“Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument—language and breath.”
Writing a poetry analysis is one of the most dreaded assignments for students. Poetry is often intimidating to the untrained reader and it often takes time and practice to learn how to critically analyze a poem. Once you understand some of the basic principles of literary analysis and learn some simple poetry vocabulary, writing poetry analysis won’t be so daunting.
First, let’s review some vocabulary that we’ll be using –
Below are some basic poetic devices that are commonly used in analysis. Some you may be familiar with:
Simile: Comparison using like or as.
Metaphor: a direct comparison.
Tone: the emotion that the speaker uses when he/she talks
Personification: human qualities attributed to non-human objects
Imagery: A way to create pictures with words, often using sensory detail
Alliteration: Repetition of the same consonant sound
Assonance: Repetition of the same vowels sound
Stanza: A grouped set of lines in a poem
Now that you’ve learned some simple vocabulary, let’s look at some ways you might analyze a poem.
The first thing you read is obviously the title. This is your first clue as to what the poem might be about. The title often reflects the subject of the poem, so come back to the title after you’ve read the poem to analyze the connection to the content.
To begin, it’s important to read the poem several times, at least 3. Each time you read a poem, you might find something different you didn’t notice from previous readings. Try reading it aloud. Take note of words you are not familiar with so you can look them up later. Circle nouns or phrases that stick out to you.
Who is the Speaker?
Don’t confuse the speaker or narrator of the poem with the writer. The voice could be that of the writer, expressing thoughts or feelings, but not necessarily.
The speaker of the poem may be an old man, but the person who wrote the poem might be a twenty-year-old. Is the speaker a man or woman? Is he or she addressing someone in particular? Is there more than one speaker? What is the speaker’s mood? Angry? Cynical? Happy? If you can easily pinpoint the mood, how did you know?
Do you have any clues as to the main idea the speaker wants to communicate?
What is the Subject?
The title might be the first clue to the subject of the poem. If you’re still confused, ask yourself simply, “What is the poem about?”
You could uncover clues to the subject by the speaker’s tone. What is the speaker’s attitude about the subject? Angry? Hurt? Resentful? Sad? Scared? Joyful?
What is the Situation?
Is there an event in the poem the speaker is reflecting on? Or is the speaker simply discussing a memory? The weather? A long lost love?
Often, but not always, a poem tells a story. Did something happen? Does the speaker want something to happen? Why is the speaker talking about this?
How is the poem organized or divided up? You might be familiar with traditional stanzas, or several groups of 4 or 5 lines each, but there are as many different ways to organize a poem as there are poets. A poem might have numbered stanzas, or each stanza line may have no end punctuation and flow into the next stanza.
Poems are a unified piece of writing, and for the most part, don’t jump in topic from stanza to stanza, but are usually connected in meaning. You might see some kind of link in emotions, ideas, or images, a common thread that runs through each stanza. Do you notice any common thread?
If there are no stanza divisions, try looking at the poem line by line or sentence by sentence. Do you notice any patterns of repeated words or images?
The theme is the central idea of the poem, and often the theme conveys the poem’s message. As you put all of these ideas together, what does the poem mean as a whole? What do you think is the “take away” or the big “so what?” of the poem?
Language and Imagery
The conclusions you draw about the poem will come from the language and imagery of the poem. So it is imperative to understand the denotative meaning, as well as the connotative meaning of the words.
Denotative Meaning: This is the literal, or dictionary definition of a word.
Connotative Meaning: This is the emotional or associative meaning of a word. For instance, a snake is often associated with evil. Hollywood is associated with glamour. Blue birds are associated with happiness. The color white or a cross is associated with goodness or holiness.
Poets rely on language and imagery to convey meaning. Understanding the denotative and connotative meaning in language is important to understand the meaning of a poem.
This is only the tip of the tip of the poetic iceberg on how one might analyze poetry. Once you learn a few simple terms, you’ll find there are dictionaries devoted to poetic vocabulary. One good resource can be found on the Poetry Foundation’s website, who has a large glossary of terms, found here. Another good source is Poets.org.
Writing about poetry can be challenging, but learning a few simple terms and strategies will hopefully take the fear out of your next poetry analysis.
Considering the questions above, analyze the following poems-
Tattoo by Ted Kooser
What once was meant to be a statement—
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.
Kin by Maya Angelou