How to Dissect a Poem
Attempting to analyze or dissect a poem can be one of the more unique tasks in the literary world because poetry is often viewed as a particularly subjective genre. T.S. Eliot, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century, alluded to this when he said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Eliot speaks of the way in which poetry can convey meaning, even when we don’t fully grasp the significance or entirety of that meaning. In other words, poetry gives us understanding even when we don’t understand it; however, what that understanding actually is, again, is often subjective. In spite of this, there are ways in which poems can lend themselves to dissection and a more focused understanding of what the poet is actually attempting to communicate.
In attempting to discuss, detail, or dissect the components of a poem, it is always helpful to understand the literary terms customarily used to describe a poem. Personification refers to the attribution of a human characteristic to something non-human: “The sun danced on her face.” A metaphor acts as a figure of speech or a method of comparison not using the words like or as: “She is a ray of sunshine.”
A simile makes a comparison of two or more unrelated this using the words like or as: “He looks like a monkey when he climbs.” Alliteration employs the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words: “Willie always waltzed wonderfully on Wednesday nights.”
Symbols use a material object to represent or stand for something else: “Some just need to play the cards that they are dealt.” Some other commonly used literary terms: irony, imagery, rhyme, assonance, connotation and foil.
Poetry got its start in oral form. As such, a key to unearthing much of poetry’s intended meaning is to focus on "prosody," a term that originates from the Greek word “prosodia,” meaning “a poem sung to music.”
The prosody, or patterns, meters, and rhythms of language, can be broken down by studying syllables. Most syllables in English are distinguished by the vowels that are contained within a word; for example, “flower” is broken up into the syllables “flo-” and “-wer” because of the vowels “o” and “e.”
Once syllables are distinguished, this can lead to understanding a poem’s tempo and feet. While tempo has to do with the pace of the poem, the feet have to do with the meter or the manner in which syllables are stressed or unstressed. There are three types of feet in poetry: iamb, a trochee and a spondee.
At the most fundamental level, if a poem is to be appreciated for its sound, simply read the poem aloud.
The forms of poetry are many, but recognizing form as a large part of a poem’s function can help in its dissection. Form tells us what type of poem it is. For instance, a poem that has no particular form is called "free verse." However, a poem that has only three lines is a triplet or tercet.
Furthermore, a poem that has three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven lines in the second line, and five lines in the third line is a specific type of tercet called a haiku.
Other types of poetic forms speak to the number of lines a poem has: a quatrain has four lines, a quintain five, a sestet six and an octet eight. One of the most famous forms, as made famous by William Shakespeare, features 14 lines and a set rhythmical pattern: the sonnet.
The way a poem is shaped tells us how it should be read. The line breaks, spacing, and emphasized or capitalized letters and words let us know when to pause, whisper, pick up the tempo, or rhyme. The form itself can hold meaning. For instance, one of the classic examples of pattern or concrete poetry, whose form directly relates to meaning, is George Herbert’s 1633 poem, “Easter Wings.” Without knowing the content of Herbert’s poem, you only need to glance at the words on the page in the shape of a bird’s wings to know that flying is seminal in the poem’s meaning.
Another way to help dissect a poem is to try and determine its genre. Most English poetry falls into seven general categories:
Renaissance: 16th century; Augustan: late 17th to early 18th century; Romantic, early 19th century; Victorian, mid- to late 19th century; Modern, 1880-1950; Postmodern, 1950s-1980s; and Contemporary, 1980’s-current.
When poetry is identified as falling within a specific category, the environmental context that surrounds a poem can reveal more of a poems meaning. In other words, the date, the author, the culture, any traditions, and any societal norms that were dominant when the poem was written might give a reader a clue as to what the author meant, why they chose the words they did, and how their environment affected the creation of their poem.
Joshua D. Shinn holds a bachelor's degree in liberal studies and a master's degree in English composition from California State University, San Bernardino. He has served as an English instructor for CSUSB, Central Texas College and the US Navy.