How to Read and Analyze Poetry: A Step-by-Step Guide with Examples

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How to Read and Analyze Poem

How to Read and Analyze Poetry: A Step-by-Step Guide with Examples

How to Read a Poem

To say with finality that there is a particular way or a set of ways in which poems are read is not only prescriptive but also presumptuous. While prescription is unwelcome in literary presumption, it is also not encouraged. This article simply offers some suggestions on how to read poetry efficiently, effectively, and enjoyably. The suggestions are outlined below.

Step One: Read the Poem for Fun with an Open Mind

Read the poem straight through with an open mind and without any specific expectations. At this stage, do not bother about any issue that strikes you as major or minor, or any strange or difficult words. Simply try to enjoy the reading, whether it conveys a meaning or not. You may read silently, but voice the words in your mind. You may also read aloud.

Step Two: Look Up Meanings

Read for the second time, paying attention to the contextual meaning of the words used. At this stage, you can use a dictionary to look up the meanings of words you have trouble with.

Step Three: Read and Reread

In subsequent readings, focus on and dwell on strange and difficult phrases, lines, or sections of the poem until they suggest, convey, or yield their meanings. Depending on many factors, a poem may not yield its meaning at once. Most good poems will not. This is why several readings are often the key to unlocking the meaning of a poem.

Step Four: Find Clues in the Title

Examine the title of the poem and see if it is suggestive or bears direct relation to a possible meaning of the poem. Do the same thing if the poem has an epigram or a quotation before it.

Step Five: Hear the Words: Read Aloud to Feel

Reading a poem aloud or having someone read it to you can do wonders for your senses in terms of correct imagery, evocation, and overall appreciation of a poem.

Step Six: Mind the Marks

Punctuation shapes meaning.

Pay attention to punctuation marks as you read. A poem is not necessarily read line-by-line. Punctuation marks determine where to observe pauses or where to stop. Such observance or lack of it has serious implications for meaning apprehension and the effects of sounds on the reader's mind. 

For instance, any attempt to read the following poem extract line by line, that is, independent of one another, is certain to be disastrous:

Let me not interfere in the marriage of true minds.

Admit impediments. Love is not love.

Which alters when its alteration finds,

Or bend with the remover to remove:

O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark.

That looks like a tempest and is never shaken.

(From William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 116')

On the other hand, if you read the following lines independently of one another, the meaning will not be undermined in any way:

I was angry with my friend.

I told my wrath that my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe.

I told it not; my wrath did grow.

(From William Blake's 'A Poison Tree')

Step Seven: Paraphrase for Understanding

Try to paraphrase the whole poem. This is best done line by line, except there is enjambment in the poem. Put the ideas gleaned from the poem into your own words, focusing on the essentials. During this process, you are most likely to alight on the theme of the poem before meaning to do so.

How to Analyze a Poem

As stated earlier, this second part also simply offers suggestions on how an analysis of a poem can be carried out.

Step One: Read and Understand

Read the poem as many times as possible. Once it has yielded parts of its meaning, you can then go on to a practical analysis of the poem by examining its formal properties, its theme(s), and the relationship between the two. Thereafter, you offer your personal comments on different aspects of the poem or the whole poem.

Step Two: Examine Poetry's Elements

In this task, you are expected to examine the following formal properties, among others: form or type, setting, diction, structure, imagery, rhetorical or linguistic devices, figures of speech, mood, tone, atmosphere, and so on. You are also expected to identify and comment on the subject matter of the poem, its theme(s), and possibly its title.

Though not compulsory, using background, contextual, or biographical information about a poem or a poet can help a great deal while analyzing a poem.

Step Three: Identify Poetic Style and Type

From your initial reading(s), you should be able to classify a poem using its content, style of presentation, or formal features. This will help you to comment on the extent to which the poem adheres to what we expect of such a poem. Is the poem dramatic or narrative? How effective or successful is the dramatization or narration?

Is it lyrical in the sense of musicality or lyrical in terms of subject matter? What is the significance of its lyricism? Is the poem humorous, sarcastic, or satiric? What are the implications of such an approach? How does a perception or understanding of a poem from such an approach affect meaning apprehension, and to what effect? Is the poem a sonnet? Does it explore love, a staple subject of sonnets? As a sonnet, does it raise a problem and resolve it in the appropriate section? What is its rhyme scheme?

Questions like these would help determine which type of sonnet it is (whether Shakespearean, Spenserian, or Italian) and establish the relationship between form and content. Is the poem elegiac? If so, how do diction, mood, tone, and atmosphere suggest this? Indeed, there are many questions to generate on the basis of the type of poem we are dealing with, which is crucial to a meaningful critical analysis of any given poem.

Step Four: Understand the Time and Place the Poem is Set

Examining the setting of a poem is sometimes essential to understanding the context of its creation, placing fingers on its atmosphere, and detecting any ironic import in its content. For instance, it may be crucial to know that the setting of a poem that seems to be praising corruption is Nigeria for the reader to realize that the poem is actually an ironic or satiric one, one attacking corruption indirectly or humorously.

A physical or spatial setting of a poem in a cemetery can easily suggest elegiac preoccupation. All these would place the reader in a position to do justice to his or her criticism. Although these examples illustrate how physical settings can aid critical analysis, temporal or time settings can do the same.

Step Five: Focus on Words

Poetry is primarily about diction. Therefore, diction is central to any critical enterprise we may wish to undertake in poetry appreciation. Just as poets are extremely sensitive to their choice of words, critics must, of necessity, also be sensitive to poets' diction.

Inattention or insensitivity to a poet's diction will easily lead to a critic's misreading of the poem. As a critic, you must be able to discriminate between the denotative and connotative use of words in different contexts. You should also be able to detect the nuanced use of words.

These qualities are vital possessions that critics should have. For instance, if a poet uses the word 'wail' instead of 'cry' to describe a person's emotional response to a situation, a highly perceptive and sensitive critic will know that the person under reference is likely to be an adult rather than a child and must be in anguish rather than mild pain or discomfort.

Attention to diction will also help the critic detect seriousness, lightheartedness, humor, irony, sarcasm, innuendo, and so on.

Step Six: Visualize Through Words

Closely related to the choice of words in poetry appreciation is imagery. The two are related in the sense that the choice of words is instrumental in generating imagery. In fact, without appropriate diction, there can be no imagery.

As a critic, you have to examine a poet's use of imagery by drawing attention to the types of imagery employed in the work being analyzed and commenting on their significance in the poem. Imagery is particularly central to meaning in poetry because it says more in fewer words.

Step Seven: Analysis of the Structure

In analyzing a poem, the structure in terms of the way the poem is arranged into syllables, lines, stanzas, cantos, shapes, and so on should also be considered.

For instance, how can you tell that a poem is a sonnet if it does not comprise fourteen lines? Some poems are presented in the form of shapes. What do the shapes suggest? How effective or distracting are they? Suppose a poem is characterized by enjambment. How does this affect its meaning? Attention to these things helps in generating sound critical insights.

Cantos, for instance, are often used to segment poets' exploration of different but related ideas or events in their poems. Thus, paying attention to such an organizing element of a poem's structure will be helpful in locating motifs or identifying sub-themes.

Structure may not be physically visible but is worked internally into the poem in terms of arrangement of ideas, use of repetition, incremental refrain, and so on. Detecting this arrangement and offering a comment or two on its implication for the entire poem is always worthwhile.

Step Eight: Identify Literary Devices

Other tools that come in handy in any critical analysis of a poem are rhetorical and linguistic devices. These devices include rhetorical questions, proverbs, maxims, and idioms. The use of such devices should be illustrated and commented on in terms of their effectiveness and significance to the overall message of the poem.

Step Nine: Examine Sound and Meaning

Similarly, figures of speech, including those dealing with sounds, are also brought under a critical lens.

For instance, an examination of metaphor, irony, metonymy, synecdoche, and the like may draw attention not only to their indirectness, which is a hallmark of poetic language, but also to a poet's sense of subtlety.

Those with contrastive or seeming contrastive implications such as antithesis, paradox, oxymoron, chiasmus, and so on can be used to draw attention to contradictions, ambiguities, and their implications in an otherwise plain order. All of these would afford a critic the opportunity to illustrate the subjectivity and beauty of poetry.

A close look at figures of sound, such as alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, repetition, and so on, would offer some comments on the lyrical or musical tonality of a poem.

Step Ten: Sense the mood

As noted earlier, mood, tone, and atmosphere are interrelated. The mood of a poet affects his tone, and both have an impact on the atmosphere engendered in the work. Sometimes, it is the atmosphere engendered by the setting that dictates a poet's mood, which in turn affects his tone.

Determining the presence and nature of these elements helps shed light on their meaning.

Step Eleven: Decipher Meaning

Of course, critical analysis would be incomplete without talking about what the text means—at least what it means to you as a critic. Efforts in this direction may begin with looking at the title of the poem for possible suggestions, then moving on to determining what the subject matter is and, finally, to determining the work's theme(s).

If the guides so far discussed above are reasonably followed, determining the theme will be relatively easy. However, passing on one's own comments on the theme is expected.

Step Twelve: Examine the Background and Biographical Information

Another tool that can also help in critical analyses is background, contextual, or biographical information about a poet whose work you are trying to analyze. Although some are opposed to using this tool or this approach, many critics and scholars use it.

Let it be said, however, that it is best used as a complementary tool. If not, one might end up writing history instead of literary criticism. In using such resources, focus is put on the relevant aspects only. These may include the poet's philosophy, his ideology, belief system, ancestry, views about writing or the arts in general, his age, the period in which he wrote the work, the prevailing values of the period, and so on.

No doubt, some knowledge of these things will help to sharpen critical responses to many literary works.

Example: Practical Criticism

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown.

Clear, favored, and imperially slim.


And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked.

But he still fluttered pulses when he said, "Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.


And he was rich—yes, richer than a king.

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In the end, we thought that he was everything.

To make us wish we were in his place.


So on, we worked and waited for the light.

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread.

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

He went home and put a bullet through his head.

"Richard Cory" by Edwin Arlington Robinson

An Analysis of 'Richard Cory'

The following is hereby used to illustrate how a poem could be analyzed using 'Richard Cory' by Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Edwin Arlington Robinson lived between 1869 and 1935. At age twenty-four, he witnessed the 1893 recession in the United States economy. The recession was so serious that many fed without meat, living mostly on bread.

While many experienced the depressed economy in fiscal and material terms, some did mentally and emotionally; still, some did in a combination of ways. This period is the temporal setting of the poem 'Richard Cory', while its immediate physical setting is some commoners' neighborhood.

As a work that presents the portrait of a certain Richard Cory in a story-like manner, it is a narrative poem. As the narrative unfolds, it tells us many things about this gentleman: his looks, his elegance, his manners, and so on, as well as people's perceptions of him, in a progressively impressive manner that rounds off with an anticlimax.

This linear progression renders the narrative plot highly organic and gives a sharp blade to the spear with which we are shocked into the reality of the highly admired gentleman. At the end of the story, we discover that Richard Cory has been living a false life.

In spite of his admirable appearance and posturing, he was acutely depressed, which signifies that it wasn't only the poor of Arlington's days during the depression of 1893 that suffered very badly; the rich also did, perhaps in a more fatal way.

The contrast between the public and private lives of Cory, therefore, brings up in the poem the theme of appearance and reality. In other words, the main theme of the poem is that appearance should not be mistaken for reality. While his appearance deceived the commoners so much that they wished they were 'in his place', Cory was pining for their acceptance, for their fellowship, and for their brotherhood. Failing to get this, he took his own life.

There is no doubt that Arlington executes his ideas in the poem in a very skilled manner. From just one reading of the poem, it becomes memorable; with subsequent readings, it becomes more fascinating and speaks to our own experiences of life.

How is this so? It is so through the poet's deployment of imagery, figures of directness and indirectness like metaphor, and sound devices such as rhyme, rhythm, repetition, and so on. An examination of how some of them help to advance meaning in the poem is worthwhile.

The success of poems often results from the effective use of imagery. This is also true of 'Richard Cory'. Visual imagery drawn from royalty suffuses the poem. For instance, Cory's descriptions find parallels in such symbols and qualities as crown, imperial, grace, king, favored, and so on.

Through these words and what they represent, that is, royalty, Cory's privileged status is vividly foregrounded. They set him in clear contrast with 'people on pavement', the commoners. They also depict him as wealthy.

This portrait invariably heightens the reader's shock and disappointment upon learning of Cory's suicide, raising questions such as: Why would someone so privileged take his own life? Was the man sane? Was he depressed? There is extensive use of denotative diction in the poem.

Unlike many poems, most of the words used in the poem have literal meanings. This lends the poem easy understanding, and it is free of ambiguities without being simplistic. Many of these words with literal meanings also evoke compelling images. Irony is interestingly deployed in the poem.

Indeed, the entire poem is built on situational irony, whereby the common people wish to be in a position contrary to their interests, and the reader is shocked to discover that a situation is not what it seems. Certainly, the effectiveness of this irony in generating shock the way it does appears to be the enduring appeal of the poem. The impact of the shock is also heightened by the anti-climactic presentation of Cory's life.

With rhyme and rhythm, the poem's composition is lyrical. Written in iambic pentameter, the rhythm is easily striking. The rhyme generates the scheme: abab cded, efef, ghgh. These devices make the poem appeal to the reader's mind and ear, as they make it musical and memorable.

Perhaps using the name Richard in the title is an onomastic strategy to foreground the status of Cory as a rich and wealthy man, given the root morpheme in the word. Perhaps it is a pun.

To be certain, there are many other things to say about the poem. However, to conclude the analysis at hand, the poem is highly memorable, speaks to our own experiences, engages our cognition and emotion, and teaches an invaluable lesson: that happiness or fulfillment is not measured by the degree of a person's material success.

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