Basic strategies of analysis

If we want to understand why a poem makes the impression on us that it does, or if we want to give that poem a chance of making a genuinely meaningful impression upon us, we should never allow ourselves to be satisfied simply with paraphrasing that poem or establishing its message. To reduce a poem to nothing more than a moral statement, an intellectual assertion, or the expression of a particular viewpoint, is to strip it of its poetry. It is like taking the life out of a living creature and preserving only its inanimate carcass.

A poem, after all, is an activity (something we experience and in which we participate) as well as an object (words on a page arranged in a particular way). A piece of writing that merely tells us about a thought, a feeling or an event is not a poem. To be considered a poem, a piece of writing must at the very least employ the devices distinctive to poetry in order to engage us actively in the real-time process of thinking about and feeling those things. As literary critics, then, it is not enough solely to abstract from a poem the position we believe it takes on its principal topic; we must register, reflect upon and analyse, too, the carefully choreographed process of thinking and reacting through which it takes us on its way to reaching that position. To ignore how the formal properties of a poem give specific and dynamic shape to our emotional and cognitive engagement with the subject matter of the poem, in short, is to ignore the very quality that makes the poem worth reading as a poem in the first place.

How, then, can we set about doing this? A useful way of first identifying the particular devices a poem is using and then evaluating how those devices contribute to the overall meaning and effect of the poem is to compare and contrast that poem with a paraphrase of its contents and with its prose equivalent.

Once you have read the poem a few times, you should therefore begin your analysis by providing one-sentence answers to the following two questions:

  • What is the purpose of this poem? (Is it to describe something or someone? to persuade someone of an opinion, belief or argument? to evaluate a point of view? to elicit a response in someone, either in the form of an emotion or an action? or what?)
  • What is the message of this poem? What is it trying to say?

Your answers to these questions should enable you to paraphrase the poem in just one or two sentences. You might wish to state, for instance, that ‘this poem describes a beautiful scene from nature and uses this to demonstrate that life in the countryside is more fulfilling than life in the city.’ Alternatively, the poem might in your view present ‘a heartbroken husband who is trying to persuade his wife to come back to him.’

Once you have constructed your paraphrase of the poem, you should next compare this paraphrase with the poem as a whole and ask yourself:

  • what has been lost in this translation from poem to paraphrase? What difference does it make to read the whole poem instead of just its paraphrase?

Quite simply, if you are unable to discern any real difference between the poem and its paraphrase, the poem has evidently failed as a poem. A good poem that ‘describes a beautiful scene from nature and uses this to demonstrate that life in the countryside is more fulfilling than life in the country,’ for example, would most likely not only have asserted the validity of this statement but it would also have sought to find ways of making you feel and experience the truth of this statement for yourself. It might have done this, for instance, by using lineation, metre, rhyme and so on in order to convey to you a very physical sense of the sounds, feel and even perhaps smell of nature (which brings us back to Dylan Thomas’s claim that poetry makes your toenails twinkle and Emily Dickinson’s that it can take the top of your head right off). Likewise, the poem in which ‘a heartbroken husband tries to persuade his wife to come back to him’ would presumably have employed those same poetic devices not only to inform the wife of the husband’s misery but also to convey an actual sense of that misery to her – of what it feels like to be him in the aftermath of her departure.

The exercise you have just conducted, in short, should help you appreciate what is lost when a poem is reduced to its paraphrase. In so doing, it should also help you identify how much more a poem says and does beyond any basic task it might have set itself of merely stating a point of view or conveying information.


The next stage in the process is to establish how the poem conveys these additional effects you have registered. This involves identifying the all-important sequence of connections between how a poem is made and what it makes happen. There are two strategies you can employ to accomplish this vital task:

  • the first is to read the poem through slowly again and to keep a running record of your reactions as you do so. If, for instance, you spot words in different parts of the poem that appear to communicate with one another, circle them and draw a connecting line between them. If you are surprised, shocked, delighted or in any way find yourself registering a reaction to the poem, you should make a note of where this happens too (it could be the case that where you expect a rhyme there is not one, where you expect the metre to conform to one pattern it switches to another, and where you expect one line to continue on the basis of the one that went before you find it taking you in a quite different direction entirely). In these and similar ways, you can construct an interesting time line of the emotional and intellectual gear-changes through which the poem forces you to move, as well as a map of the particular parts of the poem’s machinery that makes these gear changes possible
  • the second strategy involves setting out the poem as a piece of continuous prose. In most cases this requires you to do little more than do away with the poem’s division into separate lines and stanzas and allow only the width of the page to determine when one line ends and the other begins. When you have done this, compare the poem with its prose version and try to identify how, where and why the meaning and significance of the piece changes in its new prose form. (Alternatively, you might ask a friend to print the poem out as a piece of prose for you and leave you to read and interpret it before you take a look at the original poem. In this way, it will be easier to see what the form of the poem adds to the meaning rather than what is lost when it is removed)

If you conduct these short preliminary exercises at the beginning of your study of a poem, you should find yourself in possession of the raw materials you need to put together a comprehensive and convincing analysis of the poem. More than anything else, you will already have begun to treat the poem as a poem and you will have focused your attention on some of the ways in which the distinctive elements of poetic form (i.e. the way poems are made) determine what that poem is able to say (i.e. what it makes happen). Armed with this information, you can then add further sophistication and nuance to your analysis by paying closer attention to each of these devices individually, as suggested in the unit Elements of poetry.

Next: Analysing poetry: a preliminary exercise