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Ninth grader Racheal from Nigeria asks the following question: "How Do I Analyze a Poem?"
This is a very general question, and the degree of specificity with which you analyze poetry will depend a great deal on your educational level, when the poem was written (and by whom), and what your teacher/professor expects, if you are doing it for a school assignment. But here are some of the most common aspects of poetry that you can look at when analyzing a poem. Much of the information provided here we have previously written up on our sister site Fifteen Minutes of Fiction, and so in some cases we will simply link to short articles where you can read more.
When you first look at a poem on a page, its general form is likely the first aspect that you will notice. Is it long, or short? Are the lines mostly uniform in length, or do they vary? Are the stanzas all the same length, or are they different?
The form has to do with the way the poem is organized. There are poets who simply let their words flow in paragraph form in a sort of “stream of consciousness,” but most will construct the line breaks in specific ways so as to emphasize rhyme and meter, or influence the way the reader reads the poem.
A poem is made up of lines, which are usually organized into groupings known as stanzas. Stanzas come in different sizes, from just two together (known as a couplet) to many. Poems are often written to follow a specific form, such as a sonnet or haiku. Sonnets are fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a specific rhyme scheme (more on that in a moment). Haikus are very short, consisting of only three lines, with five syllables in the first and last lines, and seven in the middle line. Some other popular forms include villanelle (a form that involves repeated lines in a specific pattern), terza rima (a form of three-line stanzas with a specific pattern) and blank verse (a form that has a specific meter to it, but no rhyme scheme).
As you become familiar with some of these forms, you will be more likely to recognize them when you see them. This will be one of the first things to draw your attention when you see a poem for the first time.
The meter of a poem has to do with the way the syllables of words are arranged to produce a pattern of emphasis and non-emphasis. Syllables that are emphasized are called “stressed” syllables, while those that are not are called “unstressed.”
One of the most common meters is iambic pentameter. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Five of those together make a line of iambic pentameter.
If you reversed the order and started with one stressed syllable, and followed it with an unstressed syllable, the result would be a trochee. A line of trochaic pentameter would be the same length as a line of iambic pentameter, but the alternating stressed and unstressed syllables would be in the opposite order.
There are also two fairly common meters that are based on a pattern of three syllables instead of two. These are anapests (unstressed, unstressed, stressed), and dactyls (stressed, stressed, unstressed).
Not all poems have meter. Poetry that is referred to as “Free Verse” does not have meter, though it may still incorporate rhyme.
For more information about meter, as well as poetic examples, follow the links I’ve given in the text.
Most poems with a meter also incorporate rhyming at the end of each line, though blank verse is an exception. Poems do not have to rhyme, but when they rhyme at the end of each line, there is often a pattern to the rhymes.
Elizabethan Sonnets, for example, follow an ABAB rhyming pattern. This means that ends of the first and third lines rhyme with each other, and the second and fourth do the same.
In some poems, quatrains follow an ABCB pattern instead, where only the ends of the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other.
Terza Rima poems use an interesting rhyme scheme, where each stanza has three lines, and the first and last rhyme, while the middle line rhymes with the first and last lines of the next stanza, so the pattern goes: ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, etc.
So far, we’ve talked about things we see and hear about poems: their forms on the page, their rhyming patterns, and metrical beats. But beyond form, we can also analyze poems by looking deeper at the meaning of the words. This can be more difficult. It’s one thing to identify the particular patterns a poet has utilized in bringing their words to life, but how do those structures serve the words that they provide support for, and what are those words saying?
There are many other things you can identify within the text of a poem: use of simile and metaphor, personification. Identifying these things can help you to get a better idea of what the poem is talking about.
When a poem makes observations, the observations are coming from the speaker of the poem. The speaker may very well be the author too, but sometimes authors write from the perspective of someone or something else. That’s something to keep in mind when we’re discussing poetry—we don’t say “Here the author is saying that he doesn’t like winter,” when, even if the poem seems quite vehement against winter, it may simply be that the author is writing from the perspective of someone else, even if the word “I” is used. So we say, “Here the speaker seems to be saying…” Poems can be a wonderful tool of fiction, and so we shouldn’t limit analysis to simply what we think the real-life author is saying.
There are many more examples I could give, but I’ll leave you with a few questions you can ask when reading a poem, that may help you come to a better understanding of the content.
When was this poem written, and by whom?
Who is the “speaker” of this poem?
Does this poem have an identifiable subject—something that it primarily describes or discusses?
Which senses (if any) is the speaker drawing on in their poetic descriptions (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste)? (Sometimes it can be useful to go through the poem and highlight all the adjectives)
Does the speaker use any similes or metaphors? Are they comparing one thing to another?
Does this poem strike you as a fictitious account, or is it something that could really happen?
Are there any significant repeated words or phrases?