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From flowing words to rhythmic beats, poems have a lyrical quality that is pleasing to the ear. But to truly understand poetry, you must unpack it—examine each element on its own to discover what a poem means.

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What Is Poetry Analysis?

Poetry analysis is examining the independent elements of a poem to understand the literary work in its entirety. Analyzing poems line by line allows you to break poems down in order to study their structure, form, language, metrical pattern, and theme. The purpose of literary analysis is to interpret the meaning of a poem and appreciate it on a deeper level.

5 Things to Consider When Analyzing Poetry

Poetry involves different elements like language, rhythm, and structure. Together, they tell a story and create a complexity that is unique to poetic verse. When studying poems in-depth, look at these individual elements:

  1. Theme: Poetry often conveys a message through figurative language. The central idea and the subject matter can reveal the underlying theme of a poem.
  2. Language: From word choice to imagery, language creates the mood and tone of a poem. The way language is arranged also impacts the rhythm of a poem.
  3. Sound and rhythm: The syllabic patterns and stresses create the metrical pattern of a poem.
  4. Structure: The framework of a poem’s structure affects how it is meant to be read. A poet sculpts their story around stanzas, line breaks, rhyme patterns, punctuation, and pauses.
  5. Context: The who, what, where, when, and why of a poem can help explain its purpose. Look at these elements to discover the context of a poem.
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How to Analyze a Poem in 10 Steps

Reading poetry is a rewarding experience in and of itself. But to really see how all of the elements of a poem work together, you’ll want to study the qualities and characteristics of each. Follow this step-by-step guide to analyze a poem:

  1. Read the poem. The first time you approach a poem, read it to yourself. Go through it slowly, appreciating the nuances and details you might miss when reading it quickly. Examine the title of the poem and how it relates to the meaning of the piece.
  2. Read the poem again, this time aloud. Given its rhythmic patterns, poetry is designed to be read aloud. As you read a poem aloud, listen to how the words and syllables shape the rhythm. It can also help to hear someone else read the poem. Look online and find a recording of the poem, if you can. Listen to how the words flow from line to line, where the breaks are, and where the stress is placed.
  3. Map out the rhyme scheme. You’ll notice right away if a poem has a rhyme scheme or is written in free verse (i.e. without a rhyme scheme or regular meter). Map out the rhyming pattern by assigning each line a letter, giving lines that rhyme the same letter. See if there is a distinct pattern and a formal rhyme scheme, like terza rima (three-line stanzas with interconnected scheme of ABA BCB, etc.)
  4. Scan the poem. Scansion is how you analyze the meter of poetry based on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. Mark each foot—the basic measurement of a poetic line consisting of one stressed syllable paired with at least one unstressed syllable. Next, mark the pattern of stresses throughout the line. Identify the meter based on this information. For example, a poem written in iambic pentameter will have five feet with a syllabic pattern of da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.
  5. Break down the structure. Take a step back and look at the poem on the page. Notice the white space around the words. Poetry is meant to make a visual statement as well as an emotional one. Look at the details of this structure—like how many lines are in each stanza. Notice where the line breaks are. Does the end of every line coincide with the end of the thought? If not, the poet may be using enjambment, where one line continues into the next.
  6. Determine the form of the poem. In your poem analysis, note what type of poem you’re reading based on the elements you’ve examined. For example, if a poem has three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a couplet, the poem is a sonnet. Other formal types of poetry include sestina, haiku, and limerick.
  7. Study the language in the poem. Poets make deliberate word choices to craft their poems. Examine each word and its significance in the line and the poem. How does it contribute to the story? If there are words you don’t know, look them up. See how the poet plays with language through the use of metaphors, similes, and figurative language. Note any literary devices used, like alliteration and assonance, that help sculpt the poem’s language.
  8. Study the content of the poem. As you wade through the language of the poem, look at the content and message of the piece to uncover the theme. Learn when it was written to learn the historical context of the poem. Find out where it was written, and what language the poet used. If you’re reading a translation, see if there are other variations that can show how different translators interpreted the original work.
  9. Determine who the narrator is. Try to identify the speaker of the poem. Is it told through first-person point of view, second-person, or third-person? What tone does the narrator convey? The speaker’s identity influences the telling of the poem based on their personal perspective.
  10. Paraphrase the poem line by line. Finally, go through the poem again. Beginning with the first line, paraphrase each line. In other words, interpret the meaning, writing down your summary as you go. Once you’ve gone through the entire piece, read your words to grasp the meaning of the poem.

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