Inside Poetry: Getting At The Poem’s Basic Meaning & Technique

Ask yourself the following questions that apply to your focus question. Make notes as you go, and you will find it easier to organize your thoughts for the first draft.

  • The poem’s basic content
    1. What is the context of the poem? Identify the speaker(s) and any background information that would help explain the poem’s basic message.
    2. How are the thoughts organized?
    3. Does the poet contrast any ideas? Does he/she juxtapose any for effect?
    4. What feelings does the speaker reveal? How are the feelings communicated?
    5. What meaning does the poem have on the literal level?
  • The poem’s figurative level
    1. Does the poet use any emotionally charged words? What effect do they have?
    2. What images stand out? How do the images help to convey the poem’s main idea?
    3. Are any of the images used as symbols? What do they represent?
    4. Are any of the actions described in the poem intended to be viewed as symbolic? What do they represent?
    5. Is the poem limited to a specific situation, or does it comment on life in general? What comment does it make?
    6. What is the significance of the poem’s thoughts or theme?
  • The poem’s main purpose
    1. Is the poem mostly concerned with communicating thoughts?
    2. Does the poem tell a story or present a dramatic situation? Does it amuse or entertain? Does it succeed?
    3. Is the poem an explanation or exploration of feelings?
    4. Does it aim at persuading the reader to believe something? What?
    5. Does the poem attempt to shock the reader into a realization? Is it effective?
    6. Is the poem commenting on a problem in our society? What is it saying?
  • The poem’s tone
    1. What feelings is the speaker expressing?
    2. What words or images convey those feelings best? Why?
    3. Are there any sounds in the poem that help to communicate the speaker’s attitude? Which? How do they help?
    4. Does the poem’s rhythm relate to the feelings being expressed? How? What is the effect?
    5. Have the details of the poem been especially selected to convey the speaker’s attitude? How have they been limited? Is it effective?
  • The poem’s use of words, sounds and rhythm
    1. Which words are repeated? Why?
    2. Have any words been isolated or given special emphasis? What effect was the poet trying to achieve?
    3. What use does the poet make of imagery? What patterns link the images together?
    4. Does the author give any special emphasis to any single image? Which one? Why?
    5. Are there symbols in the poem? Where? What do they mean?
    6. How do the images and symbols help to establish the poem’s meaning?
    7. What use does the poet make of sounds? How do the sounds in the poem add to its meaning?
    8. How would you describe the poem’s rhythm? Does the rhythm slow down, speed up, or change at any point? Why?
  • The poem’s structure
    1. What type of poem is this? Why did the poet choose this type?
    2. What pattern of rhyme did the poet use? How does the pattern of rhymes add to the impact of the poem?
    3. Are the lines of the poem arranged in a special pattern? What purpose did the poet have in choosing that pattern?
    4. Does the poem have a consistent meter? What type of meter? How many feet are in each line?
    5. What rhyme scheme, if any, did the poet use?

This exercise will enable you to organize your thoughts and gather some preliminary notes on your subject.