English 200 Handouts

Reading a Poem

The following is presented as a general map or checklist of things to think about while analyzing a poem. The order is approximate; as you become more used to reading poetry, you will discover that many of these "steps" become conflated--run together. Also, remember that some aspects of analysis are more relevant or more important to a particular poem than others. Syntax is always important, but only some poems exhibit syntactical irregularities or ambiguities that need to be discussed in an analysis. A consideration of rhythm, meter, rhyme, and conventional poetic forms may or may not illuminate your understanding of a particular poem. Tone and tonal shift are of central importance to some analyses, while following a narrative line is more important in others. Nevertheless, whenever you read a poem for the first time (and for the first few times; most poems require at least several readings) you should count on going through all these steps. You don't know that rhythm isn't important until you have looked at it and understood how it works in relationship to the rest of the poem.

I. Language -- the Literal Level

II. Language -- the Imagistic and Figurative Level

III. Poetic Form

IV. Tone

V. Narration

VI. Allusions, Archetypes, and Symbols -- External References

VII. The Big Picture

Now that you've gone through the whole poem identifying this stuff comes the really hard part--making it all make sense. By the time you've read the poem for the sixth or tenth time, you should be coming to some basic conclusions as to what it is about. Oftentimes the point will be a complex thing--a tension of forces between potentially opposed moods or images or ideas. You know that you are coming to an adequate explanation of a poem which you find that each aspect of the analysis fits the general purpose you have discovered. A really good analysis covers the whole poem, uniting all its parts.

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