How does one go about analyzing a poem in detail?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Analyzing a poem requires that you find, understand, and discern the meaning, importance and significance of a full range of poetic (literary) devices. Poetic devices are of two types: poetic elements and poetic techniques. Poetic elements are those devices that are required in poetry. Poetic techniques are those devices that are optional in poetry.

Poetic Elements

Some poetic elements required by poets for poems are these:

  • stanzaic structure (stanzas, poetic paragraphs, free form)
  • meter (rhythm and feet)
  • rhyme (blank verse, rhymed lines, free verse)
  • persona (poetic speaker: poet, character, narrator)
  • mood (internal emotional atmosphere of poem)
  • tone (persona's attitude or feeling about the subject or narrative)
  • genre of poem (lyric, ballad, dramatic monologue, narrative etc)
  • theme (overriding topic of poem)

These elements are integral to the foundation of the meaning of the poem and can influence how a poem is understood. For instance, George Herbert, a metaphysical poet of the 1600s, wrote "Denial" in stanzas with each stanzaic line of a different number of feet: first, hexameter (6 feet); second,  pentameter (5 feet); third, tetrameter (4 feet). One of the metaphors of the poem was his broken heart that he then compared in a conceit to his broken verse. Thus the "broken" form of the stanzas reflected the broken heart he wrote about. Poetic elements are relevant to understanding and an important part of analysis.

Poetic Techniques

Some poetic techniques to be selected by poets optionally are these:

  • conceit (extended and perhaps complex metaphors of metaphysical poems)
  • metaphor (comparison of two unlike things to give greater understanding to one of them: two kinds of metaphor: (1) metaphor without "like" or "as"; (2) simile with "like" or "as")
  • irony (what is expressed is the opposite of what is intended: three kinds: verbal; situational; dramatic, which involves exclusive knowledge the reader has)
  • symbolism (people, places, objects, ideas, that have a secondary, deeper, representative meaning other than the literal meaning)
  • imagery (sensory descriptions that build mental pictures to make scenes and meanings more vivid)
  • rhetorical devices (changes to normal word order or word usage to make a point or to compress the content of the poem)

Poetic techniques are chosen by the poet to (1) enrich the poem and to (2) enhance the meaning of the poem. Choices are made very selectively since the primary aim is to enhance the meaning, not just to increase the richness. For example, Edmund Spenser's Amoretti 75: "One Day I Wrote Her Name" uses wonderful imagery of sand writing being washed over by incoming waves. We know that he chose his imagery though to enhance the meaning because (1) he maintained the structure of a sonnet and (2) it ties in with the metaphors of death and immortal acclaim. Thus while techniques are optional for choosing, they must be chosen with care so they enhance the meaning while enriching the poetry.

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lhc | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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To some extent, it will depend on the style of the poem; for example, analyzing "Memory of Cape Cod' by Edna St. Vincent Millay is a somewhat different experience than analyzing, say, "First Fig" or "Second Fig".  For a poem such as the former, one would look likely look first at the rhythm--or lack thereof--created by the narrative placed into a free verse structure. 

Knowing a bit about the poet is always helpful; in Millay's case, being from the Northeast, it is not unusual that she would set a poem on Cape Cod.  "Memory of Cape Cod" can be credited with establishing great imagery, that is, language that appeals to the senses.  The opening line hits the reader/listener immediately with The wind in the ash tree sounds like surf on the shore at Truro/Hush be still with your silly bleating, sheep on Shillingstone Hill. . . . Additionally, Millay peppered these lines with the technique known as alliteration, the repetition of a consonant sound to create unity and rhythm; in the above lines, there are several repetitions of both the "s" and the "sh" sound. 

Symbolism is often a big part of a poem's meaning, and "Memory of Cape Cod", while on the surface is simply a wistful reflection of a day at the beach cut short, it might also be interpreted as a metaphor for missed chances, or an opportunity not taken. 

While "First Fig" and "Second Fig" are normally approached as children's verse, with the short text and traditional rhyme scheme (abab for the former, aa for the latter), both poems could easily be interpreted for their metaphoric properties.  The phrase "burning the candle at both ends" traces its roots to this poem, and there are people who might see themselves and their lifestyles in this little verse.  "Second Fig" has all sorts of symbolic possibilities, as well, despite its composition of two lines. 

Understanding a poem can also involve analysis of figurative language including similes, metaphors and symbolism (as stated above) and hyperbole, sound devices like alliteration, and its counterpart, assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds in a line or lines and a look at the rhythm and meter, and as mentioned above, rhyme schemes.  As with any type of literature, understanding the historical context of the piece, as well as the author's place in that context, can shed additional light on an author's intentions when creating the work.   

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