The meaning of some poems is obvious the first time you read them, while in others meaning is expressed in a nonliteral, nonlinear way. Reading the same poem at different times of your life, you will probably reveal previously unrecognized nuances. Poetic language is not just a code that should be deciphered, there is always room for ambiguity.
Yet, in this article you will find a number of techniques that will help you extract meaning from poetic texts.
To begin with, take a pencil. You will circle important words, underline related ideas or repeated words, mark any part you find confusing, and just jot down your ideas in the margins.
Look at the poem without actually reading it. How long are the lines? Are they broken into stanzas? Are there any irregular lines? How dense is the text?
It is not uncommon for poets to use visual impact. In some poems, for instance, the arrangements of words help to represent different voices in a dialogue.
What is the poem about?
Read through the poem silently, then aloud several times.
Think about the title and its relationship with the text.
Ask yourself: “What is this verse about?” and write down the answer. You will probably add new ideas while investigating the poem.
Can you understand the author’s attitude toward the subject of the poem? Does he admire something or is he ironic? How would you describe the mood?
Analyze the situation described in the text. From whose behalf is it written? When, where and why is the person speaking? Whom is the poem addressed to? Try to find any circumstances and be sure that you are talking not just about your impressions, but about something that is present in the text.
Some poems are based on a comparison or analogy. How do you feel about this comparison? What does it add to your understanding of the poem?
Paraphrase every line (sentence) aloud. Define the structure of every sentence: its subject, the verb, the object. Find which word every modifier refers to.
Explore poetic devices
Determine the rhyme scheme and the metrical pattern. Why, do you think, the poet chose this particular rhyme scheme and metrical pattern?
Is the verse divided into parts (by rhyme, stanzas etc.)? How does this division contribute to the overall meaning?
Analyze the imagery. Look for metaphors, similes, personifications. What can you say about the language? For instance, when writing literary analysis of the poem ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, you will point out the interesting use of the words “dirt” and “dust”.
Can you define a certain genre? Does the poet meet the genre rules?
Look for sound effects
Can you notice any sound effects (like cluster of sounds, change of rhythm inside the poem, alliteration, assonance)? Write down your findings in the margins.
How does the length of the lines relate to the meaning, grammar, and rhythm? Typically, many lines end with punctuation (end-stopped lines). If the end of the line does not coincide with a punctuation mark, you usually need to read to the end of a phrase (sentence) without a pause at the end of each line to retain the grammatical sense.
However, it is a good idea to try another method of reading a poem, too: pause at the end of each line (even if it is not an end-stopped one) and check whether breaking lines in an unexpected place create any new meanings.
Explore meaning by levels
The first level is the literal meaning (the most straightforward story). Try to “translate” the text into simple language. Now it’s time to find the connotative and symbolic meanings. You will certainly notice that some of the words or phrases stand for something else, other than their literal meaning.
Explore the context
Some poems can be understood without any historical, literary or biographical context. Yet, if you know a lot about the time when the poem was created, the place that it refers to, the author’s life, it may give you a better understanding of the text. Still, it can also result in preconceived ideas.
It could be a good idea to use both methods and see how your understanding of the text changes as you find out more about its context. Also, you may discover literary allusions.
Discuss the poem
This is one of the best ways to discover new meanings. Having answered the questions on your own, find out what others think on the topic. Keep the discussion grounded in the text.