Analysing poems, a how-to.

For some, literature stops being fun when you have to start reading between the lines, and the teacher starts wanting you to know what a person, who on top of being on the other side of the globe, has been dead for hundreds of years, was thinking when he or she wrote certain books or plays. Most of our first brushes with literature may be the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, where we are encouraged to not just read but analyse, as we are told that there is always a deeper meaning behind a certain line, and not everything is as it seems.

During my first brush with analysing literature, this spoke to my soul.

Don’t lie! This made you nod and giggle at the very least. (source)

Step 1: Knock, knock. Who’s there?

Jumping blindly into a text without any prior knowledge is a guarantee to make your task harder, as writers or poets do not create their works “just because”, as there is always a history behind it. Therefore, knowing the inspiration for it will open up avenues for a solid analysis. For example, the poem, “This is my play’s last scene” by John Donne at first glance is about a person on his deathbed who has accepted death. That is if without taking into account the background of the poet. 

John Donne was a religious figure who held several religious offices throughout his life and was known to be a eloquent preacher with a number of his sermons surviving till this day. With this additional information, a plethora of new interpretations which we can take is opened up. For example, the poem can be said to be of the poet’s hope to reach heaven, and also, a reflection of the poet’s religious nature as there are also references to Bible quotes in the line “Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil.”. As you can see, with just knowing the background of the poet, you can break through writer’s block if you are in the midst of writing or provide a foothold if you’re struggling on starting it, along with being able to provide a more detailed analysis in comparison to just jumping into it. 

Most likely your notebook at the end of Step 2. (source)

Step 2: Choose your weapons!

Writing on your poet’s background while tying it back to the poem is a good start, but, you can not depend on just this to be able to write a well thought out piece. You need to know your literary devices, which are techniques writers and poets use to express their thoughts along with adding flair to their work. There is always at least a few you can find in the poem of your choosing and a tip is to have a list of them with you when reading through a poem and to write down the ones you find to help in your analysis. After listing down all the devices you can find, the next thing to do is to think of why the poet used them. Returning to Donne’s poem, the first two lines has caesuras, which is a rhythmic pause in the line, which happens often in the middle, as you can see the two lines being separated by a semi colon. Now, a reason for this could be that the poet wants the reader to slow down and consider the weight of this poem’s topic, or to add dramatic effect, or it just could be that the poet was in a contemplative state while penning it and is showing it through this. 

As you can see, there can be multiple interpretations as to why a literary device is used and also, you can take into account the location that it is in. Revisiting the example used above, we can say that the poet placed it in the beginning of the poem to have the reader slow down while reading it, or that they are setting the pace for how fast the poem should be read. This can add more substance to your analysis and may perk your interest up as it is the small things that are often overlooked, such as punctuation along with their placement, that can bring a moment when you just say “Oh, I have never thought of that!” and possibly the reader of your analysis too, therefore hooking them to read your essay further. 

Identifying things is like a crossword puzzle, hard at first but easy once you get a hang of it. (source)

Step 3: Identify the type of poem

Poems come in all shapes and sizes, and fall into different types of categories. There is no one-size-fits-all category for poems as there are an immense number of them, including sub-categories that poems can fall into. An example are sonnets, and under sonnets there are Shakespearean, Petrarchan and Spenserian. There are also other types such as sonnets, odes, limericks, haiku, Villanelles, sestinas, etc. There are other types of poems and each of them come with their own requirements on what fits them into their respective categories. You don’t have to worry about memorising all of them as they can be found online through a quick search, where you can try to see if your poem fits the criteria. Also, simply putting your poem through Google is a fast way to find out what type of poem it is. 

With the type of poem known, one can draw meaning from it. For example, if a poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, it can be said that the love of the poet for the topic of is so strong that he/she chose to write about it in the form of a sonnet.


Step 4: Show me the evidence!

Lastly, you have all your points ready to write an analytical essay on a particular poem, but wait, do you have sufficient evidence to back them up? It is advisable to have at least two pieces of evidence to prove a point, which can be found in the poem, or just one will do if it is strong enough. Furthermore, don’t just write what you can derive from the poem; try to find some journals on it and have a look on what others have said. Read their ideas and try to develop your own from it. But do not copy it, as it is plagiarism, and that is the last thing you would want to be accused of after doing all the hard work of writing an essay. 

Step 5: The journey of a thousand miles…

… Begins with a single step! So whip out your notebooks or laptops and begin taking a step towards it. Do keep in mind that you will read analytical essays that will bring up thoughts along the lines of “Why is this better than mine?”, “Why haven’t I thought of doing this?” that can all lead to “Maybe this is not for me”, most likely accompanied by a sense of resignation. Let me assure you that every writer, be it in the field of creative fiction, non-fiction, analytical essays, plays or poems go through this stage. Therefore, hunker down and ride out the storm. With practice comes improvement. Then there will come a day where you look back and marvel at how far you have come. 

Written by Yap Hor Yee