3 tips for understanding and analyzing poetry

How to Analyze Poetry



Analyzing poetry is no easy feat. How can we read meandering lines of words, sometimes that rhyme and sometimes not, with opaque imagery and symbols and make sense of it all as a coherent whole? How do we even start?


Sure, there are always those students in class who seem to easily "get" poetry, and their analysis of the poetic text seems to emerge from their brains in a way that many of us cannot duplicate. And if you're not one of them you're often left wondering things like, "How is a tree a symbol of knowledge? And how can anyone know that in advance?"


One of our most popular posts offers some very practical tips for working through analyzing a poem, and we have distilled our top three bits of guidance here in this simple how-to guide.


Basically, our "how to analyze poetry" guide follows three easy steps:

1. Look at the Imagery

2. Look at the Structure

3. Look at the Voice


Once you pull these three elements together, even if you are still not 100% sure what the poem really and truly means, you will have the foundations for an insightful response to a question--especially an AP exam question--asking you to analyze a poem.


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1. Imagery

Imagery is a word that encapsulates a variety of tropes and symbols, essentially where the words on the page mean more than their strict dictionary terms, and often appear in creative writing, including narratives and poetry. Images and symbols are deeply contextual, and in order to identify them the best, we often need to know the cultural symbols of the culture the poem emerges from. In the Anglo-American tradition (basically, poetry from places like the UK and US) there are some fairly common images that we can think of.


For example, a sunset often not only literally means the end of the day, but also often a symbolic ending to something, say the end of a life or a dream or a relationship. 


So if you look for some common images in poetry you are one step closer to unlocking and appreciating its meaning.



2. Structure

In poetry, form is as important as content. What is being said is as important as how it's being said. So often if we can start to identify elements of the poetic structure, then we become able to start to think about its meaning too.


For example, if a poem has a strict rhyme scheme then we can look to how the poet might play with those expectations. Maybe the most important part of the poem exists in the rhyming couplet at the end!


To test your poetic knowledge, have fun trying our poetry quizzes and testing your knowledge of literary terms!



3. Voice

While stories in novel or short-form have narrators, poems have speakers. Someone is voicing the poem, and we can learn many things about the poem itself if we pay attention to the nature of its speaker.


For example, if the speaker is very young or naive then there's often something called "dramatic irony," which is a situation where we as the readers know more than the participants. 


Once you've made some notes and insights (and here's one of the best guides on taking awesome notes), then you have the foundation of your poetic analysis. You may still be a bit unclear on exactly what the poem means, and that might be because poems often mean many things and evoke a variety of complex meanings. However, if you can identify some key images, the structure of the poem, and who its speaker is, then you have all you need to get started on a poetic analysis paper!


And if you need help with writing that poetic analysis essay, well, we're always here to help! 





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