What is the best way to understand what exactly a poem is about?What is the best way to understand what exactly a poem is about?

Expert Answers
jcvickery eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When I introduce a poem to readers for the first time I try to let them use an accepted structure for the analysis at first.  Becuase it's a daunting task to many, giving students a series of steps often serves to focus thinking.  Two well-known exercises are SOAPStone and TPCASST - basically acronyms representing analytic steps.  For ease of use I prefer the second:

*Title--Think about the meaning of the title before reading the poem.
*Paraphrase--Translate the poem into your own words.
*Connotation--Look for meaning in the poem beyond the paraphrase by finding all poetic devices such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme, simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, diction, point of view, etc.
*Attitude--What is the speaker's tone? What is the poet's tone? (They might not be the same.)
*Shifts--Point out the changes in who is speaking or in tone.
*Title--Think about the title again. Has the meaning of the title changed after studying the poem?
*Theme--What is the poet trying to say? What idea is being communicated? (NOT what happened in the poem!)

Proceeding through these steps from start to finish should help you get at the meaning of any poem.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A few suggestions on reading poetry for understanding. The first time you read a poem, simply read it for your own emotional response to it. Sometimes our subconscious can tell us a lot if we simply listen to our gut. When you read it, you need to know that the author's intended thought rarely stops at the end of each line. You need to pause only slightly before following that thought through to its conclusion. Try not to get stuck on words you don't know or ideas you don't get. Simply follow the flow of ideas as the author intended.

Once you've done this, you might consider writing down what you think the poem is about. If you can remember that sometimes poetry has both a literal message and a more symbolic message you'll be off to a good start. You should read the poem again and look for conventions the author has used to convey his or her meaning. This could be but is not limited to sound devices like onomatopoeia, assonance, alliteration, and etc., similes, metaphors, extended metaphors continued throughout the poem, imagery and symbolism. Recognizing these elements will help you confirm or clarify your own understanding of the poem on a literal and deeper level.  

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've found that two specific barriers keep students from understanding poetry: poetic inversion and vocabulary. Lines of poetry aren't generally written in the ordinary structure of sentences. They are often inverted; the word order is confused. It is necessary then to figure out where thoughts begin and end and where the subjects and verbs are in order to understand the meaning of the various lines.

Also, many poems contain individual words unfamiliar to students. Any new vocabulary words must be understood to "get" the poem, and poetic contractions, like "oer" for "over," must be understood. Once you understand the words and can untangle the sentence structure, your chances of understanding what the poem is about increase greatly.

drmonica eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the electronic age, it is a simple thing to look up interpretations of a poem on the internet. Often you can learn what a poem is about by reading what other people think about the poem. An internet search can locate many sources of information about well-known poems.

Another technique is a study group, where you can all bounce ideas and thoughts off each other. The old saying that “two heads are better than one” really is true. When a group of people read a poem and discuss it together, then they benefit from the synergy of the group. Interesting insights can emerge that you might not have elicited while studying alone.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Finding the controlling metaphor seems a good way to unlock the meaning of a poem.  That is, there is a tension in a poem between what is directly stated and what is implied.  By drawing a line down the middle of a paper, the reader can write what is literal on one side and what is figurative on the other.  Then, after doing so, the reader can look at the stated and unstated and seek the general, controlling metaphor, the figurative expression for what is apparently there.

samanthastilphen | Student

umm..i think in my opinion that theres really no one "set in stone" way to tell what a poem is about..almost everyone's interpretation**<==did i spell that correctly.lol?) of the poem is going to be different no one may be the same its all in how you comprehend it and you take it in.

spazzer23 | Student
What is the best way to understand what exactly a poem is about?

What is the best way to understand what exactly a poem is about?

  Well when you read the poem what are the feelings you get from reading it? Also look at the title then go by stanza to stanza

richardcampanaro | Student

Try to put yourself in the writer's shoes. Understanding the person and what they were going through when the wrote the poem, painted the picture, worte the song etc will help you understand what they are talking about.

If I told you I had a bad day today, could you tell me how to fix it if you don't know WHY I had a bad day? Could you tell me about whether I should feel bad or what I should do to fix it? Or would you ask questions about what happened?

To me Poets try to be mysterious. If they wanted you to know what it was really about, they would just tell you. That's no fun though. They want you to figure it out through the imagery and emotion they put into the words they choose. So make sure you understand the vocabulary. :)

adharshila | Student

Understanding poetry is not easy. Sentence structure differs, and use of poetic devices like hyperboles, metaphors, similies and sybolism masks its meaning. The message is not so blatant in poetry as in prose. One glance through it may not (and often doesnot) suffice.

By reading the piece repeatedly one can supply its literal meaning. But then again, in poetry the literal interpretation is not always the correct one. So once the poem is somewhat within the reader's grasp, he must focus on the words, expressions and allusions that baffled him or seemed out of place in the first reading. Sometimes, poetry is strewn with historical or mythological allusions. That requires in-depth research and reading. The title, setting, the poet's angle, personification (if any) and other poetic detailings must be taken into account. It is often possible to find more than one interpretation of what seemed at the first place to be a perfectly simple poem (note the Songs of Blake), and there lies the magic of poetry. 

percyray | Student

First, read the poem a time or two to get a feel for it.  It helps to get comfortable with the flow of it.  Afterwards, break it down verse by verse, or stanza by stanza.  Finally, remember theirs a message in the poem.