Understanding a poem

Essay by ValveousHigh School, 11th gradeA-, June 2004

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Whatever your feelings regarding poetry, there is no substitute for thinking hard and refusing to give in.

Read the title

Use a dictionary to check any unfamiliar words. What does the title suggest to you?

Read the whole poem

Read it all the way through, even if some or all of it doesn't seem to make sense.

Be open to possibilities

Don't decide too quickly that you know what the poem is definitely about, or that you will never understand it.

Read the poem carefully

Read through from the start of the poem to the first full stop. Make a note of what you think is happening. Do the same thing for the rest of the poem.

Read through the whole poem again

Is it starting to make sense? If necessary, use a dictionary for any words you don't understand. Remember that some words have more than one meaning.

Point of view

Who is telling the story of the poem? Has the poet invented a character or characters to tell the story? Is the poem in the first person (I) or the third person (he/she/it)?

Tone of voice

Does the poem seem to suggest a certain mood?

e.g. Sad, Angry, Happy, Scared etc.

Literal or metaphorical?

Look at the concrete nouns used in the poem (words which refer to actual things you can feel, touch, see, hear or smell). Are you meant to imagine that they are actually there, or are they symbols or images which stand for something else?

e.g. 'The doll slept in her cot.'

Is this actually a doll, or is it one way of talking about a baby girl asleep?

The meaning

Does the poem tell a factual story about a real event, or does it try to show how the poet feels about something?...