How to Understand Poetry

Understand poetryUnderstanding poetry is sometimes a difficult task, especially when you are new to trying to understand the deeper parts of literature. Not to mention, that when you are dealing with older poetry the more difficult it can be to uncover the true meaning of the writing. Nonetheless, the more we understand poetic elements, figures of speech, vocabulary, and sometimes the life or culture of the author, the better we will comprehend the poem.

How to Understand Poetry

  1. Read the title of the poem.
  2. Read the poem through for the first time.
  3. Look for strange vocabulary.
  4. Look for metaphors.
  5. Look for other poetic elements.
  6. Who is the author?

Read the title of the poem

First things first. Read the title. This may seem frivolous, but it is perhaps the single most important part of many poems. Ask yourself these two questions: Is it a play on words? Is there any symbolism? If yes to either of these questions, make note of it. It could help you later on when you try to put together the entire image of the poem.

Read the poem through for the first time

Go ahead. Read the poem. What are your initial thoughts? What is the tone of the poem? Often times initial impressions tell us a lot. What emotion did you get from reading it? Was it happy, sad, angry, or romantic?

Take note of any lines you find difficult to understand. You’ll get to those later.

Look for strange vocabulary

Sometimes simply looking at the vocabulary can tell us a lot. Is there a word in another language? Is there an out-dated term being used? How about any words with multiple meanings?

These are very important questions and they will often time lead us to better understanding.

The vocabulary a poem uses can have many effects on the interpretation. On the surface, its possible for one meaning to stand out. However, the poet may have used a double entendre in order to create a possible alternative. A dictionary is a great tool we can use for comprehending and analyzing poetry.

Look for metaphors

Metaphors are used in many, if not most, poems. They help poets talk about uneasy subjects in a way readers can understand and identify with. Metaphors allow poets to use concrete words to describe otherwise difficult features of people, places, and emotions. For example, what does “pretty” mean to you? Now ask your friend what it means. Surely the two answers won’t be exactly the same. Instead, author’s use words like “pouty lips”, “high cheekbones”, “freckled nose”, etc. to better describe the features of a person.

Nonetheless, it isn’t always about describing something directly written into the poem. For example, maybe I’m going to describe a book. The book is thick, well-read, and has many parts worth knowing. Am I describing the book or am I describing the woman I adore?

Look for other poetic elements

Poetic elements are an extremely important part of poetry. Poets use these elements to dictate the rhythm, structure, and meaning of the writing. Elements of poetry also serve as a tool for descriptions. Meter, cadence, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, repetition, and others are used quite often and are important to the emotions and interpretation of the reader. Readers should be able to identify an element and its purpose in that particular poem.

Sadly, analogies can be one of the hardest aspects of a poem to recognize. This is because they may take up an entire stanza or even the whole poem. The easiest way to identify analogies is by knowing the history of the author’s writing and a short biography of the poet. However, in some cases, we can easily guess the meaning. In others, knowing symbolism is important to identify context clues.

Symbolism is constantly used throughout poetry. It’s something which is one thing but means something else. This isn’t always the case but it is usually. Typical symbolic references include spring or green grass–renewal, hormones, or energy, honey or pollen–hormone reboot, darkness–sadness. Colors also have meanings like green-renewal, white–purity, red–seductive, black–death. However, symbols, especially colors, are largely culturally relative. Different cultures will have different meanings.

Who is the author?

Now that you have read the title, read the poem a number of times, and gone through the various vocabulary, metaphors, and other poetic elements, it is time to check out the author.

Often times poetry is about someone or something related to the author. Is it about a sibling who died when they were a child? Is it about a love lost? Learning about the author can give us perhaps that little bit of insight to connect the true meaning of the poem.

All of this is a mouthful, but in brief, we must know the poem’s intent, the writer’s background, and the different elements that the author uses in order to get a true understanding of it. This might sound difficult, and it is, but not everything in life is easy. A short poem can be as profound as an entire novel. We just have to know how to look at it to get the big picture.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia. Get his newest poetry eBook here.