Guidelines for interpreting poetry

The principal goal of a formal analysis

It is important to stress from the outset that your goal in producing a convincing and meaningful analysis of a poem should never be merely to compile a dry list of the formal devices which that poem employs. Instead, your aim should always be to elucidate the intricate relationship between what a poem says and does on the one hand and how it says and does those things on the other.

If you observe, for instance, that a poem has a regular ABBA rhyme scheme, that it adheres to a fairly regular iambic pentameter throughout, and that it includes several words suggestive of machinery, you should certainly jot these observations down and make a note to incorporate them in your overall interpretation of the poem. By themselves, though, these observations are meaningless and uninteresting. They only become meaningful and interesting if you are able to demonstrate how they contribute to the effect and achievement of the poem as a whole. To take the example I have just outlined, a genuine literary analysis would be one that relates the order and regularity of the poem’s metre and rhyme scheme, along with its persistent language of machinery, to (say) the poem’s critique of what it sees as the increasing monotony and mechanisation of its contemporary society.

Stage 1: gather your tools before you begin to read

The first thing you should do, before you even begin to interpret the poem, is make sure you are able to make notes directly onto the poem. The absolutely best thing you can do is print the poem in large letters onto a page that has very generous margins, thereby leaving yourself plenty of space to

  • underline or circle key words and phrases
  • draw lines between related words, phrases and other formal features (such as rhymes)
  • mark those places where you notice something interesting or surprising happens as you read the poem (such as a change in the metre, a line that does not seem to scan, a rhyme you did not expect, a rhyme you did expect but which did not materialise, a moment when the sentence continues in a different direction from the one you had expected, a moment when you felt the emotional register of the poem changes – from happy to sad, for instance, from clear to puzzling, from normal to strange, and so on)

On some occasions, of course, you will not have the option of printing out the poem in this way or you may be reluctant or unable to write directly onto the page or screen on which that poem is printed. In those instances, you will have to make do either with a notebook or a Word document on a computer instead. Alternatively, if you are happy making notes directly onto a poem printed on a screen, use the comments function on PDFs, Word and other word-processing documents.

Regardless which of these alternatives you choose (or are able to adopt), the basic point is that you must ensure you have provided yourself with the possibility of taking notes even before you have begun to read the poem. Do NOT assume you will be able to remember later all the things you experience, observe and think about a poem the first few times you read it.

You should also make sure you have access to a good dictionary and that you look up every word you know and every word you suspect of having more than one meaning in the poem. By a good dictionary we mean one that lists several of a word’s separate denotations and connotations so that you can access how many of those meanings are in play in its use in this particular poem.

Stage 2: read the poem several times carefully and attentively

Read the poem all the way through, sometimes out loud, sometimes silently in your head, sometimes – where possible – listening to someone else reading it (perhaps online). As you do so, make notes on whatever strikes you as interesting: it could be a distinctive rhythm in one or more of the lines; it could be a repetition of words, sounds or images; it could be something more general, such as the way the ‘atmosphere’ or emotional intensity and register of the poem changes from one part to another; it could, in fact, be anything at all – at least, anything you may want to come back to and think about further later on.

There are at least two important reasons why you should recite the poem out loud as well as read it silently in your head. The first is that many poems were composed in order to be heard as well as – or in some cases instead of – seen; if you do not listen to it yourself, you are therefore likely to miss some of its most important aural effects, along with those formal devices it uses to create those effects. The second reason relates to something I said in the section on how to interpret the transition from one line to the next (here: about half way down the page): that if we treat a poem like music and practise reading it at different speeds (and pausing for different lengths of time between each line), this can make audible interpretations of the poem we might otherwise overlook.

The very best way of carrying out this stage is to do so in pairs or groups, in much the same way that the ModPo students at the University of Pennsylvania read through and discuss Emily Dickinson’s poem 657 (‘I dwell in Possibility’) here (scroll to the very bottom of the page).

Stage 3: establish an overview

By this stage of the process, you will most likely have made a number of detailed observations about individual features of the poem, but you will not as yet have reached a coherent conclusion about what it says or does or how it says or does those things. This is what you will need to begin to work towards now.

The first step is to establish a basic and tentative sense of

  • the topic of the poem (i.e. what you think the poem is about)
  • what the poem has to say about that topic
  • what it hopes to achieve in saying what it says (does it wish to persuade someone of something? to justify a particular viewpoint? to celebrate someone or something? or what?)

(The reason I say this overview must necessarily be basic and tentative at this point is because your understanding of the poem is likely to change and acquire more depth and nuance the more you take into consideration the way the poem is put together).

By the end of this stage, that is, you should be able to produce a concise paraphrase of the poem along the lines outlined here.

Stage 4: relate what a poem says or does to how it says or does those things

As we saw here, an excellent way of beginning to establish how the formal properties out of which a poem is made determines what that poem is able to make happen is to compare your paraphrase of the poem with the poem as a whole to see what is missing when the poem is reduced to a single statement or mere message.

You can then draw out even more clearly how the poem’s formal devices make it able to say and do things that are distinctive to it alone by setting out its words as regular prose instead and comparing this prose version with the original poem. Once again, you can find tips on how to do this here (and, not least, by continuing on to the page on Analysing poetry: a preliminary exercise).

That last exercise will likely have indicated to you the significance of the poem’s use of some or all of those devices that are distinctive to poetry alone, namely:

(Click on whichever of those links belongs to a device whose contribution to the poem you are analysing is one you would like to explore further; they each contain tips and exercises designed to help you identify and analyse that contribution).

Of course, as I have mentioned a number of times, poems also make significant use of all kinds of literary devices that are common to all forms of literature besides poetry. For advice on how to recognise and interpret these devices, see the Literature module on this website.

Stage 5: organise your ideas and observations into a coherent argument.

By this stage of the process, you should have a pretty good understanding both of how the poem works and of what you think it says. Your task now is to present your findings and demonstrate the intimate relationship between what the poem says and does and how it says and does it in the form of a coherent argument.

Just as all poems are different, however, so too will the topics you cover and the order in which you structure your discussion of those topics differ from your analysis of one poem to the next. The challenge, then, is to identify a selection of key claims you wish to make about the poem and to gather together all the themes and formal features of that poem which support that claim. (Everybody has their own way of organising their materials in this way: some make lists, for instance, whereas others use mind maps).

Let us take as an example, then, Emily Dickinson’s poem 657 (‘I dwell in Possibility’). A reasonable structure for an analysis of this poem might go as follows:

Principal claim

In this poem, Emily Dickinson argues – and demonstrates – that poetry is better than prose.

Support this claim by: listing all the positive qualities she associates with poetry (‘more numerous,’ ‘superior,’ ‘fairer’ and so on).

Subsidiary claims

She does this by

a) likening both poetry and prose to houses.

Support this claim by: highlighting all the words associated with a house, such as doors and windows, but also noting how words such as ‘occupation’ allow for a correlation to be drawn between the structure of the poem on the one hand and the activity of composing poetry on the other. One could also compare the structure of the poem, with its fairly regular metre and rhyme, to the structure of a house

This enables her to claim in particular that the house of poetry is better than the house of prose because

b) it offers more possibilities (of interpretation, viewpoints, experiences, and so on)

Support this claim by: pointing to the imagery of windows and the alignment of poetry’s roof with the sky, discussing the dashes at the ends of the lines and noting the variations in the rhyme scheme

c) it is more personal and private

Support this claim by: pointing to the imagery of doors, to the chambers that are ‘impregnable of eye,’ to the intimidating presence of devices such as the dashes that keep all but the most determined of readers/visitors outside and at bay, and to the quirky and thus highly individual adjustments the poem makes to the standard structure and procedures of the ballad form

No matter how you structure your discussion, it is at any rate vital that you adhere to the following list of dos and don’ts:

  • DO interpret everything you observe and make sure that whatever you say about a poem’s use of individual formal devices is relevant for your understanding of the poem as a whole
  • DO NOT divide your essay up into two parts, one that considers form and the other that considers content. Form and content should ALWAYS be treated together (as in the example above)
  • DO NOT discuss the poem’s uses of line, stanza, metre and rhyme separately from one another. Your essay should be divided by claim and topic (as in the example above) and you should discuss all the formal properties that contribute to the topic you are addressing together (again, as in the example above)

Stage 6: checklist

Before you hand in your analysis, you should ensure it provides a direct answer to all four of these questions:

  • What is the poem saying or doing?
  • How is it saying or doing it?
  • Why is it saying or doing it? (i.e. what is the poem’s purpose or agenda?)
  • Why is it saying or doing it in this way? (i.e. why has the speaker chosen to express her- or himself in the form of a poem, and in the form of this poem in particular?)