Analysing Poetry


The following guide assumes that you are going to write your commentary aspect by aspect, theme by theme or idea by idea. However, you can write an equally good commentary chunk by chunk or stanza by stanza.


Remember, there is no such thing as a Magic Formula for commentary writing!

The following ideas should be a stimulus for your own critical thinking. Try to balance sharp-edged critical analysis with your own personal impression. Try to avoid simply stating the obvious but remember that the obvious needs to be stated as well as the complex. Finally, bear in mind that a sense of question, challenging, of puzzling through ambiguities and considering alternate interpretations is what most effectively distinguishes a good commentary from a mediocre one.


Before you Start

Is there any historical background on the poet or time (if you happen to know it) which is relevant. However, be aware of shaky historical generalizations. Not all people in 1946 were haunted by the aftermath of war.


Is the poem primarily a statement of an idea or principle; a description of a scene, place or person; an illustration of a point; an attempt to teach; an attempt to evoke an emotion; a moral argument or something else? Consider:



What you can say about a title will vary enormously, but consider how much the poem depends up on the title. Does the title compliment or undercut the message of the poem? Does it clarify the message, raise questions, establish a mood or raise expectations?



Can you hear a voice in the poem. Be careful about assuming that any voice you can hear is automatically the poets. It is better to refer to this voice as the speaker or persona.



Mood is dependent on tone, but not necessarily the same. The tone, for example, can be ironic but the mood somber: mood really refers to the emotional atmosphere of the whole poem rather than the quality of the voice.



Consider the structure of the poem. You should look at two key things:

Always look at first and last lines. Also think about enjambment, end-stopping and rhyme

Does the structure  reinforce / contrast with the message of the poem



In addition to the obvious connotations of words you could also consider whether the diction consists of monosyllabic grunts, Latinate ostentation, colloquial laxness or slangy arrogance. Additionally, the strength or weakness of verbs is always a fruitful ground for analysis



Is the poem written in sentences? Are they grammatical? Does this reinforce or contrast with the message of the poem? Are sentences simple or complex? Are the stuttering or fluid?



Remain aware that words are not chosen simply for their meaning but also their sound. Consider:





Be careful not to over interpret. All poets are not really trying to say something else instead of what they actually do say. However, if elements of a poem do suggest further implications or bigger ideas then these are symbols. Consider what kind of symbols are being used – archetypal, concrete or abstract?



How much does the poem reinforce or challenge accepted assumptions about pretty ladies, lonely wanderers, macho men, Wall Street, etc


What’s Missing?

Remember to pay attention to what’s missing. Has the poet intentionally left anything out in order to create an effect. One obvious thing to look for is the absence of a rhyme scheme which is often something that poets purposefully leave out in order to achieve a given effect.