Poetry Interpretation Guide

Poems are full of symbolical meanings, implications and metaphorical expressions. To interpret a poem means to show your own understanding of its inner meaning. An interpretation is always subjective and highly-personal. But still, you should support your thoughts with quotations from the verse itself.

Preparing to Write a Poetry Interpretation

After you read the poem that you have selected several times, you can start analyzing it. Indicate the main idea of the poem and explain whether it corresponds to the title or not. If there is no formal title, then the first line of the poem is considered to be a title.

Identify the genre of the poem. Is it an elegy, a sonnet, a dramatic monologue, an ode, a ballade, etc.? Define the subject and thesis of the poem. Don’t muddle them. The subject is a general theme that may be expressed in one word. For instance: friendship, hypocrisy, love. The thesis is more extended. It is a key idea of the poem which may be expressed within one sentence. For instance: all that glitters is not gold.

Define who is speaking in the poem. The voice may be undramatized (it is undefined), or dramatized (the voice says ”I” or it belongs to a particular character). If the voice says “I”, you should remember that it is not the author who is speaking. It is just a voice which speaks.

Determine the rhyme of the poem, if any. It is a repetition of similar end words, such as gate-late, eleven-heaven, etc. If there are no direct rhymes, look for internal rhymes and half-rhymes.
Examine the sound effects which the poem creates. It can be assonance or alliteration.

  1. Assonance – a repetition of similar vowel sounds in the words. Assonance examples may be hard to find, because they are subtle and can work subconsciously. In “Early Moon” by Carl Sandburg, a repetition of the long “o” adds mystery to the poem: “Poetry is old, ancient, goes back far. It is among the oldest of living things. So old it is that no man knows how and why the first poems came.”
  2. Alliteration – a repetition of similar consonant sounds at the beginning of the words. Here is an example of alliteration: “Bold Bob was a brave boatswain”.

Both assonance and alliteration often cluster important words, enhance the tonal expression of the poem and emotionally deepen its semantic content.

Consider the visual elements. Pay attention to the length of the poem, number of stanzas and length of the lines. A sonnet, like other formal poems, has regular line lengths and a certain number of lines. Free verse has much more liberty in form. In concrete poetry, words are laid out in a form of a picture to reflect an author’s subject matter.

Analyze the structure of the poem. There are two main types: thematic and formal. Thematic structure, or a plot, is the way the events are developed in the poem. In includes conflicts, uncertainties and ambiguities, because they indicate the direction of meanings in the verse. Formal structure is the way the components of the poem are related to each other (stanzas, songs, couplets etc.).

Basic Literary Devices Used in a Poem

Describe the literary devices you find in the poem. They are used to create a stronger impact on the readers. The most widespread are:

  • Metaphor: an implicit analogy between two subject matters.
  • Simile: a comparison between two subjects using the words “like” or “as”.
  • Oxymoron: rhetorical antithesis, combining of two contradictory terms.
  • Allegory: a form of extended metaphor, in which objects, persons or actions are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself.
  • Hyperbole: an extreme exaggeration used for emphasis.
  • Litotes: ironical understatement in which a positive is expressed by the negative of its contrary.
  • Symbol: an object or subject that represents an idea, a physical entity or a process by resemblance, association or convention.
  • Personification: act of giving inanimate objects or abstract concepts human characteristics.
  • Onomatopoeia: usage of words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to.
  • Allusion: a reference to a well-known historical or literary figure or event.

Think about what the poem can mean beyond its literal meaning. Write about your overall impression after reading the poem and note how it affected you. Don’t be afraid to express your ideas, because in your interpretation you are supposed to reveal your feelings about the verse.