How to Summarize a Poem

Poetry is often intimidating to people. They might assume that a poem is meant to be cryptic and illusive, or perhaps that there is only one way to interpret a poem. Fortunately, poetry is often open to interpretation, and careful study can reveal the author's meaning. Summarizing a poem is a great way to learn more about the author's intent, style and recurring themes.

Read through the poem several times, including reading it out loud. Hearing the words spoken can help you identify rhyming words, similar sounds or repeating phrases; make a note of any occurrences. Examine the physical shape of the poem and take note of where line breaks occur. Sometimes poems will form pictures that continue the theme.

Identify the meter and type of poem. The meter refers to the pattern of emphasis in the words, while the type of poem, if any, refers to the particular structure and style in which it was written. For example, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter and a haiku is another type of poem.

Look up any words that you don't understand, including any words or phrases that are presented in another language. Rearrange sentences if necessary; sometimes poets will play with grammatical structures in order to call attention to certain words. At this stage, the goal is to understand the literal meaning of the poem, or what the lines actually say.

Examine the poem for any potential symbolism. Look at the use of metaphor and simile, and comment on why the author chose to use those words. Does the poet use traditional imagery (like roses for love), or does he use unusual comparisons?

Identify the speaker and the person or group that they are addressing. What is the speaker's background, personality and intent? Discuss the setting of the poem and any historical events that it references.

Discuss how the title relates to the rest of the poem. Does it pose a question that the poem answers, or is the title the answer to the poem's question? What did you think the poem would be about from the title, and what did you think after you'd read the poem?

Conclude your summary with thoughts about the overall theme and meaning of the poem. Don't focus on being "right," just support your conclusions with evidence from the work. You can add your personal impressions of the poem as well, if desired.

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About the Author

Based in Dallas, Erin Sawyer has been writing since 2003 and began her writing career at her college newspaper. She has written articles on video games and geek culture for her personal blog and is currently pursuing an Associate of Applied Science in computer programming. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Dallas.

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