If you’re a student or new reviewer first approaching the task, you may be wondering how to write a poem analysis. Fortunately, there are concrete steps you can take to analyze a poem or collection of poetry. Even if you do not plan on learning how to write a poem analysis essay, building a routine of analysis into your poetry reading can deepen your appreciation for the genre.
Poems have many layers of meaning. A particularly beautiful and well-crafted poem only becomes more enjoyable the more you increase your understanding of the decisions the poet made to craft it. The following steps outline the kinds of questions to ask yourself while writing a poem analysis.
Step 1: Read the Poem Aloud
Poetry has a long oral history. Poets often utilize sound techniques which are easier to detect when reading the poem aloud. Read it once without an analytical focus. Simply notice how you respond to the poem. Begin by asking yourself broad, simple questions such as: How did this make me feel? What do I think the poet is trying to say?
Jot some notes down about your initial impression. Analyzing a poem is a recursive process. You will read the poem several times, and these first impressions can provide interesting clues for what to focus on in your analysis.
Step 2: Identify the Type of Poem
There are several different types of poems, but all poems fall into three overarching categories: free verse, formal verse, and prose poems. Formal poetry itself comes in many more specific forms. Check out A Beginner’s Guide to Different Types of Poems.
There are certain analytical questions you can ask yourself depending on the type of the poem you’re reading. If this is a prose poem, ask yourself, what exactly makes this piece of writing a poem, as opposed to a short piece of prose? Recognizing a specific poetic form allows you to contextualize the poem in history. For example, if you’re reading a sonnet, consider how the poem you’re analyzing fits with or fights against the conventions of sonnets.
Step 3: Mark It Up
There is no one correct way to mark up a poem. You can underline lines which stand out to you. You can take notes in the margins identifying poetic techniques as you see them. You can scan the poem, a method of marking stressed and unstressed syllables. You can circle words which seem important or stand out as surprising.
If you are reviewing an entire poetry collection, it’s a good idea to take notes in the margins about particular motifs or themes. That way, when you are finished with your first read, you can look for ideas which appeared in multiple poems.
Step 4: Consider Poetic Techniques
Read the poem several times, considering a single poetic technique at a time. For example, free verse and formal poems use line breaks. Read through the poem once, focusing on how the poet has broken lines, and the impact of those decisions. If the poem contains stanzas, do the same for stanzas. You can repeat this process with any poetic technique: similes, metaphors, imagery, assonance, consonance, alliteration. How do these poetic techniques support, enhance, or problematize the overall message of the poem? Your observations will prove crucial when you are ready to sit down and write a poem analysis.
Step 5: Pay Attention to the Turn(s)
In poetry, the term “volta,” sometimes called a “turn,” is a shift in the tone, meaning, or style of a poem. This is a common enough poetic technique that it warrants its own step in the analytic process. Nearly every sonnet contains a turn in the final two lines of the poem, but countless other types of poems contain some sort of shift.
Voltas are so common that if the poem you’re reading does not contain a volta, that is a decision worth incorporating into a poem analysis. You can always ask yourself whether or not a poem contains a turn, and how this impacts the poem overall. Focus on the final lines of a poem, since that is where the volta typically appears.
Step 6: Make an Argument
If you are reviewing an entire poetry collection you can use the above steps for each poem. Then consider the way that the poet has chosen to order the poems within the collection. Revisit the first and last poems, asking yourself how they might function as a kind of introduction and conclusion to the collection.
As with any other essay in the realm of literature, in order to write a poem analysis essay, you should formulate an argument and back it up with evidence. Different readers can have opposing ideas about how a poem or collection of poetry operates, and that’s okay, as long as both readers have evidence to support their claims. How do you back up your claims with evidence? Refer to your notes, especially your observations of poetic techniques. Whenever necessary, quote exact lines or stanzas and use them to support your argument.
Step 7: Consider the Audience
Writing a book review of a poetry collection is considerably different from writing an essay about it. That is because book reviews serve a different purpose than essays do. Individual readers, book buyers, and librarians read reviews in order to decide whether or not to purchase a book.
Ask yourself: what kind of reader might enjoy this collection? It’s always a good idea to compare and contrast to other collections of poetry. You can recommend the poetry collection you’re reviewing to fans of another poet, for example.
Book reviews tend to be considerably shorter than essays, often as short as two or three hundred words. For that reason, it’s important to be concise. Unlike reviewing fiction or nonfiction, you do not exactly need to “summarize” a poetry collection. Most poetry collections cannot be summarized the way that a novel or nonfiction book can. Instead, list some of the central thematic concerns of the collection and describe the poetic style. Tell your readers what kind of poems they will find in this collection. Are these prose poems, free verse, formal verse, or a combination? Are they simple, accessible poems, or complex poems with unusual syntax? Does the collection contain a lot of references?
In a book review, you will want to quote a line or two which represents some aspect of the poetry collection as a whole. Since you do not have a lot of space, choose something representative of the poet’s style. This will give readers an idea of whether or not this collection appeals to them. For more information about writing book reviews, check out How To Write a Book Review: Six Steps to Take.