Before you begin writing an essay, group response, or examination question about a poem, try to answer the following questions, after you have read the poem with care several times (aloud, if possible).
1. Who is the persona (speaker)? Sometimes the voice we hear may be that of the poet, speaking for himself or herself. More often, however, the speaker is a fictional creation, like a character in a play. To establish the "rhetorical context" try to visualize the occasion as part of a scene in a play and determine such characteristics as age, sex, personality, frame of mind.
2. Who is the implied auditor? That is, to whom is the speaker speaking? What is the occasion (time, place, and circumstances)? How does the speaker feel about the subject and the listener(s)? That is, what is the dominant tone?
3. Does the poem proceed in a straightforward way (like a narrative), or does it at some point reverse its course, altering the tone or the speaker's perception? How does the poem get from the first line to the last line?
4. Is the main focus on character or on the process of thinking: that is, is the emphasis mainly psychological or philosophical? Is the speaker responding to something specific in the natural or social world? Which lines, words, and phrases indicate this subject?
5. Note specific examples of telling diction or word choice: do certain words or phrases have complex associations that help define the poemÕs themes? How does the poem's figurative language contribute to theme, description, and characterization, if at all? What aspects of the poem should alert readers take ironically or symbolically?
6. Consider the poemÕs sound effects: what is the role of repetitions of sounds or entire words, and shifts in meter or rhythm? If there are off-rhymes (slant rhymes), what function do they serve? If you detect unexpected stresses or pauses, how do they affect your perception of the meaning?
7. What is the effect of the form of the lines: quatrains or blank verse, or pairs of rhyming lines? If the sense overflows the line or the stanza, what is the effect on your sense of how the tone or the themes are affected? If the poem doesnÕt use regular meter or rhyme, what can you deduce about the way the lines are laid out on the page? How does this layout (including white space, indentations, and asterisks) affect your reading of the lines?
8. As you read the poem (over and over), aloud if possible, try to hear as well as see what is happening in the poem. But once you think you have noticed something, don't believe it until further reading convinces you that it is really in the poem. Be especially careful about the effects of a single word: its connotations may not be relevant unless supported by the rest of the poem. And keep an ear open for combinations of sounds.
9. Always bear in mind that an analysis of a poem requires more than mere paraphrase: consider beginning your discussion with the end of the poem. What thought or feeling does the conclusion of the poem create in the reader? What aspects of the poem's historical, social, and biographical context are significant? Consider the relevance of the poem's initial publication circumstances.
10. If possible, put your initial draft aside for a few days, then re-read the poem before undertaking a final review of what you wrote. Make sure that your argument is grounded in the poem itself, and that each interpretation consistent with your overall thesis about the meaning of the work.
Last modified 17 October 2004