In High School English, you will find that most people hate poetry because its hard and confusing and difficult to understand. However, it doesn’t have to be! This article will show you how to analyse poetry so dealing with poems seems easy.
What is poetry?
Poetry is a form of writing that uses language in an aesthetic way to explore a particular subject. This is usually, but not limited to, emotions or the human experience.
Unlike prose, poems are written in lines and stanzas.
The language of poetry is usually quite abstract and expressive, as opposed to being straight forward.
Each word is specifically chosen and put together with others for their artistic qualities: patterns, rhyme, or rhythm.
This is why it seems hard to decipher the meaning of poems.
Types of poetic texts
When you think of the first poem ever written, it is always Homer’s epic, Illiad (c. 1194 BC).
However, the first dated poem was actually written approximately 1000 years before that… the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC) from Ancient Mesopotamia (now known as the region near Iraq, East Syria, and Southeast Turkey).
You see, poetry has existed in society for a very, very long time. And overtime, different types of poems emerged and evolved.
Today, there are well over 50 different types of poetry.
Let’s see what some of the most common ones are:
A poem with no defined rules for the way it is written.
Poets can choose the number of lines or stanzas, rhythm, pattern or rhyme that they want. They have full artistic control over the structure.
One aspect of poetry that makes it so appealing is that it is very abstract while being quite emotionally powerful.
You don’t need to explicitly say what you feel, or think, or experience. However, you can still write about it in a more metaphorical way and leave it up for interpretation.
That’s why for most poets, poetry is an outlet for inner thoughts, emotions, and experiences.
Another appeal of writing poetry is that it is also very aesthetically pleasing and beautiful. When you write prose, you need to make sure the sentences are grammatically correct and everything makes sense.
However, when you write poetry, you can have fragmented lines, single words stanzas etc. Basically, you can make a poem sound poetic and express your ideas at the same time.
Features unique to poetry
As established, poetry is very different from prose writing. We need to know their unique features to properly analyse poetry.
Unlike prose, poetry tries to convey meaning with as fewer words as possible.
In other words, poetry is a condensedform of writing.
For example, let’s say you want to write:
“I can’t believe Frank betrayed me. I thought he was my friend but he just exposed my project plans to everyone. I’m so angry”
However, to write a poem, you want to condense this into something like:
“He was like a rose. And roses will always have its thorns.”
Do you notice anything?
It is very vague.
When we condense language, our words are put up for interpretation… especially when it is written in a metaphorical way.
However, this is the beauty of poetry. Poetry conveys meaning in an abstract way.
Meter is a pattern of syllables in a poem. It is used to create a rhythm or melody.
There are two types of meters:
Qualitative: A pattern of stressed and unstressed syllable in a line.
Quantitative: A pattern based on the amount of syllables in a line.
This is based on stressed and unstressed syllables in a line.
Think ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Where Ba is the unstressed syllable (soft), whereas DUM is the stressed syllable (hard).
In English poetry, you will come across these common forms of meters:
Iambic: unstressed-stressed eg. beLIEVE, comPARE, aCHIEVE eg. toMORrow AND toMORrow AND toMORrow (Macbeth, Shakespeare)
This is based on the number of syllables in a line.
For example, a haiku is based on a quantitative meter.
“First autumn morning the mirror I stare into shows my father’s face.”
It follows a 5-7-5 syllable pattern.
Rhyme is commonly used in poems. However, not all poems use a rhyming scheme.
Rhyme is basically when the sounds of the endings of words sound similar. Eg. go, blow, toe
When we refer to rhyme schemes in poems, we use letters.
Eg. ABAB CDCD… where each letter indicates a different sound.
Figurative language and devices
When you analyse poetry, you will find that poets use a lot of figurative language and devices.
This is because it is a form of condensed writing.
So, using these devices will help composers effectively and efficiently create meaning.
Remember, figurative language convey more vivid images to get the message across.
eg. “I am cold” vs “I am freezing to death”
Here are some techniques you should look for when you analyse poetry:
Symbolism: When an object represents a more complex idea. eg. red apple = sin
Metaphor: Saying that the subject is something else. eg. She is the light of his life.
Repetition: Repeating words or phrases eg. Go! GO! GO!
Personification: Giving human characteristics on something non-human, like an object. eg. Death crept up on Mr Smith and took him away.
Simile: Making a comparison between two subjects by saying that they are “like” each other. eg. I am as hungry as a horse
Hyperbole: Exaggeration eg. I’m going to explode with anger.
Pun: Words or phrases that have two different meanings. eg. What do you call a tower that has fallen? “I-fell tower“
How to analyse poetry – step-by-step
Analysing poetry may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be!
Remember, when you analyse poetry you need to follow the Matrix MethodTM.
Let’s go through a step-by-step method to analyse poetry, using Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs, And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots, But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time, But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.— Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
First readings – the big picture
The first thing you need to do is to read the poem. Don’t try to look for techniques yet, just try to understand what is going on.
Here, you should be looking at the:
Topic/subject of the poem
Obviously, some poems are harder to understand than others. These tips will help you make sense of it:
Read it aloud
Read it several times.
Define any words you don’t understand.
Read it in a rhythm.
You should also research the poet’s context to help you decipher what the poem is talking about.
Let’s have a look at Owen’s poem.
The topic of the poem is war.
The themes explored are horrors of conflict, violence and destruction, and criticism of the romanticisation of war
The narrative of the poem follows an injured soldier who courageously returns to battle, only to suffer more.
Second readings – looking at stanzas
Now, to further our understanding of the poem, we need to read more closely.
If you still don’t know exactly what is going on, you should…
Read the whole poem first
Then read it again stanza by stanza
And finally again, line by line through stanza
When we look at each stanza, we are trying to figure out the details of the poem.
We know that poems can sometimes be ambiguous in what they’re trying to say.
So, take this chance to translate confusing lines and write a brief summary of what happens in each stanza.
Don’t be afraid to annotate your poem and write notes. The more you write down, the easier it is to return to the poem when you have an assignment.
Let’s take a look at Owen’s poem.
In the first stanza, Owen compares the soldiers to “beggars” and “hags”. He describes the negative immpacts of war by identifying that some of the soldiers are lame, drunk, blind and deaf.
In the second stanza, Owen gives a vivid description of the trenches. There is “gas” and “an ecstasy of fumbling”. We can see that the soldiers are in a hurry to escape the gas.
In the third stanza, we see a man who inhales the gas and is dying.
The fourth stanza highlights how society glorifies war. We see soldiers as heroes in a glorious conflict, especially those who died. But Owen tells us that it really isn’t glorious, and the heroes died horrific, unromantic deaths.
Third readings – unpacking details:
Now that we have a detailed understanding of the whole text, we need to unpack the techniques. These techniques will be useful in your analysis of the poem.
Let’s look at Owen’s poem.
Meter: It is a double sonnet. So, there are 28 lines, with some being in iambic pentameter.
Rhyme: It follows the ABABCDCD structure.
Simile is used in “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks.” This makes the soldiers seem less heroic than what society makes them out to be.
Repetition occurs in “All went lame; all blind.” Here Owen emphasises the destructiveness of warfare.
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags” -> Traditionally, in literature old hags are seen as witches. Think, fairy tales, Shakespeare’s plays, nursery rhymes etc. By comparing these soldiers to hags, it decreases their stature and strength and instead shows them reduced to staggering and weak figures.
Considering texts as a sustained whole
Now that you have all the information needed to analyse poetry, you have to look at the whole text to find out what the composer is trying to say.
In other words, the composer’s purpose.
When we look at Owen’s poem, we can conclude that Owen is criticising society’s romanticisation of wars and the mischaracterisation of the heroes that support such myths. Instead, he confronts his audience of the harsh reality and destructiveness of war and its human impact on the soldiers.
Applying your poetic knowledge to Shakespeare
Now, that you’re confident in your poetry analysis, let’s take a look at something that also has some poetic features… Shakespeare! Shakespeare wrote his plays, for the most part, in verse.
In our next article, we’re going to show you how to analyse Shakespeare and give you the chance to apply your new analytical skills.