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How to Analyze AP English Poetry

Updated March 02, 2017

Theme

When analyzing any genre of literature, first try to determine the main theme of the text. Fiction, drama and poetry all contain themes that shed light on human experience and human nature. Common themes in poetry include the mystery of nature, the healing power of time, the inevitability of aging and death, the rewards of love and the divinity contained in each individual. Students can identify themes by evaluating repeated words and phrases, context, tone and poetic devices, such as alliteration and personification.

Context

In addition to what is written in the text, the meaning of a poem can be derived from its external context. Purdue University's Writing Lab advises students to examine how a poem relates to the historical and cultural context in which it was written. For example, knowing that a poem was written during World War I can give readers insight into the author's perspective and the social mood of the time in which the text was written. A poem's context also includes the author's biography and body of work. For example, knowing that Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive and isolated life imbues new meaning into the phrases and themes she communicates in her poetry.

Imagery

One of the identifying characteristics of poetry is its use of imagery to convey meaning and add beauty to a text. Students can examine the symbolism, metaphors and similes in a poem to identify its themes. Colors, objects or feelings are used in poetry to represent abstract ideas. According to Purdue University's Online Writing Lab, metaphor and simile are figures of speech used to draw comparisons between two unlike things. Pairing unlike things in literature can reveal aspects of an experience, idea or object that may not have been noticeable before. The language used to communicate imagery requires students to use inference and interpretation to draw their own conclusions about a poem.

Tone

The tone of a text conveys the author's attitude toward the audience and toward the subject of the poem. In poetry, the tone is conveyed through imagery and diction. The University of Texas notes that the tone of a poem may change as the poem progresses, or it may remain consistent from the beginning to the ending of the poem. Words that describe tone in poetry include sad acceptance, admiring, self-mocking and nostalgic.

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About the Author

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.