Poetry Need-to-Knows

A poem is something very different from other types of literature and the process for understanding a poem is not like understanding material in this or other classes. A poem is, as poet Barbara Ras once shared with me, "more about mystery than about meaning". The importance of that statement is that it redirects our attention to elements of feeling and intuitive truth. Don't expect a poem to have an easy and neat 'solution', don't expect it to always tell a story, don't expect a poem to mean the same thing to you as it does to your classmates... or your teacher for that matter.


1. Write three themes that you feel the poem expresses/deals with.
(Themes are big ideas, concepts and over-arching institutions.  Things like warfare, love, despair, human existence, etc.)
2. Write your reason for choosing this poem.
(Saying “because it was short” will not work.  If you chose the poem because you like the title, that tells me you didn’t actually read both choices.  If you really do choose a poem because you like the title then you must tell me what you like about the title and how it relates to the meaning of the poem. If you DID NOT choose the poem, please write about the title in connection to the poem and what insights/inspirations the poems gives you)
3.  Tell me the meaning/action of this poem.
(If the poem is about ideas or feelings, then you should tell me what ideas or feelings.  If the poem tells a story, then you should summarize that story for me.  This should take several sentences.)
4.  Describe what you think the author’s reasons for composing this were.
(This goes back to a literary term: author’s purpose.  Writer’s always have SOME motivation in writing any particular piece.  Your job is to figure out what that motivation is/was.  What does the author’s diction say about the subject matter that he or she has chosen)
5.  Write down your favorite line (or group of lines) and tell me why you liked them.
(Be very specific here.  What is it that you like about the lines?  How do they make you (the reader) feel?  What words pack the most punch in these lines?  What do the words accomplish?)

Click HERE for a glossary of Poetry specific Literary Terminology. You should be using these words when you are analyzing a poem!


Suggestions for Approaching Poetry
from The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 2nd edition.

1.  Assume that it will be necessary to read a poem more than once.  Give yourself a chance to become familiar with what the poem has to offer.  Like a piece of music, a poem becomes more pleasurable with each encounter.

2.  Do pay attention to the title; it will often provide a helpful context for the poem and serve as an introduction to it.

3.  As you read the poem for the first time, avoid becoming entangled in words or lines that you don't understand.  Instead, give yourself a chance to take in the entire poem before attempting to resolve problems encountered along the way.

4.  On a second reading, identify any words or passages that you don't understand.  Look up words you don't know; these might include names, places, historical and mythical references, or anything else that is unfamiliar to you.

5.  Read the poem aloud (or perhaps have a friend read it to you).  You'll probably discover that some puzzling passages suddenly fall into place when you hear them.  You'll find that nothing helps, though, if the poem is read in an artificial, exaggerated manner.  Read in as natural a voice as possible, with slight pauses at line breaks.  Silent reading is preferable to imposing a te-tumpty-te-tum reading on a good poem.

6.  Read the punctuation.  Poems use punctuation marks¾in addition to the space on the page¾as signals for readers.  Be especially careful not to assume that the end of a line marks the end of a sentence, unless it is concluded by punctuation.  Consider, for example, the opening lines of Hathaway's "Oh, Oh."

                                   My girl and I amble a country lane,
                                   moo cows chomping daisies, our own
                                   sweet saliva green with grass stems.

Line 2 makes little or no sense if a reader stops after "own."  Keeping track of the subjects and verbs will help you find your way among the sentences.

7.  Paraphrase a poem to determine whether you understand what happens in it.  As you work through each line of the poem, a paraphrase will help you to see which words or passages need further attention.

8.  Try to get a sense of who is speaking and what the setting or situation is.  Don't assume that the speaker is the author; often it is a created character.

9.  Assume that each element in the poem has a purpose. Try to explain how the elements of the poem work together.

10.  Be generous.  Be willing to entertain perspectives, values, experiences, and subjects that you might not agree with or approve.  Even if you loathe baseball, you should be able to comprehend its imaginative use in a poem about baseball.

11.  Try developing a coherent approach to the poem that helps you to shape a discussion of the text.  

12.  Don't expect to produce a definitive reading.  Many poems do not resolve all the ideas, issues, or tensions in them, and so it is not always possible to drive their meaning into an absolute corner.  Your reading will explore rather than define the poem.  Poems are not trophies to be stuffed and mounted.  They're usually more elusive.  And don't be afraid that a close reading will damage the poem.  Poems aren't hurt when we analyze them; instead, they come alive as we experience them and put into words what we discover through them.

13.  Finally, interpreting a poem is not merely a subjective practice.  There is almost always an acceptable range of interpretation that is agreed upon by the academic community of readers.  Disagreement over what certain parts of a poem mean is always based on a shared understanding of what other aspects of the poem do mean.