Nine Steps for Analyzing Poetry

While many poems may appear to be short, easy reads, determining what they're actually saying can be more complicated than it looks. Analyzing poetry requires you to support your assertions with specific evidence of how the author uses language to develop its theme. This process can help you develop critical thinking skills, uncover meaning and understand the techniques authors use to create poems.

Read the poem once to get an overview of its content. Don't make observations or take notes during this read. Instead, let the language unfold as you experience the piece for the first time. (See Reference 1)

Read the poem again, this time paying attention to the literal situation, or what happens in the poem. After you've reread the poem, paraphrase it into one sentence that focuses strictly on content. Northern Kentucky University states that a good paraphrase simply summarizes who is speaking, to whom and under what circumstances, without reference to any poetic techniques or devices. (See Reference 2)

Determine the poem's tone. In poetry, tone is the emotional attitude of the speaker that is determined by the author's choice of words. Tone is typically described using adjectives related to the overarching emotion, such as "bitter," "joyful," "depressed" or "angry." As you read, underline the individual words or lines that contribute to this tone. (See Reference 1 and 3)

Search the poem for examples of imagery. Imagery is the use of language to evoke sensory associations in readers, such as visual images, smells, textures and sounds. Think about what effect the author might have intended to have on the reader through these details. Figures of speech that compare different things, such as similes and metaphors, can also be a source of imagery. (See Reference 2)

Investigate the use of sound devices. Often, poets use language that actually imitates sounds, such as onomatopoeia, or words that begin with the same letter for rhythmic effect, like alliteration. Reviewing your data on tone, think about how the author might be using these devices to emphasis the speaker's emotions. (See Reference 2)

Determine the poem's structure by counting the number of lines and stanzas. Note if there is a regular number of lines in each stanza, or if the poem doesn't seem to follow a particular pattern. Often, looking at the visual appearance of the poem can help you determine the structure. For example, you can note whether an author uses very short lines or longer lines and what the effect of this might be. (See Reference 1)

Examine each line to determine its meter, or rhythmic pattern. Poetic lines are divided into feet, or metrical units of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, a poem might have ten syllables in each line, broken into five feet of two syllables, one stressed and one unstressed. Also, pay attention to the grammatical structure of lines. Authors often use a technique called enjambment, where a sentence begins in one line and continues in another. In free verse poetry, authors often use line endings to create rhythm in the absence of a strict meter. (See Reference 4)

Consider the author's use of rhyme. To determine the rhyme scheme, use letters of the alphabet to mark the repetition of sounds, assigning a new letter every time a new sound appears. For example, the rhyme scheme of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" would read AABBAA. In addition to rhyme at the end of lines, look for sounds repeated within the lines, or internal rhyme. This can include assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, and alliteration, the repetition of sounds at the beginning of each word. (See Reference 1)

Using the data you've collected, read the poem again to consider what theme the author might be trying to depict. Then, revisit your notes to determine how the poem's structure, meter, rhyme, tone and imagery work together to emphasize the theme. (See Reference 1) For example, Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die" makes a plea for dignity in death, using rhyme, a lofty, formal tone and contrasting images to establish this idea in language. (See Reference 4)

  • Take notes directly on the poem by highlighting, circling and underlining key words, lines and phrases. Developing a code of symbols for each poetic device can help you keep track of your observations.
  • If you are writing an essay about the poem, don't try to incorporate all of your observations into the thesis statement. Instead, select the aspect of the poem that would produce the most fruitful, interesting paper. For example, you could choose to focus on imagery, how rhyme creates tone or the effects of line breaks.
Items you will need
About the Author

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

Photo Credits
  • Hemera Technologies/ Images