How to Write an Interpretation of a Poem
Interpreting poetry can be a challenging exercise. A poem, compared with a work of prose, can have a slightly different effect on each reader. To truly grasp a poem's meaning and write about it, you need to sit down, read and analyze the poem you wish to interpret before you start composing. Once you begin to write, you will be in a better position to find relevant evidence and build a convincing argument or interpretation.
When interpreting poetry, keep in mind that a poem can be analyzed on more than one level. A poem can first be interpreted in the literal sense. The literal level is what the poem describes and what the author is attempting to portray. To illustrate, in William Blake's "School Boy," Blake literally describes a young boy waking up on a summer morning only to make his way to school. The poet tells us "I love to rise in a summer morn, when the birds sing on every tree, but to go to school on a summer morn, Oh! It drives all joy away." Use the literal description to evaluate, for example, the setting and themes of the poem.
Go deeper. The situation is interesting and engaging, but there is more to the poem. On a figurative level, we can usually see that there is a deeper meaning to the poem than the literal surface description seen on the page. The poet strives for deeper meaning through the use of literary devices such as metaphor, simile or symbols. In the poem, Blake asks, "How can a bird, born for joy, sit in a cage and sing?" Here, he uses metaphor to emphasize the trapping, claustrophobic atmosphere of the classroom, which is involuntarily inflicted on the child. Use these figurative observations to build up your own, unique interpretation.
Do not underestimate the rhythm of the poem. In addition to levels of meaning and sense within the poem, there are overlaid levels of sound, also known as sonic levels, such as the use of rhyme. The sound of a poem does not create meaning but rather adds to it. When you are interpreting a poem, look for sound patterns, rhyme and rhythm that might echo sense and feeling within a poem, and analyze how they might reinforce or strengthen the poet's intentions. In "The School Boy," Blake muses, "How shall the summer arise in joy, or how shall we gather what griefs destroy?" Think about how the sound adds impact to this powerful line and how the rhyme scheme emphasizes the hopelessness of the boy's longing. If the poem you are evaluating is written in free verse, try to look for a distinct rhythm that you can analyze.
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