The Beginner’s Guide to Poetry

Our Poetry Resource Guide is your one-stop-shop for studying poetry. We go show you how to read poetry, explain the function of different poetic techniques and how to analyse them, and how to analyse poems as a whole.

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Many student’s dislike studying poetry because they think it’s difficult to understand. However, studying poetry is very simple once you know how to approach it! Our Beginner’s Guide to Poetry will show you how all the tips and tricks to overcome these issues!

 

An overview of The Beginner’s Guide to Poetry:

The Beginner’s Guide to Poetry will guide you through everything you need to know to ace poetry analysis. We go through how to read poetry, different poetic techniques and how to analyse them, and how to analyse poetry as a whole.

 

What are some common student problems with poetry?

In many cases, students struggle with poetry because they:

  1. Struggle to understand what the poem is saying
  2. Feel disconnected with the poem
  3. Aren’t confident with poetic techniques
  4. Unsure about how to analyse poetic techniques in poems
  5. Aren’t interested in poetry

 

What is in this Beginner’s Guide to Poetry series?

 

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How to poetry – Step-by-Step guide

We know reading poetry can be quite tricky. So, we broke down the process into actionable steps to help you better understand poetry.

  1. Read the poem out loud
  2. Read the poem again
  3. Consider meaning of the title
  4. Identify the speaker
  5. Consider form and structure of poem
  6. Consider imagery and figurative language
  7. Synthesise your observations

 

Step 1: Read the poem out loud

Too often, students read the poem in their head and ignore poetic signals. This is ineffective because they are reading the poem as a prose text, instead of a poem.

Poetry is like music. You have to feel the rhythm and flow.

Instead, you have to read the whole poem slowly, and out loud. Pause at punctuation marks.

Remember, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t fully understand the poem. This step is all about understanding the holistic picture, not the minute details.

So, in this reading, try to get a feel of the:

  • Rhythm and flow of words
  • Atmosphere and tone
  • Themes in the poem
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Step 2: Read the poem again

This time, we are trying to understand what the poem is talking about.

Remember, as you are reading the poem again, you must take notes of anything that stands out to you.

These include:

  • Your initial feelings or thoughts
  • Evocative lines
  • Ideas
  • Strong imagery
  • Words or phrases you don’t understand

 

Does it sound too intimidating? Don’t worry. We broke down the process into smaller steps for you:

a. Read stanza by stanza

Try to get a feel of what each stanza is saying.

  • What is the main ideas/imagery?
  • What is happening in the stanza?
  • How do you feel?

 

b. Read line by line: 

After you read a stanza, you need to focus on each individual line in the stanza. This step is all about figuring out what each line is saying.

So, to do this, you need to:

  • Define any confusing words/phrases
  • Visualise what the line is saying

Now, do the same thing for all the stanzas! Don’t forget to highlight and annotate your poems as you go.

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Step 3: Consider meaning of the title

Titles aren’t randomly picked and thrown onto the poem as an afterthought.

Titles are carefully chosen by the poet to represent the poem.

So, think about what the title tells you about the poem and how it adds meaning. To do this, ask yourself a few questions.

Does the title:

  • Reinforce or contrast the poem’s ideas?
  • Suggest the form of the poem?
  • Highlight an important motif or symbols in the poem?
  • Sound ironic, evocative, jarring or sarcastic?
  • Suggest connotations? What are they?

 

 

Step 4: Identify the speaker

Many students overlook the speaker of the poem because they think it is unimportant.

However, knowing who the speaker is and who they are speaking to is crucial to understanding the purpose and meaning of the poem.

So, ask yourself:

  • Who is the speaker?
    • Is it a distinct character, the “poet’s voice” or an omniscient, disembodied intelligence?
    • Are there multiple voices within the poem or is it just one strong voice? Pay attention to tone changes to figure this out.
  • What is the speaker feeling? 
    • What is the tone and atmosphere of the poem? Pay attention to the rhythm and meter.
    • What are they speaking about?
  • Who is the speaker talking to?
    • Is the speaker addressing a specific person, like their lover, child or God?
    • Are they venting out their emotions? Is it simply a stream of consciousness?
    • Is the speaker addressing something inanimate, like nature or time?
  • Why are they speaking?
    • Are they trying to find a response or are they simply venting?
    • Is the speaker sorting their thoughts and emotions through words?
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Character voice is usually shaped by the tone the poet uses in the poem.

 

 

Step 5: Consider the form and structure of the poem

The form and structure of the poem is what carries and develops an idea throughout a poem.

Poets have to carefully choose the structure to shape their ideas, and consequently their message.

Minute changes to the structure can influence how the audience responds to the poem. This is why it’s so important that you don’t overlook this step.

So, here are some question to help you figure out the form and structure:

  • How are the ideas are explored in each stanza?
  • Do the ideas link to one another logically or emotionally?
  • Is there a progression of thought/emotion/ideas throughout the poem? Compare the ideas at the beginning and the end of the poem.
  • Is the poem written in an open or closed form? Open form refers to a lack of structure whereas a closed-form refers to a clear and distinct structure (eg. rhyme scheme, metrical patterns, number of lines in each stanza).
  • Does the poem have a narrative?

Once you figure this out, you need to determine how these elements influence how we interpret the ideas.

 

 

Step 6: Consider imagery and figurative language

Now that we’ve analysed the structure and form of the poem, it is time to dig a little deeper and find the meaning of the poem.

To do this, you need to firstly identify strong and important images in the poem. These could be visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and gustatory. If you want to learn more about imagery, check out our Literary Techniques: Imagery article.

Then, find figurative techniques like symbolism, motifs, or metaphors. These techniques will help you analyse the poem later and build your own perspective and interpretation of the poem.

Once, you’ve done this, it is time to figure out how these elements create a mood or atmosphere. To do this, you must:

  • Draw links between different images and/or figurative techniques
  • Identify repeating images. These are motifs
  • Figure out how the image makes you feel. This will help you determine the mood and tone.
  • Figure out the connotations behind the images or words
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Sheep usually hold connotations of purity and innocence, and sunsets usually represents the closing or the end. What would this image connotate?

 

 

Step 7: Synthesise your observations

Now, it is time to gather all the above elements and try to find the meaning behind them.

To do this, you must:

  • Know what the poem is about
  • Identify key ideas
  • Figure out the poet’s purpose (message)
  • Link the ideas to the form/structure of the poem
  • Link the ideas to the imagery and figurative techniques
  • Figure out the reason behind the poet’s creative decisions

 

Want to level-up your poetic analysis skills?

Matrix+ courses for English will give you the skills to analyse poetry with the depth your peers can’t. Learn more.

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© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2020. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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