Craft a Captivating Poetry Analysis: 7 Actionable Steps

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Here’s how to write a poetry analysis in 7 actionable steps:

  • #1 Read the poem silently
  • #2 Read the poem aloud, slowly
  • #3 Take note of the structure
  • #4 Find a message
  • #5 Look for techniques
  • #6 Learn the context
  • #7 Prepare your written analysis

So if you’re eager to master the art of poetry analysis, you’re in the right place.

Let’s get started!

Craft a Captivating Poetry Analysis: 7 Actionable Steps

Writing a Poetry Analysis

Many people find poetry analysis to be a very daunting task.

One of the first things you need to realize is that analyzing poetry is as much an art as it is a science.

While there are mechanics and techniques that you can objectively point out, what you pull from the poem will ultimately be different than what the person next to you would, and that’s okay.

Poems, by their very nature, are typically meant to be interpretive, especially when it comes to their uses of imagery.

What a Poetry Analysis Is

Young attractive pensive woman reading book in a book store.

A poetry analysis is an essay, usually fairly short, that dissects a poem on its structural and creative elements.

It’s important to think of the poem from multiple perspectives, combining the objective usages of techniques that you can see on paper with your own subjective interpretations of the narrative painted by the poem.

Poetry analysis is often used in academic settings to test the mettle of would-be poets by forcing them to think of poems as machines to be disassembled and reassembled, rather than as some abstract magical combination of words.

There are various benefits to analyzing a poem, both as a student and as a professional:

  • Increasing your awareness of the use of basic techniques.
  • Seeing how skilled poets utilize rhythm to manipulate tone.
  • Learning to see poems as a product rather than as an intimidating abstract.
  • Accumulating ideas that you can use in your own writing.
  • Learning to recognize the difference between poetic styles.
  • Gaining an appreciation for the complexity of your favorite poems.

Take note that a poetry analysis is always done under the assumption that you already have a firm grasp of what the basic poetic techniques and structures are.

If you’re struggling with the basics, then you may find analysis difficult.

Do not be afraid to speak with an instructor after class and ask for help getting caught up if this is the case.

7 Steps to Write a Poetry Analysis

Student studying at desk surrounded with books

While a poetry analysis is ultimately a free-form exercise, students who feel overwhelmed may want to start off with a list of steps to follow and branch out from there.

While the following steps are by no means all-inclusive, they do more or less cover the basics of analysis.

#1 Read the Poem Silently

Young woman sitting on the sofa and reading a book silently

Your first read of the poem should always be casual.

Read the poem in the setting that you would naturally read poetry in, without paying any special attention to the techniques or structure.

This will be the easiest step for beginners but will actually be a tricky step for advanced writers.

The reason for this is that skilled writers can fall into a trap where they start to see every piece of writing in terms of technique.

Remember that the average reader does not see the man behind the curtain.

Do your best to read the poem the way a casual reader would so that you can better understand the effect it has on its target audience.

#2 Read the Poem Aloud, Slowly

Young pretty woman sitting and reading a book aloud

Reading the poem out loud is a good way to catch nuances of rhythm and structure that you didn’t notice in an initial reading.

It may also force you to understand lines that you struggled with on an initial read.

Poetry started out as an oral tradition so there is value in getting a feel for how the poem sounds, even today.

#3 Take Note of the Structure

Lovely red haired girl studying at the table

One of the most basic ways to interpret a poem is through its structure, and that’s always a good place to start.

Check the end rhymes. Is there a rhyme scheme?

Count syllables.

Is there a specific meter?

Take note of the use of white space, the line breaks, and the line lengths.

Knowing the type of poem, if it follows a particular form, or just the general layout of the poem makes a big difference in how you interpret the poem as a whole.

For example, if you can confirm that you’re dealing with a sonnet, then you can divide it up into its constituent chunks to figure out where the dramatic turn is in the poem and how it’s used.

Every form has specialties, things that the form does exceptionally well.

Recognizing which poems fall under which forms can give you some insight into what they’re doing.

Even free verse poems are bound to use structure to some extent.

Lengthy stanzas with dense wording may be intended to feel overwhelming or suffocating.

A poem divided neatly into quatrains may be intended to be easy to read, and to go by quickly.

This has a ripple effect on everything in the poem, from mood to theming to message.

Academia aesthetic student studies Shakespeare sonnets

As an example let’s look at one of Shakespeare’s many famous sonnets:

Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare

A quick review of the syllable counts, meter, and end rhymes will reinforce that this is, naturally, an English sonnet.

So in this case, we know that the poem is ultimately divided up into three quatrains and a couplet.

Or rather, that would normally be the case. Take note of the punctuation here.

Instead of ending the quatrains neatly on a full stop, colons and semicolons are used.

So while stops are implied in every other line, this is technically a run-on sentence right up until the period at the very end.

This might imply that the author meant for the thoughts to be flowing into each other with only brief pauses between them, overlapping each other instead of falling into divisions.

Importantly, many of the lines begin with prepositions.

This again fulfills the notion that this sonnet, a form normally divided into concise thoughts, is meant to be read as one long idea, an interesting and subtle subversion of the form.

The repetitions of the word “summer” reinforce this argument, painting this not as separate sections but as a continuous stream of thoughts.

At least up until the final couplet.

In the final couplet, both lines begin with “so long.”

This divides them into their own unit in a sense, giving them a special significance that is unlike the rest of the poem.

#4 Find a Message

Woman sitting on chair reading silently

The message of a poem can vary.

It could be anything from a moral or political assertion to a personal expression of emotion.

What do you initially think the message is?

Go line by line and look at the word choices if you’re not sure.

Which lines are emphasized to signify a sort of importance?

Which lines are downplayed, as if the writer purposely wanted to direct your attention?

Figure out exactly what it is that you took away from the poem.

It’s okay if what you see is different than what others see.

I’ve heard someone assert that “The Red Wheelbarrow” can be seen as a metaphor for pregnancy.

This is poetry.

It’s okay for your assertions to sound ridiculous on paper, as long as you can back them up with examples from the text.

If you glance back up at “Sonnet 18” you’ll note that the focal point is always on comparing the lover to beauty in nature, notably the titular “summer’s day.”

As such, it should be fairly obvious that the message contained therein is one of love; an assertion that the speaker’s lover is not only as beautiful as anything in nature but actually so beautiful that even time and death could not force their “eternal summer” to fade.

#5 Look for Techniques

Student reading book on wooden desk

This is where your own understanding of the basics will come into play.

Look for metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, imagery, etc.

How are these techniques contributing to the message conveyed by the poem?

What elements are illuminated?

Take special note of metaphors and images.

These are often used symbolically rather than literally, so challenge yourself to see them through different lenses.

Maybe the lampshade on the third line really is just a lampshade.

But if the writer devoted an entire stanza to describing that lampshade in excruciating detail, then perhaps there’s some hidden meaning there for you to dissect.

“Sonnet 18” used metaphor and used it extensively.

The lover is an eternal summer but is also “even more lovely and more temperate.”

The sun-drenched imagery is meant to evoke beauty while the writer uses words like “more” to imply that it’s a beauty beyond what could normally be described.

#6 Learn the Context

Girl on a picnic by the lake drinks rose wine and reads a book

In this case, I am referring to the historical and personal context under which the poem was written.

This is an advanced step, but it can drastically change how you see the poem.

Who was the writer as a person and as a member of society?

What situations did he or she live through and what would they or most likely want to express with their voice?

A writer who suffered through poverty most likely sees a different connotation for words like ‘money’ and ‘rich’ than a writer who never wanted anything.

A writer whose only experience with alcohol was social drinking at parties might have a drastically different reason for including empty bottles in a poem than a writer who grew up with an abusive alcoholic father.

Recognize the time period that they lived in as well.

Is there a poem unusual for the time or does it follow trends that make sense given the period?

Our society greatly influences our voice and our sense of priority.

The writer may have been rebelling against a common belief or singing the praises of a famous movement.

Shakespeare lived in a time in which formal poetry based on nature was at its most popular and he was a wildly successful poet and playwright.

So while this may be disheartening, we have to acknowledge the possibility that “Sonnet 18” was intentionally written to be popular, perhaps even more than it was meant to be sincere.

#7 Prepare Your Written Analysis

Woman hand writing with silver ballpoint pen in notebook

Now that you’ve done the research and covered the basic readings, you’re ready to write your analysis.

In general, we write a poetry analysis the same way we write any piece of academic writing, but I will quickly go over the constituent parts of an academic essay, in case you’ve forgotten them.

  • Introduction: Begin with a hook that defines the poem being studied and hints at the content of the essay in an interesting way. Make sure the introductory paragraph ends with a concrete assertion about what you are going to prove (the thesis statement).
  • Body paragraphs: Break your assertion down into manageable chunks of thought. You can either do this in an outline or as you go. For a short analysis, you may only need one or two body paragraphs. Try to make sure that each body paragraph features at least one example from the text, followed by your own interpretations of that example and its features. Avoid ending on a quote. Paragraphs should always end in your own words.
  • Conclusion: Rehash the statements of the body paragraphs quickly, often with a sentence that lists off the key centerpieces of the essay. Make a decisive statement that these factors prove your initial point outlined in your thesis. Ideally, end with a statement about what we as writers can learn from the poem.

Of course, poetry analysis is often less formal than normal academic essays since you will often be doing such pieces in a workshop setting.

If your instructor gives you their own personalized instructions, then there is most likely a method behind their madness, so don’t feel constrained to using just this one structure for an essay.

Example of a Poetry Analysis

Young couple busy studying, writing at the library

Remembering everything we’ve covered up until now, I’ll go ahead and show a short example based on Sonnet 18.

Your own analysis is likely to be longer and more in-depth than this one if it’s meant for a professional publication, but the goal here is just to give you a feel for how the analysis should sound.

First, again, the poem:

Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

William Shakespeare

“Sonnet 18”: An Analysis

Open book and brown glasses

In “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare, the speaker is clearly defining the extremity of his love for an unnamed subject, frequently to the point of hyperbole.

The structure, as we would expect from Shakespeare, is an English sonnet.

It should be noted that there is an interesting and unusual subversion of the form, however.

Whereas one of the defining features of an English sonnet is its clear divisions between the three quatrains preceding the couplet, Shakespeare chooses to use punctuation and prepositions to imply a constant enjambment, implying that everything before the couplet should be read as one unit.

This may potentially be an attempt to emulate a feeling of lovestruck breathlessness for the reader or simply a quirk of the writer himself, but it does have the unique trappings of a run-on sentence.

Either way, giving off the impression that the speaker is unable to contain his obsessive feelings well enough to reach more definite pauses (as would be defined by periods).

The love portrayed is unrealistic and nearly on the verge of worship, as the speaker adamantly claims that his love’s “eternal summer shall not fade” (line 9).

This is ridiculous, of course, since even the most beautiful lover would die of old age eventually but, as if to mock the reader’s doubts, the poem then quickly asserts that even death will not “brag thou wander’st in his shade” implying a timeless and immortal beauty (line 11).

Notably, these instances are clear examples of hyperbole, a frequent guest in Shakespeare’s repertoire.

It should be noted that William Shakespeare was a revered playwright and poet, even when alive, well known for purposely courting the interests of the public.

As such, it may be appropriate to remember that sonnets featuring natural images such as “a summer’s day” were particularly popular (line 1).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the metaphor falls flat, but it is less original when thrown into the proper context of the time that it was written, in which sonnets comparing love interests to elements in nature were very “in.”

In short, this sonnet may have represented the sincere desires of the poet but could have just as easily been a comparable analogue to the pop love songs we hear on the radio in the modern era.

Thus, it may be prudent to analyze this piece as much as a product of the times as it is a product of the writer.

Quick Dissection of the Example

Young woman writing while drinking coffee

So going back to our steps from earlier, the analysis above identifies the structure (an English sonnet), asserts that the theme is unrealistic and passionate love, mentions the use of techniques like imagery and metaphor, and brings up the historical context in which the poem was written.

Take special note that examples are pulled directly from the text multiple times.

In academic writing, to which most poetry analysis belongs, it’s critical to use textual examples to prove your points.

Ideally, the examples will be interspersed with your interpretations of what the lines mean, in your own words, as displayed above.

While that was admittedly a very brief and bold example, it should serve well enough to give you a potential template or jumping-off point. Choose your favorite poem, read it carefully, and try to keep your writing as informative and professional as possible.

Importantly though, DO NOT BE AFRAID TO MAKE A POINT.

The above example was not satisfied to simply say “this is a love poem by William Shakespeare” and leave it at that, because that’s not an analysis and is unforgivably boring.

By introducing the rather controversial opinion that one of Shakespeare’s most famous poems can be compared to modern pop songs, we start a discussion.

A good analysis inspires criticism and debate. Whatever you read and whatever you write, remember one thing: A GOOD WRITER ALWAYS MAKES A POINT.