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Why did it have to be poetry?

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

April is National Poetry Month! While that brings a great deal of joy to my heart, many of my students struggle with poetry. The two most common complaints:

* It’s hard to understand

* It’s boring

Sound familiar?

Poetry, like many of your favorite foods, can be an acquired taste. Not everyone likes poetry instantly, and even people who like some poetry don’t like other poetry. Here are some of the things students tell me they actually enjoy about poetry:

* Every poem has significant meaning behind it

* Figuring it out is like solving a puzzle

* Helps me find inspiration or strength

* I like the rhythms and rhymes

Sound familiar?

Whether you enjoy poetry or not, chances are you’ll have to tango with it at least once a year in your academic journey. Let me share with you this fantastic process for poetry analysis that I’ve found in my studies. This can help you unlock even the most challenging of poems and feel like a master of mysteries.

1. Don't expect to understand the poem.

Poetry is a form of art, which means sometimes (most of the time) there are no "right" answers to the poem. The point should not be to understand, but to try to understand by asking different questions and looking at it from different perspectives.

2. Read the poem out loud.

Don’t try to understand the meaning of anything. Focus only on saying each word clearly and naturally. Use the sounds of the words and any punctuation or line breaks the author has written to help you figure out the poem’s rhythm. Does the poem want to be read quickly or slowly? Does the rhythm change as you read it?

3. Are there any words in the poem you don’t know?

Look them up!

4. Paraphrase the poem line by line.

Use pencil. Don’t try to understand the deeper meaning or read between the lines; just paraphrase what the words literally say. Even if it’s obvious that the little bird is a symbol of hope, don’t write anything down about hope just yet. Just write what the author says about that little bird.

5. Start with the easy parts.

Okay, now that you’ve written down just what the poem says, find the lines that make sense just as they are. What do they mean? Before you move onto the next step, keep in mind that the lines that seem to make perfect sense now may also gain a deeper or different meaning once you start digging in deeper to those tricky bits.

6. Make some notes.

From what you can already tell about the poem, what are some general themes (ideas that the author seems to be pointing to) in the poem? What is the tone (emotion or mix of emotions you feel in the poem)? What is it about the rhythm, the meaning of the words, and the sounds of the words that make you think this?

7. Dig in.

Find the lines that don’t make sense as they are or lines that seem to have a deeper meaning (like that little bird…). What part of the line just doesn’t make sense? The following steps can help you unlock these tricky lines:

  • Are there any words you know, but don’t seem to make sense here? You may need to look them up anyway — lots of English words have multiple meanings and old meanings we don’t really use anymore.

  • Is there a literary device being used, like metaphor or allusion? You can reference a list of devices that your teacher gives you, or check out this list of poetic devices from the Academy of American Poets. Use clues from the lines of the poem that make sense to you along with the list of devices to figure out what the author is trying to get across.

  • Was the poem written at a specific time in history or another place? Mulling over relevant historical events or differences in technology and culture might help you figure out. If you don’t know anything about the history around the poem, put on your detective hat, and do a little research.

8. Call in the reinforcements.

When the above steps fail, take everything you think you know about the poem to a teacher or trusted friend, and puzzle through it together. Enjoying poetry doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Be careful of using a site like SparkNotes or reading anyone else's analysis online. Many people present their interpretations of art as fact. If you read someone else's analysis and it doesn't make sense, or you disagree, that's okay! (It means you're doing art the right way.)

9. Questions are okay.

If you’ve carefully combed through the poem, and there are still things you don’t understand. Write down a list of questions you still have about the poem. Perhaps the poet didn’t intend for there to be an answer to everything in the poem, and the point is that you should be left with questions.

Never consider it to be a failure on your part that you didn’t understand every little thing about a poem. The best poems continue to ask us questions about ourselves and the world around us no matter how many times we read them. As long as you’re thoughtfully engaging with the poem, and not dismissing it or yourself just because you don’t get it or agree with it, you’re doing your job as an appreciator of the art form.

Is there a tricky poem you’ve “figured out”? Share it in the comments below. What tools did you use to unlock the meaning?

Is there a poem that’s bugging you because you just can’t seem to figure it out? Share it in the comments below. What questions is it forcing you to ask?

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Apr 18, 2019

This a really helpful article! Thank you!I need to go find some poetry to read now...

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