How to Analyze Poetry


Explication essays examine sentences, passages, verses, or longer literary works to interpret and explain them on a more detailed level. Such analysis may seem like decoding an ancient, forgotten language. But be not afraid! Following our advice, you will learn how to interpret poetry correctly, understand what the authors wanted to say and which means they used to convey their thought to readers. These skills will help you understand how to write an explication essay quickly and correctly.

There are two main parts when analyzing poetry:

  1. understand the meaning of the poem;
  2. determine which poetic means are used.

Each of them consists of several steps.

Step 1.1: When you read a poem for the first time, pay attention to any of your “instinctive reactions”: any emotional reactions to the author’s words, any memories, something you like or dislike in the poetry, etc. By tracking your reactions, you can understand which emotions the author hoped to evoke in readers.

Step 1.2: Reread the poem and find its literal meaning. The literal meaning is the most obvious version of what the work is about, disregarding any literary means. Translate poetry into spoken language. How would you retell this verse to a friend? Think from this point of view: what is the most common dictionary meaning of this word or phrase? It can be tricky, but remember that any verse, even one that seems incredibly confusing, still consists of ordinary words with a literal meaning.

Step 1.3: Reread the poem to understand the implications. Find a few keywords or phrases in the text and try to understand what associations they carry. Ask yourself: why does the author use these words, and not some other? Remember your first reaction: more often, emotions are evoked by the implied, not the literal meaning.

Step 1.4: Find the symbolic meaning of the poem. Write down any allegories that you see in the text, references to symbols, etc. Think about what this could mean and why.

Step 1.5: Ask yourself: What does the author want to say? What is his/her goal in this poem? What kind of reader response is he/she seeking? Why? Try to identify the purpose for which the poet wrote these lines.

Step 2.1: Start analyzing different parts of the poem. The analysis will help you understand “how” the author achieves a particular effect or goal, but not “which” goal or effect he/she wants to achieve. It includes research on poetic means, tone of storytelling, target audience, and more.

Step 2.2: Identify the narrator and listeners. Who exactly is the storyteller? Is that the poet himself/herself? Even so, it would help if you always treated the narrator as the “narrator” in your analysis. Speaking of listeners, who is the speaker addressing? Is this a specific group of people? Does the audience help better understand who the storyteller is?

Step 2.3: Determine the structure of the poem. Is this a narrative? Are there thoughts that are collected in separate groups? Does each verse have its theme, or does one common thought run through the entire piece? What is the poem’s structure: is it a long poem or a few verses or lines?

Step 2.4: Determine the rhyme scheme. Rhymes give the poem a musical, pleasant sound. They can also be used to deepen the meaning and make the form stronger. Is there any sense in a particular arrangement of rhyme? Does it highlight an idea?

Step 2.5: Analyze the poem in terms of poetic means. Look for means of rational expression (alliteration, assonance, etc.), figures of speech (sensory details, artistic images, etc.), and so on. Answer the questions: “What means of linguistic expression does the author use? How do these means help him/her to achieve his/her goal?”

Step 2.6: Draw conclusions. What is the theme or purpose of the poem? What means did the author use to convey the main idea? How did he/she use these means? If you have such a task, write down your findings in the form of an explication essay.

If you still can’t figure out what the author wants to say in his/her work, return to the beginning and read the poem a few more times. Pay attention to the emotion the verse evokes. Often, the goal of a poet is simply to convey a particular emotion to readers or describe a place or event.

Do not despair. Sometimes poetry is challenging to understand. Practice is needed everywhere! Do not give up. Learning to understand and appreciate complex poetry will take time.


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