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How to Analyze Poems in College


Poetry comes in many forms, from strictly patterned poems like haiku to free-verse poetry that doesn't abide by any written rules. Some poems are straightforward and easy to understand while others are ripe with metaphors and subtle hints of meaning for critical eyes only. The task of analyzing a poem can feel overwhelming at first, but if you take it one step at a time by looking at distinct elements of the poem, it becomes a manageable task.

Read It

Before analyzing a poem, familiarize yourself with it by reading it several times. The University of Texas' writing center recommends reading it aloud. Read slowly, keeping a dictionary close by to look up unknown words. Pay attention to the general tone or mood of the poem, how it makes you feel and how the poem begins and ends. Jot notes as you read, highlighting words or phrases that stick out or noting questions you have.

Imagery

Analyze the poem's imagery by looking at how the author creates images in your mind. Some poems use metaphors and similes to compare, contrast or describe ideas. Other authors paint vivid pictures using the five senses to draw the reader in. Look at what the images convey and ask yourself questions like "Are these images recurring? What theme do they support?" Is the language straightforward or do you need to read into each phrase to make meaning? William Wordsworth paints a vivid picture of daffodils in "I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud":

They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

Form

Think of the form of a poem as the foundation upon which the words will fall. Some forms are strictly followed while others are more free. The form of a poem contributes to its overall meaning. Note whether the poem follows a strict pattern like a haiku, a sonnet or a cinquain or whether it is more of a free-verse poem. Look at any rhyming patterns that may exist, noting when and where the rhymes occur. Analyze the stanzas and lines, looking for patterns in length or words and noticing any deviations from the pattern. Jack Prelutsky writes silly poems for children and uses rhymes to keep a firm beat as in an excerpt from "Be Glad Your Nose in On Your Face":

Be glad your nose is on your face, not pasted on some other place, for if it were where it is not, you might dislike your nose a lot.

Syntax

Analyzing syntax requires taking a deeper look at word choice, sentence structure and the author's point of view. Is the poem written in first, second or third person? Do the lines break at the end of a logical thought or sentence? Consider which verb tense the author uses and determine whether it is the same throughout. Analyze the punctuation and use of capitalization. Think about how the syntax of the poem contributes to the overall meaning of it. Maya Angelou uses recurring question marks in the stanzas of "Still I Rise":

Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? 'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room.

About the Author

Dana Tuffelmire has been writing for DMS for three years. She taught elementary school for seven years and earned a master’s of education degree with a specialization in literacy. She is currently a stay-at-home mom to two sons. Her dream is to one day write a children's book.

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