Responding to poetry

Responding to poetry

Analysing poetry can be a daunting prospect. This week, Insight writer and English teacher Melanie Flower gives tips on how to approach poetry for analysis.

Poetry is an unusual literary form, in that it does not rely on narrative, character or setting to convey meaning. While these elements may be present, they are not essential. Instead poets focus intensely on the arrangement of words and sounds, using language to convey an image or provoke an emotion. It can be daunting to analyse a poem, as the meaning can seem obscure or abstract. However, this is the very quality that makes poetry analysis so personal, and therefore so satisfying.

The tips below will help you to develop a carefully considered response to poetry.


1. Focus on the title

Most poems have a carefully chosen title, which can often reveal something about the writer’s purpose. Think carefully about what the title may suggest – does it draw your attention to a particular image or theme? Once you have read the poem, come back to the title. Consider whether the title is literal or abstract. How does it contribute to your interpretation of the poem?


2. Read aloud

Poets rely heavily on rhythm, rhyme and sound to create meaning. You will appreciate these elements more if you read the poem aloud. This will help you to hear the patterns and identify some of the poetic techniques being used. Don’t be afraid to read it several times and experiment with different approaches until you find the inflections and emphases that work for you. Read it to other students and see how they respond to your interpretation of the poem.


3. Annotate

Always read with a pencil or highlighter in hand. When you encounter words or phrases that stand out to you because they are unfamiliar, powerful or intriguing, make note of these. It is also worthwhile to observe which senses and emotions are being targeted. The elements that catch your attention are likely to have an impact on your interpretation of the poem, so be alert. (For a more detailed guide to annotating, see:


4. Look for images, techniques and structural features

Poetry is capable of creating very powerful images in the mind of the reader. As you read, focus on your response as a reader. Think about the visual images that the poet creates, as well as the aural soundscapes. For example, highly descriptive language can help the reader to develop a clear mental picture, whereas some language techniques, such as the use of sibilance, onomatopoeia and rhythm, focus on the aural impact.

Poets use both language and structural features to create meaning. Language features include elements such as metaphor, imagery, connotation, rhythm and rhyme. These are used in conjunction with structural features such as sentence structure, grammar and punctuation, line length and stanza length.

In poetry nothing happens by accident – the condensed form allows the writer to carefully select every word, punctuation mark and line break. It is essential that you recognise the deliberate nature of poetry and consider why the poet has made the decisions they have. This will help you to develop an interpretation of the poem as well as give you an understanding of how the meaning has been created, forming an important part of your analysis.


5. Understand the oeuvre

The word oeuvre comes from the French word for work, and in English it is used to refer to an artist’s body of work. Understanding a poet’s oeuvre can help you to understand their main preoccupations and techniques, and can thus help you to find connections between different poems. A poetry anthology will usually have a unifying style, theme or idea that links the poems together. For example, John Donne is regarded as a metaphysical poet – his intellectualised work includes paradox, literary conceits and complex imagery. Donne’s writing often explores the tension between the secular and spiritual worlds. Peter Skrzynecki, on the other hand, writes extensively about exile, dispossession and the search for identity and belonging. Be aware of the usual thematic preoccupations and stylistic techniques of the poet so that you are alert to these when you are reading their poems.


6. Prepare for a written response

An essay on poetry should address both what is said – the themes and ideas of the poem – and how it is said – the literary techniques used to convey meaning. Even if the essay topic leads you to focus on one aspect, it is essential that you still acknowledge and discuss the other. Your essay should demonstrate an awareness of the form of the text and consider the ways meaning is developed through both structure and language.

Studying poetry can be the most satisfying part of the English course, because it is often the most personal. Every reader brings a different set of values and experiences with them, and this means that every reader will have unique mental images and ideas in response to a poem. The key to success in analysing poetry is attention to detail – the poet has selected every word very carefully, and you need to examine these with the same level of care and scrutiny.


Are you studying poetry by John Donne or Peter Skrzynecki but need a hand getting to grips with the text? Our Insight Text Articles provide a thorough analysis, and examine characters, relationships, structure, style, language, themes and ideas and much more, as well as providing sample essay topics.

Insight Text Articles are produced by Insight Publications, an Australian educational publisher.


Photo credit: TypoArt BS/shutterstock

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