Poems are to be read for pleasure, and can be read many ways. Poets write, evaluate and then retain or replace every word in their poem. No word is there by chance.

Finding the meaning: The following steps describe one approach.

Look at the poem’s title

What might this poem be about?

Read the poem straight through without stopping to analyse it (aloud, if possible).

This will help you get a sense of how it sounds, how it works, what it might be about.

Start with what you know.

If the poem is difficult, distinguish between what you do and do not understand. If permissible, underline the parts you do not immediately understand.

Check for understanding: Write a quick first-impression of the poem by answering two questions:

What do you notice about this poem so far? What is this poem about?

Look for patterns.

Watch for repeated, interesting, or even unfamiliar use of language, imagery, sound, colour, or arrangement. Ask yourself what is the poet trying to show through this pattern?

Look for changes in tone, focus, narrator, structure, voice, patterns.

Ask yourself what has changed and what does the change mean?

Identify the narrator.

Ask: Who is speaking in the poem? What do I know about them?

Check for new understanding.

Re-read the poem. What parts are not yet clear? It may be helpful to explain the poem to someone else.

Find the crucial moments.

The pivotal moment might be as small as the word BUT or YET. Such words often act like hinges within a poem to swing the poem in a whole new direction. Also pay attention to breaks between stanzas or between lines.

Consider form and function.

Now is a good time to look at some of the poet’s more critical choices. Did the poet use a specific form, such as the sonnet? How did this particular form – eg a sonnet – allow them to express their ideas? Did the poet use other specific poetic devices which you should learn so you can better understand the poem? Examples might include: enjambment, assonance, symbols, alliteration, metaphors, allusions. Other examples might include unusual use of capitalisation, punctuation (or lack of any), or typography. Ask yourself how the poet used punctuation in the poem.

Check for improved understanding.

Read the poem through again, aloud if possible. Return to the title and ask yourself again what the poem is about and how the poem relates to the title.

Terms to know:

alliteration caesura epic metaphor rhyme scheme stress
allusion couplet foot meter rhythm theme(s)
assonance diction free verse ode simile tone
ballad end rhyme imagery onomatopoeia sonnet verse
blank verse enjambment lyric repetition stanza volta

Reproduced for Educational Purposes.