Many students and even experienced readers and writers feel a great deal of anxiety about trying to understand the meaning of a poem. Poems can often seem mysterious and confusing. Knowing how to read a poem and where to look for themes and meaning can help make reading poetry and writing about it less intimidating.
Examine the Title
Often, the title can point you in the right direction when you're trying to understand the meaning of a text. What does the title make you think the poem is about? Does it contain any key words that signal theme or meaning? Make note of them as you make your way through the poem.
Read Slowly and Read Aloud
Rushing through a poem just to get the meaning is one of the worst ways to read poetry. Often, poetry is not about primarily one main point; the meaning can be contained in the word choice, sounds and rhythm of a poem. Read your poem aloud several times and make note of your own experience. Does the poem seem to be harsh or soft? Elegant or rough? Are there any dominant words or sounds throughout the poem? Make note of your reactions as you read. This can help you to identify the important aspects of the poem.
Identify the Speaker
One important key to understanding a poem is to find out who is speaking. Is the narrator using "I," "you" or the third person? Does the speaker seem to be an individual person or a collective, such as a town, state, country or gender? If you can't identify the narrator specifically, at least notice whether the speaker seems to be directly addressing the audience versus telling a story about somebody else.
Determine the Subjects
Read through the poem and notice your first reaction. What seems to be the primary subject matter of the poem? What types of scenes does it depict, and what actions, events or emotions are discussed? Make note of every individual scene or description.
Determine the Types of Imagery and Metaphor Used
Poems often contain imagery, which refers to concrete descriptions. Metaphor and simile, which refer to comparisons, are also common and are often used in conjunction with imagery. Both of these elements can help you to understand the meaning of the poem. For example, a poem that includes imagery of dying or decaying fruit versus a poem full of imagery of ripe, healthy fruit might indicate a theme of death and dying rather than a theme of life and happiness. In addition, in terms of metaphor and simile, a relationship compared to a freshly picked apple is very different from a relationship compared to a cut of bloody meat! Pay careful attention to what the author chooses to compare and the imagery used throughout the poem.
The Poem Isn't Just About Meaning
Remember that poems don't always have only one identifiable meaning or theme. They are often about sharing an experience, feeling or idea. Try to relax and enjoy the poem as a whole.