Trying to understand poetry can be very intimidating. By its very nature, fine poetry contains as few unnecessary words as possible. This is one of the defining features of the poetic form, but it can make poems seem dense, abstract, inaccessible and hard to understand. Sometimes it feels like it requires a literature degree to understand poetry–especially if it’s a poem written in the last twenty years or so. But despite how scary poetry can look on the page, by pausing for breath and following these five simple steps, you can successfully analyze and unlock the meaning behind any poem you encounter.
“Narrative” (or “story”, if you prefer a simpler word) is something that most people associate more with fiction than with poetry. But in this case, “narrative” simply means “what is actually happenning in the poem”. In other words, the “narrative” of the poem is everything that it describes or hints at happening without any fancy or hard-to-understand language or imagery.
Every poem has a narrative, though it may not look like it at first. Some poems–especially older poems–have a narrative that’s very easy to identify. There are clear characters who perform certain actions which are clearly stated. For example, Ozymandias of Egypt by Shelly describes a man in the desert who encounters a traveller who describes to him a vast monument. The narrative of this poem is very easy to identify and understand. But even a much more abstract poem such as the William Carlos Willams poem The Red Wheelbarrow has a narrative: a red wheelbarrow sits, covered in rainwater, beside a group of chickens. There are no characters, but these is still an arrangement of events. Even very abstract poetry such as that of Wallace Stevens has a certain narrative, even if it’s nothing more than a sequence of images described for the reader.
Find The Focus
Once you’ve identified the narrative of the poem, the next step is to work out which part of the narrative the poem focuses on. The focus of a poem may be indicated by a textual element–how much description is given to a certain part of the narrative over the others, for example–or it may be more ephemeral–for instance, what it is about the poem that is the most striking or unique. You can think of the narrative of the poem answering the question “What happens?”, and the focus of the poem ansewring the question “Why is what happens important?”. For example, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, the narrative of the poem is something like: the narrator searches for a way to properly describe how beautiful his lover is. But the focus of the poem is something like: observe the way in which writing is able to immortalize love. The focus of a poem may not always be completely clear at this early stage of analysis, but it should be kept in mind for the rest of the process.
Structure And Rhyme
The next thing to consider is how the poem is written, and the most obvious level to start with is the structure and style of the poem. In this step, it’s critically important to keep in mind the artistic and historical context in which the poem was written, because those factors reveal how important the choice of structure is.
For example, an 18th century poet chosing the sonnet form for a poem is not particularly noteworthy; writing sonnets was exceedingly common at that time in history. A poet of the 18th century might well choose the sonnet form by default if they had no good reason to choose another. On the other hand, if a 21st century poet chose to use the sonnet form, there would likely be a very important and specific reason for that choice because the sonnet form is so seldomly used in modern poetry. It would be very likely that the theme or message of the poem was directly reflected in the structural choice. For example, a modern poet using the sonnet form might want to create a sense of being imprisoned or constrained by using lines of a set length and a rigid rhyme pattern. If that feeling of being imprisoned was reflected in the content of the poem, that could be a very valid interpretation.
Images And Metaphor
The next step to think about is the use of imagery and metaphor in the poem. On a very simple level, imagery is the figurative use of language to describe a subject by comparing it to something else. For example, the description “Her eyes were like diamonds” might mean that a woman’s eyes were very beautiful, or might mean that they were hard and cold. On a more complex level, metaphor is the use of extended imagery to superficially describe any particular thing–a person, a scene, a story–while implicitly describing any other thing. Poems can use imagery and metaphor in two ways. Firstly, they can use imagery to describe something within the poem by comparing it to something more familiar to the reader. For example, the poem “Fireworks” by Amy Lowell uses images of brightly colored gemstones to describe an explosion of fireworks. Secondly, a poem can itself be an image–that is, a metaphor–for something else altogether. For example, the poem On a Faded Violet by Shelly, which describes a dying flower, is a metaphor for dealing with the death of a loved one.
Language and Word Choice
At last, we have reached the most intricate and detailed level of analysis
: the examination of particular words and phrases. The best poetry analysis focuses not just on what words are used, but also what words are omitted. Poetry is as much the art of taking away what is unncessary as it is the art of adding what is needed, and some of the best poems in English are only a few lines long.
When analyzing a poet’s choice of language, pay attention to not only what each word means but also what feeling it creates by dint of its connotations and sound when spoken aloud. Compare each word to others which could have been used in its place and think about the different effect that could have been created by using alternate language.
Poetry analysis is not always simple, but it is nowhere near as difficult as it can at first appear. By following these five easy steps, you can reach an analysis which is supported by strong evidence from the text and will stand up to rigorous debate.