Here are some notes I once made on analysing poetry -
Poetry Analysis: Questions
Here is a detailed list of questions. Of course, they are by no means exhaustive and only some will be relevant to each particular poem you study. Indeed, they will not all be intelligible to you at first. However, the more poetry you read, the more they will come into focus. I hope they will assist you in devising your own questions to bring to ‘the act of interpretation.’
General Comments on Form/Content
What is the shape of the poem?
i) Does it sub-divide clearly into stanzas? How many?
If it does not, is there any other organizing factor (for example, a repeated pattern in the grouping of lines)?
ii) Is there a regular rhyme scheme?
If not, does rhyming occur at all?
iii) Do the lines make a regular pattern on the page?
What is the poem about/what is it doing?
i) Does it……
Tell a story in chronological sequence?
Suggest a story, leaving us to unravel the narrative implications?
Attempt to capture a moment in time – to make the transient permanent?
Explore an emotion?
Evoke a mood?
Convey a sense of a mind turning on itself?
Set out an argument?
State a ‘truth’ about the human condition?
ii) Does it do any combination of the above, or something completely different?
What is the tone?
i) Is this serious, ironic, humorous? How do you know which?
ii) Does the title have a straightforward or ironic relationship to the content?
Is this relationship sprung as a surprise?
Is there a clear relationship/contrast between form and content?
i) It may express strong emotion in disciplined, tightly structured form.
ii) The form may be one of rational argument: the content non-rational emotion.
iii) The form may be traditional but the content may jar with this, intentionally subverting our expectations.
Does anything else immediately strike/startle you about the poem?
i) Does the poem unfold one stage at a time like a journey from ‘A’ to ‘B’?
If so, a stanza by stanza analysis may be appropriate.
iii) Or is it more useful to look upon it in terms of contrasting images and themes in different groups of stanzas?
If so, a ‘compare and contrast’ analysis may be appropriate. (N.B. There is no need to comment on everything – only what you consider to be the most important details).
Patterning of Meaning
i) Does each stanza indicate a stage in the development of meaning?
Is this development clear, obscure or elliptical?
ii) Is there any contrast between the content and meaning of different groups of stanzas?
iii) Do sentences run over from one stanza to another?
If so, does this forge a close link between the ideas expressed in these?
iv) Is there some form of punchline?
If so, does this summarize what has gone before, or add a new and surprising slant?
Patterning of Sound
Do any of the following reflect or highlight changes in mood and/or meaning?
i) How would you describe the rhythm: ‘vigorous’, ‘lilting’, ‘unobtrusive’?
ii) Does the rhythm change dramatically or break up?
iii) Does punctuation affect rhythm (i.e. caesura, end stopped lines, enjambement)?
iv) Are any phrases repeated? If so, do these become modified when repeated?
v) Is the rhythm ever enhanced by patterns of repeated consonant sounds (alliteration) or vowel sounds (assonance)?
vi) Does the rhyme scheme change?
Speaker and Audience
i) Who is speaking – the persona of the poet, or a dramatic character?
Is there any dialogue?
ii) Who is being addressed – the reader, a specific individual?
Or is it something non-human or an abstract quality that is being addressed as if it were a person?
iii) Do any of the above change?
iv) Is the audience ever addressed as ‘We’?
If so, this assumes you agree with what the poet is saying. Do you?
Time and Tense
i) Do the stanzas indicate change through time?
ii) Is there any sense of a shift from narration of past experience to reflection on this in the present?
Is this indicated by changes in tense?
iii) Alternatively, are there any ‘flashbacks’; shifts from present to past and back again?
Word and Images
i) Is the language elevated/poetic or ‘down to earth’?
Is it clear or obscure?
ii) If archaic language is used, is this simply because the poem is old, or is the poet consciously trying to create a sense of the past?
iii) Is there a juxtaposition of different types of language?
If so, to what effect?
iv) How does the language differ from everyday usage?
Are there any inversions or contractions of standard sentence structure?
Are there any invented words, puns or double meanings?
v) Is there any imagery?
vi) What is the relationship between image and meaning?
vii) Is there any sense that the images give objective physical form to the subjective mood/emotion/mental state of the poem’s persona?
viii) Is there any relationship between the different images?
ix) Does the juxtaposition of images suggest a complexity of experience which defies logic?
(Perhaps things which according to common sense are diametrically opposed are discovered to be somehow complementary).
x) Do language and image suggest more than one level of meaning?
xi) Do language and image refer us to the Bible, other Literature, Classical Mythology etc…?
It does not matter if you cannot ‘pin down’ the reference. It is enough to know that the reference has been made.
i) In a good poem every word will be essential for its contribution to the whole. Is this true of the poem you have been studying?
ii) Has engaging with this poem made you look at some element of human experience in a new way?
Poetry has its roots in song and ritual,
There are four standard metres in English poetics, each with its own pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. ( Note that: a stressed syllable is marked ‘/’; an unstressed syllable is marked ‘u’; and each unit of a rhythmic pattern is known as a ‘foot’).
i) The Iambic Metre A iambic foot is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. For example:
u / u / u / u / u /
‘‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’’ ( 10 syllables, 5 iambic feet = aiambic pentametre).
ii) The Trochaic Metre A trochaic foot is made up of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. For example:
/ u / u / u / u
‘‘On the day of the explosion’’
iii) The Dactylic Metre A dactylic foot is made up of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. For example:
/ u u / u u / u u / u u
‘‘Pelicans frequently suffer from bellyache’’
iv) The Anapestic Metre An anapaestic foot is made up of two unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. For example:
u u / u u / u u / u u /
‘‘Setting spurs to my horse then I rode off with speed’’
Whatever the technical terms of metre, I think it is easy to see that examples I) and ii) are more measured while iii) and iv) are more vigorous. It is more important to describe the rhythm’s effect on you than to define the metre. Indeed the metre only acts as a framework on which the words of the poem are hung. The words have their own rhythm. Many modern poems do not have a clearly defined metre, but the odd line may have one which makes it stand out.
Two other devices effecting rhythm are;
i) Alliteration - patterns of closely connected consonant sounds
e.g. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper.”
ii) Assonance – patterns of closely connected vowel sounds often found in conjunction with alliteration.
e.g. “In its wake no waters breed or brake”.
Assonance at the end of lines is sometimes used by poets instead of rhyme.
The effect of these devices depends on the context and the kind of sound that is repeated. Interpret from your intuitive response rather than rule of thumb.
Another root of poetry is the primordial human urge to give shape to our intangible inner world of thought and feeling through correlating this with the outer physical world by means of analogy. This is done through the use of imagery.
An image is a representation of an object or event which can be perceived by the senses. However the effect of image making on the reader is complex, taking in the sensual, emotional and intellectual all at once.
Types of imagery are
i) Description = Image without comparison
e.g. ‘The Oak swayed in the wind’.
ii) Simile = Comparison of two objects essentially unalike but resembling each other in one aspect
e.g. ‘The Oak swayed in the wind like a ‘Galleon’
(Most similes are introduced by ‘as’ or ‘like’).
iii) Metaphor = Implied comparison which imaginatively identifies one object with another
e.g. ‘The Oak was a Galleon in the wind’.
iv) Symbol = An image which evokes, through accumulated associations, one or many other levels of meaning. The associations may be evoked through the image’s repetition in cultural tradition, or by individual writers repeating an image (which they have created themselves). An example of the former is the Tree of Knowledge; this symbolizes Wisdom, Shame, Death, Life etc… An example of the latter is Blake’s use of the ‘Tyger’ to represent revolutionary energy (among other things).
Symbols and indeed poems often seem to defy logic. Perhaps this is because our deepest experiences often defy rational categories. Some useful terms here are –
Paradox - The perception that two things that seemed contradictory are in fact the two sides of the same coin –
e.g. ‘Death and Life are One’.
Ambivalence - The co-existence of seemingly contradictory feelings
e.g. loving and hating someone at the same time.
Oxymoron - The conjunction of contradictory adjectives to express paradox –
e.g. “terribly good”, “grimly gay”.
Ambiguous - Of uncertain or unclear meaning. Not to be confused with ‘ambivalent’
3 Anthropomorphic Imagination
To give form to subjective feelings, the poet projects them onto the physical/external world, and therefore often makes sense of these by talking about the external world as if it were human. Useful words here are –
i) Anthropomorphic - A blanket term to describe any attempt to speak of the non-
human in human terms.
ii) Personification - Addressing something non-human –
an abstract concept or quality, a place etc… - as if it was human.
e.g. holding a conversation with ‘Virtue’ or ‘Love’.
iii) Pathetic Fallacy - Writing specifically about nature as if it had human qualities
e.g. “When the green woods laugh with their voice of joy”.