How to Analyze a Poem: Step-by-Step

Poems can be beautiful and lyrical, with enchanting rhythm and imagery. But, to truly understand it, you need to learn how to analyze a poem.

Whether it's an assignment in an English class or a task you are taking on for your own pleasure, poetry analysis lets you get more out of each poem you read. Examine each element individually while studying line by line lets you break poems down to study their structure, language, and theme.

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Elements to Consider When Studying a Poem

How to analyze a poem?

Each poem puts together literary elements that include rhyme scheme, language tools, and more. Not every poem will have every element. For instance, a haiku does not have a rhyme scheme. Free verse may not use rhyming or a regular meter. Look for each element and determine which elements are present and why.

1. Theme. The theme of a poem involves the central ideas. Often, poetry uses similes, metaphors, and other figurative languages to communicate ideas.

2. Sound and rhythm. Is the poem in iambic pentameter? Does it adhere to a haiku's 5/7/5 structure? Pay attention to all these factors to learn more about what kind of poem you are reading.

3. Rhyme scheme. Some types of poems, like limericks or sonnets, have strict rhyme schemes that the poet adheres to. Others are more freely versed.

4. Language. What sorts of language does the poet use? Do they use alliteration to affect the flow of the words? Do they rely on the personification of places or objects? Do they repeat vowels and diphthongs to create assonance? 

5. Context. Understanding the context of the poem can help you better understand its meaning. The meaning of a poem is strongly affected by who wrote it and the circumstances of their life and times.

If you need help, it pays to understand the type of poem you're critiquing.

9 Steps to Poetry Analysis

How to analyze a poem?
The first time you encounter the poem, simply read it from beginning to end

Going through each of these steps can help you get a better understanding of every poem you read. A better understanding of the meaning of the poem can also give you a better appreciation for the work.

1. Read the Poem Quietly to Yourself

The first time you encounter the poem, simply read it from beginning to end. Start with the title and slowly go through it line by line. Make a note of your first impressions.

2. Read the Poem Out Loud

After you've familiarized yourself with the poem by reading it silently, read it out loud to get a better sense of its rhythmic patterns. Pay attention to the meter, the length of the lines, the rhyme scheme, and the imagery. 

3. Scan the Poem for Meter and Rhythm

Poems are made up of “feet” that include one stressed syllable and at least one unstressed one. You will be able to figure out which is which when you read aloud. By marking how frequently the stressed words occur, you can get an idea of the meter of the poem. For instance, a poem written in iambic pentameter will have five feet, each involving one stressed and one unstressed syllable.

4. Map the Rhyme Scheme

Rhyme schemes are notated by assigning the last word of each line a letter. Each time a line rhymes with a previous one, assign it the letter of that line. So, a limerick will have an AABBA rhyme scheme involving two couplets and a final line that rhymes with the first one.

5. Take in the Poem's Visual Impact

A poem's structure is used to make a visual impact as well as an emotional one. Look at the way a poem looks on the page without looking at the individual words. Different poets use form differently. Robert Frost, for instance, wrote with very regular rhyme scheme, line breaks, and structure. T. S. Eliot varied his spacing and line lengths to get different effects with each poem.

6. Determine the Form of the Poem

Some poetic forms are more formal, others looser. Emily Dickinson, for instance, wrote poems in free verse with a single speaker. Some were the first person, others had an external point of view.

7. Take Note of the Language and Literary Devices Used

Look at the poetic devices used to convey ideas and emotions. Consider the language. Is it formal? Casual? Shakespeare, for instance, used iambic pentameter for his sonnets, as they were gifts for his patron. Robert Burns wrote in a Scots dialect.

If you are reading a translation of a poem, look for other translations. Some translators prioritize preserving the meaning, others prioritize the meter and rhyme structure.

8. Consider the Meaning of the Poem

What ideas are conveyed? Who is the narrator? Are you being told a story? Think about what the poet is trying to tell you as you read. 

9. Paraphrase the Poem

Rewrite the poem in your own words, line by line. If there are metaphors you think you've identified, feel free to write down what you think they mean. By doing this sort of deep analysis, you can be sure you truly understand the poem.

The Final Word About How to Analyze a Poem

When reading poetry, taking time to do some deep analysis can help you ensure you understand what you are reading. Learning the history of a poem and going through it step-by-step can uncover hidden meanings and enhance your appreciation.

Want more advice like this? Learn how to analyze a book.

FAQ About How to Analyze a Poem

What is the easiest way to learn to analyze poetry? 

The easiest way to learn is by doing it. Don't worry if you miss elements when you are new to poetry. As you learn more, you will be able to recognize more in each one you read.

How do you analyze a poem in an essay?

Start with a thesis about the meaning of the poem, then back up your assertions using the analytical tools discussed above.

What is the difference between a poem analysis and a literary analysis of a poem?

Nothing at all. Both are phrases for the same thing.

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  • Lara is a freelance writer currently located in the Florida Keys. She frequently covers health, wellness and how-to topics.

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