Poetry gives me problems. How can I figure out what poems are about?

Some students have trouble with sight-reading poetry because they don't know where to start. For example, they see the word "death" in the first line and "tomb" in the third and jump to the conclusion that the poem (which, in fact, is a sentimental lover's pitch to a woman who has turned him down) must be about mortality, and they then spend the next ten minutes trying to make the poem fit these gloomy expectations.

To avoid jumping to conclusions, try going through each poem asking the following questions in an order something like this:

  1. What is the dramatic situation?

    That is, who is the speaker (or who are the speakers)? Is the speaker a male or female? Where is he or she? When does this poem take place? What are the circumstances?

    Sometimes you'll be able to answer all of these questions: The speaker is a male psychopath living in a remote cottage, probably in Renaissance Italy, who has strangled his mistress and is sitting with her head propped upon his shoulder (Browning's Porphyria's Lover). Sometimes you'll be able to answer only a few, and sometimes only vaguely: The speaker is unnamed, unplaced, and is addressing an audience that's unknown. No matter. You've begun to understand the poem.

  2. What is the structure of the poem?

    That is, what are the parts of the poem and how are they related to each other? What gives the poem its coherence? What are the structural divisions of the poem?

    In analyzing the structure, your best aid is the punctuation. Look first for the complete sentences indicated by periods, semicolons, question marks, or exclamation points. Then ask how the poem gets from the first sentence to the second and from the second to the third. Are there repetitions such as parallel syntax or the use of one simile in each sentence? Answer these questions in accordance with the sense of the poem, not by where a line ends or a rhyme falls. Don't assume that all sonnets will break into an 8-6 or a 4-4-4-2 pattern, but be able to recognize these patterns if they are used.

    Think about the logic of the poem. Does it ask questions, then answer them? Or develop an argument? Or use a series of analogies to prove a point? Understanding the structure isn't just a matter of mechanics. It'll help you to understand the meaning of the poem as a whole and to perceive some of the art, the formal skills that the poet has used.

  3. What is the theme of the poem?

    You should now be able to see the point of the poem. Sometimes a poem simply says "I love you"; sometimes the theme or the meaning is much more complex. If possible, define what the poem says and why.

  4. Are the grammar and meaning clear?

    You should now be able to see the point of the poem. Sometimes a poem simply says "I love you"; sometimes the theme or the meaning is much more complex. If possible, define what the poem says and why.

  5. What are the important images and figures of speech?

    What are the important literal sensory objects, the images, such as a field of poppies or a stench of corruption? What are the similes and metaphors of the poem? In each, exactly what is compared to what? Is there a pattern in the images, such as a series of comparisons all using men compared to wild animals? The most difficult challenge of reading poetry is discriminating between the figurative ("I love a rose" — that is, my love is like a rose, beautiful, sweet, fragile) and the literal ("I love a rose" — that is, roses are my favorite flower).

  6. What are the most important single words used in the poem?

    This is another way of asking about diction. Some of the most significant words in a poem aren't figurative or images but still determine the effect of the poem. A good reader recognizes which words — usually nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs — are the keys to the poem.

  7. What is the tone of the poem?

    Tone is a slippery word, and almost everyone has trouble with it. Tone's sometimes used to mean the mood or atmosphere of a work, though purists are offended by this definition. Or it can mean a manner of speaking, a tone of voice, as in "The disappointed coach's tone was sardonic." But its most common use as a term of literary analysis is to denote the inferred attitude of an author.

    When the author's attitude is different from that of the speaker, as is usually the case in ironic works, the tone of voice of the speaker, which may be calm, businesslike, even gracious, may be very different from the satiric tone of the work, which reflects the author's disapproval of the speaker.

  8. What literary devices does the poem employ?

    The list of rhetorical devices that a writer may use is enormous. The terms you should worry about are, above all, metaphor, simile, and personification.

  9. What is the prosody, or rhythm and intonation, of the poem?

    Read the poem out loud and note the rhyme, meter, and sound effects. How do they contribute to the overall tone of the work? Look at the white space, which indicates silence between the words. Is there a pattern? How does the white space affect the reading of the poem?