The Secret to Understanding Poetry

Studying poetry can be like trying to understand a foreign language. The words, concepts and structure are often a minefield. Some of them rhyme, some of them don’t. Some are long, others are short. Some are written in modern English, some aren’t.  They all seem to use various methods like similes and metaphors and enjambment. And it’s all meant to mean something!

So how do we figure out what they mean? I say, follow these five easy steps.

  • Read the title.

The title often gives clues about the content of the poem. Spend some time pondering on the meaning of the title and brainstorm the ideas that come to mind. This will make understanding easier because you already have some ideas to consider when you begin reading.

  • Establish the literal meaning.

When you are first presented with a poem take the words in their most basic sense. Don’t think too deeply, look for hidden messages or complicate things at the point. Just read the words and take them at face value. If you are faced with a poem that uses language that is unfamiliar to you, pick out the words you do know and build an understanding from there. The gaps can be filled later. Understanding the literal, surface level meanings gives you a firm foundation. Having a firm grasp on the simple concepts provides a springboard for deeper analysis.

  • Dig a little deeper.

Read the poem again but start to annotate it this time. Highlight lines or words that confuse you, peak your interest, seem familiar or just feel like they’ll be important to note. Think about who is speaking and how they are speaking because it might be the poet portraying somebody else. Also, google the words you don’t understand. Poems on average are short pieces of writing which means poets have to be mindful and deliberate in their word choice. They might choose uncommon words that express exactly what they are try to say so look up the definitions.

  • Consider the methods.

Now is the time to annotate the methods. Highlight the literary techniques that are used. If there’s a simile think about the purpose behind the comparison. If there’s onomatopoeia consider the sound of the words. What is usually associated with that sound and what tone does it create. Use the clues you get from these methods to analyse and identify deeper meanings. Do the same for the structure. How is the poem presented on the page? Is there a shift of ideas somewhere? Is the same idea revisited in different stanzas? Being attentive to these small choices will deepen your understanding of poem.

  • Do not be stress.

You might not understand the poem in one session and that’s ok. Give yourself time to be diligent with these tips. Practice your skills every time you are faced with a new poem. You’ll be a poetry pro in no time.

-Taiwo Bali