How to Read a Poem:
 

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Paraphrase the poem: read the syntax of the poem literally. Rephrasing what the poem says, in normal prose, rather than trying to interpret isolated words or phrases, is a good starting point and can ensure a better understanding of what the poem really says and, therefore, means.

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Identify the speaker or narrator of the poem. How is this persona developed, revealed, or characterized, and what is the speaker’s relationship to the author?

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Identify the occasion for the poem or the setting. That is, what is the context for the poem?

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Identify the tone of the poem: is it angry? sad? humorous? serious? formal? informal? How is tone revealed or developed?

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Look up unfamiliar words or names! As Elizabeth Bishop once wrote, “If a poem catches a student’s interest at all, he or she should damned well be able to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary.” Look for repeated words, unusual words, or those that seem to have unusual or special meaning in the context of this poem. Why does the author use these connotative words and allusions? (For example, why does Ralegh use Philomel instead of Nightingale in The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd?) See also The Grand Allusion by Elizabeth D. Samet.

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Locate images the poet uses. What is the relationship between images? Do the images form a unified pattern, or motif?

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What figurative language is used, and how does it contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem?

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What symbols does the poet use, and what do they represent? Are the symbols traditional and universal, or limited to the context of this poem?

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Notice sound effects (rhyme, rhythm, repetition, long and short vowel sounds, combinations of consonants, onomatopoeia, et cetera) and how they affect tone and meaning.

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Notice the structure: meter and rhyme scheme, or the lack of them, and stanzaic and line arrangements. What is the form used by the poet, and how does form (and traditions implied by the form) shape or reflect meaning in this poem?

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State the theme of the poem, in a single sentence if possible.

 

 

Last Revised: Sunday, 26 February 2012
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