Section 21 / Fall 1998
Introduction to Literature
The University of Mississippi
Department of English
Reading a Poem
Plain text version of this document.
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 conflatedrun
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
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.
- Language the Literal Level
- Language the Imagistic and Figurative Level
- Poetic Form
- Allusions, Archetypes, and SymbolsExternal References
- The Big Picture
- The first step in figuring out any poem is to untangle and
sort out the syntax of the poem. Almost all poems are
written with reference to normative rules of grammar;
there is always a relationship between the apparently
messed-up grammar of the poem and the grammar of an
ordinary English sentence. So, you must be sure, first of
all, that you understand the relationships between the
various words which make up each sentence of the poem:
which verbs go with which subjects and objects, what
modifies what, what antecedents go with which pronouns.
Oftentimes poetry does utilize syntactical shifts:
- a word being used as two different parts of
speech at the same time
- places where normal English sentence order is
turned around for emphasis; the subject put after the
verb, for instance
- places where words seem to have been left out
You should note anyplace where the language becomes difficult
to understand or seems to deviate from normal English usage;
try to create a temporary paraphrase of these sections of the
poem into ordinary English so that you can sure that you know
what is going on.
Oftentimes, trying to read the poem out loud to yourself
until it moves smoothly will help you to figure out the
syntax. Also remember that poets do things for a reason.
If the grammar of a poem is all screwed up, it is generally
because the poet is trying to emphasize something. You
should, therefore, always be thinking about why the syntax is
- At the same time that you are sorting out the syntax, you
also need to be figuring out the denotations of the words used.
using the dictionary to look up words
you don't know. At this point you also need to look for
ambiguities and puns: places where a given word may mean
two or more things at once. Again, you must be asking
yourself why: why did the poet choose this word.
- You need to pay attention to the
connotations of specific words the atmosphere, or aura, or mood
surrounds them and suggests wider associations and significances.
Always be asking
what does this particular word make me think of?
- At the same time, you need to be sensitive to the
sensory images of sight, smell, touch, taste, sound which
evokes. This means sitting back and letting the poem work
in your head; reading a poem can be like watching a movie
if you really let the images unroll in your mind. While
you are doing this, you should still be thinking of the
connotations of the moods the images are creating. You
also need to start grouping the images into clusters,
noticing how they fit together, or contrast and play off
one another with one cluster creating a kind of ironic
commentary or tension with another.
- Sometimes imagery is literal; oftentimes, though, it is
figurative language, etc. Everything said about images applies to
experiencing the figurative language in a poem. You also need to identify what
figures of speech are used in a poem and should, as always, think about why the
poet might have chosen them.
Why a metaphor instead of a simile?
- Check out meter, rhyme, and rhythm. Look for
expectations which are built up and then destroyed or
changed. What is usually most important in poetic form
are the irregularities. Notice what such irregularities
- Look for sound effects in the poem alliteration,
assonance, onomatopoeia. Try to figure out how these effects
work with the imagery, connotations, etc.
- Try to identify whether the poem uses any traditional forms. Is
it a sonnet? Is it written in heroic couplets? What does the choice of
form say about what the poet is trying to do?
- Who is the speaker of the poem? What kind of person does he or
she seem to be?
- What does the speaker's attitude towards his or her
subject matter seem to be? What do you think is the poet's motive for
writing the poem?
- Who is the speaker's implied audience? What is his or her
attitude toward the audience? What is he or she trying to do to the
reader? How close is the speaker to the reader?
- Does the tone change from stanza to stanza throughout the
poem? Oftentimes a poem will not have a plot or narrative line; instead,
the movement of the poem may be from one emotion to another or from one
idea to another.
- What happens in the poem? If it is a series of events, be sure you
understand their sequence from stanza to stanza.
- Does the poem follow a chronological order? Are there flashbacks? Is
there foreshadowing? Distinguish the order of the plot from the order of
- Allusions are references to anything outside the poem an event,
another work of art, a place, a person which may not be specifically
identified by the author but which he or she expects you to know.
Oftentimes footnotes explain these in a poem. Otherwise, note places where
there are allusions which you don't understand and ask about them. It is
also possible to figure out allusions by consulting reference books in the
library such as encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, etc. (Or you can
search for such things on the World Wide Web.)
- Myths and Archetypes are allusions to plots or patterns of
association common to a given culture or religion. These
may take the form of references to gods or goddesses; there are mythological
dictionaries in which you can look up references to Greek, Roman, Norse, and
- Symbols are objects or actions which both represent
themselves and at the same time have a larger meaning a meaning which can
be multiple or ambiguous. They are even more suggestive than figures of
speech or images and usually a good deal more complex. An image can be a
symbol, but not all images are. (Sometimes a cigar is just a
- 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.
(I first came upon this document at Clemson University, where it was a handout given to students. I do not know who the original author is. As far as I know, this document is in the public domain and not subject to copyright.)
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