movement of the poem help convey the meaning to readers? For example, in “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls,” by Longfellow, the rhythm of the lines mimics the movement of waves going back and forth. Not all poets use rhythm as connotation, but if your poet does, be sure to discuss it.
Look for other literary devices in the poem. Does the poet use personification, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, alliteration, enjambment, synecdoche, or metonymy? These are just a few poetic devices that you might find in a poem.
What’s the tone of the poem? In other words, you need to discover the poet’s attitude toward his subject or subjects. A poem might have a tone that implies humor, sarcasm, loss, sadness, joy, acceptance, wonder, confusion, etc. It’s also important to note that a poem can embrace more than one tone.
If you’re having trouble deciding a poem’s tone, look carefully at the poet’s choice of individual words, as well as the overall poem. For example, in “The Darkling Thrush,” by Hardy, the tone is one of desolation and hopelessness. Some of the words Hardy uses to convey this are “spectre-grey,” “desolate,” “broken,” “dregs,” “haunted,” “corpse,” “shrunken,” “fervorless,” and “bleak.”
The theme is the main idea of a work. What’s the main focus of the poem? If you had to explain what the entire poem was about, by using just a few words, what would they be? Common themes in poetry include death, love, hope, friendship, nature, childhood, religion, war, or a host of other main ideas.
Figuring out the theme of a poem isn’t usually difficult, although some poems have more than one theme. Many times, the theme isn’t included by name in a poem. For example, a poem about love might not even include the word “love” at all, but you should be able to tell by reading the poem what the main idea is. This goes back to the importance of understanding the literal meaning of a poem first.
Many literary works, including poems, use symbolism. A symbol can be a person, place, or thing. William Blake’s tiger in “The Tyger” is a symbol that stands for something more than a jungle cat. The tiger stands for the Industrial Revolution. Sometimes there's more than one symbol in a poem, and sometimes a single symbol can represent more than one thing. Some readers see Blake’s tiger as representing the powerful forces of nature, which can be benevolent or destructive.
Poetry almost always includes imagery. Images are used to appeal to the reader’s five senses. The most common form of imagery is visual imagery, which the poet uses to help create a “picture” in the reader’s mind. This is often accomplished through the use of figurative language, including metaphors and similes. A good example of this is Robert Frost’s description of the stone fence in “Mending Wall” – “like an old stone savage.” You can just picture an old rugged fence made of rough stones.
Images might also appeal to the reader’s sense of touch, taste, hearing, or smell. T.S. Eliot provides a powerful image in “The Hollow Men” with “rats’ feet over broken glass.” Can’t you just imagine how that would sound?