How to Find the Meaning in a Poem

Students often approach poetry like a puzzle that needs to be solved as quickly as possible. However, to find the deeper meaning of a poem, the reader needs to closely examine the imagery, the figurative language, the ending lines, and the social context of the poem. Try to experience the poem from the author's point of view by listening to a powerful reading of the poem. When a poem is experienced from several angles, the deeper meaning is revealed.

Examine the Title

Because poetry is condensed language, the title is often a critical clue to the overall meaning. The titles of poems also provide the background needed to understand a poem, including the setting and the point of view. "Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes is an example of a poem in which the title gives the reader important information. From the title, the reader can infer that the mother is the speaker of the poem; the advice in the poem, to keep going regardless of hardship, is being given to her son. Poem titles, while sometimes attention grabbing, also provide crucial information and should be considered closely.

Explore the Images

The foundation of all poetry is imagery: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. By examining the imagery in a poem and looking for similarities and differences, the reader will discover the meaning of the poem. Read the poem slowly and examine the imagery. Remember the lines in poems may extend to the next line if no punctuation is present. Keep a chart to track the various images, and then review the overall list. Pay close attention to repeated lines, because they are often closely linked to the poem's meaning. For example, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas repeats the visual image with each stanza: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." The dark and light imagery, along with this famous image, clearly relate the poem's meaning: All humans should resist defeat, and ultimately death. A careful reading of a poem, focusing on the imagery, will reveal the meaning to readers.

Unlock Figurative Language

Figurative language is often synonymous with poetic language. Poetry contains a good deal of figurative language that is often at the center of the poem's meaning. Sometimes, an entire poem is built around one extended comparison. For example, "A Poison Tree" by William Blake is a narrative poem that centers around the image of a poisoned tree that produces a poison apple and eventually kills the speaker's enemy. This slow-growing tree and the fruit it produces are being compared to the slow-growing anger and desire for revenge that the speaker is experiencing. Frequently, poems use a central metaphor or image to convey the message. Carefully examine any figurative language in the poem, especially if the comparison is in the title or repeated throughout the poem.

Examine the Ending

The last few lines of a poem often summarize the author's point and make a final statement. If you are struggling to find meaning in a poem, re-examine the final few lines. Just as with an essay, poems often end by summarizing main points and directly stating themes. Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, typically end with a couplet that summarizes the overall message. Sonnet 18 famously compares a lover and a summer day. The final couplet, "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee," sums up the speaker's message that the beauty of a women surpasses the beauty of a passing summer. The ending of a poem will often tie together the imagery and clearly state the author's purpose.

Connect to the Author and Time Period

The context of a poem sheds light on the overall meaning of the words. The time period and biography of a poet will give insight that may be hard to decipher just by reading the poem out of context. A good example is the famous poem "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe. This narrative poem describes the untimely death of a beautiful woman. A close look at Poe's life reveals that he lost several women close to him, including his mother, stepmother and beloved wife. The poem is also Poe's last known work and one of Poe's only poems with a positive message: that the speaker and Annabel Lee will be reunited after death. When in doubt about the meaning of a poem, research the poet and his era for missing clues.

About the Author

Based in Winchester, Va., Karen Hartless has 10 years of teaching experience in the areas of English, creative writing and public speaking. She earned a Master of Education degree as a reading specialist from Shenandoah University, focusing on teaching, reading, and writing clear, concise text.

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