Jan 3, 2013
Analyzing poetry - key terms
Before you analyze a poem, you must experience it. Poetry, said the British romantic poet William Wordsworth, is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility. It is about emotional effects, imaginative expression, the passion, and the creative energy pulsing through words. You should read a poem aloud, read it in silence, then read it aloud again, playing with its sound, exploring different ways to express the words on the page.
Only after you have let the poem speak through you should you sit down to study it. Poems often do not express meaning in a literal fashion; they tend to be allusive, suggestive, associative, impressionistic, and sometimes symbolic. When it comes time to analyze a poem, the following terms should help you make more sense, find more meaning, and discover the powerful, evocative connection between a poem’s form and its content.
Word Choice (aka. Diction) – Start with the words themselves. Part of what gives poetry its unique power is its preoccupation with word choice. Every word counts in a poem. Poets make precise word choices to convey accurate images. "The right word" (in French the term is “le mot juste”) can make an average poem great. Effective word choice can add literary ambiguity to a poem; it can "open out" multiple layers of meaning. When you read poems, pay close attention to the actual words used in the poem. Ask yourself, why did the poet choose these words and not others?
Syntax - Syntax means the word order. How do the poem’s words run sequentially? Is the syntax direct and streamlined, jagged, gnarled, knotty, tortured, plodding, finely woven, intricate, halting? And how does the poem use punctuation? Does it violate normal grammatical rules? Why? Is there a lot of punctuation, a little? How does the punctuation affect the sense and sound of the poem when read?
Imagery – Poets, through their word choices, appeal to your senses – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. They do this through concrete, descriptive language – word choices that a1re vivid, imagistic, and sensual. Descriptive language can be combined with more abstract language in poems to achieve interesting affects. What kinds of images does the poet use in the poem? Are there observable patterns of imagery? How is the poet making use of those patterns? When you can “see” what the poet is talking about quite vividly, this is a sure sign that the poet is making use of good imagery.
Tone – The attitude, mood or feelings expressed by the poem. How does the poem’s voice modulate to express particular moods and feelings? Ask yourself, what adjectives would I use to describe the tone, and what other formal aspects of the poem contribute to creating this tone?
Theme – What the poem says or suggests about its subject matter. Look for motifs, ideas, and deep thoughts.
Speaker (aka. persona) – The voice speaking in the poem. The speaker is to a poem as a narrator is to a story. Often in poetry, the speaker is the poet herself, but it doesn't have to be that way. Poems can have characters in them, just like stories. When analyzing personas in poems, approach them as characters with personality. See if you can figure out who this character is, what he or she is feeling, where he's from, where he's going.
Situation – Generally, the imaginary position established by the poem. At the literal level, what is happening in the poem? Who is the speaker? Who is she speaking to? What forces are driving the forward motion of the poem? It is important to establish these matters in your first readings of the poem, because knowing the situation is a prerequisite to deeper levels of interpretation.
Setting – As in fiction, the setting is the time and place of the poem, the where and when of the poem’s action. Sometimes the setting is a dominant force in the poem, i.e. a poem may be primarily about a place or time, and its themes are closely allied with the setting.
Metaphor and Simile – Figurative language that makes a comparison between two unlike objects, suggesting a hidden connection between them. Metaphors are implicit comparisons, similes explicit (using "like" or "as"). All figurative language tends to work by describing one thing in terms of another. Metaphors help us visualize abstract ideas, make new and interesting connections, and convey feelings with freshness and insight.
Metonymy – a figure of speech where in a word or image “represents,” “substitutes,” or “stands for” something to which it is closely related (e.g. “We pay tribute to the crown.”). One type of metonymy is called “synecdoche,” in which the figure is that of a part representing the whole (e.g. “all hands on deck”) or whole for part.
Symbol – Something (an image, a word) that stands for or represents something besides its literal meaning. A symbol does not have to look like the thing it represents. Symbolic language transcends the denotative meanings of words, jumping to a new level of meaning. Usually, readers must interpret these symbols for themselves, and performing a symbolic reading will rely on your understanding of the poem's situation.
Sound effects – Poetry often uses the sounds of words to convey theme and tone with more precision and impact. The sound of poetry makes a direct appeal to your senses. By reading poems aloud, you will become more aware of these sensual effects. For instance, we can speak of a poem’s timbre (or tone color), which would describe its distinctive vocal qualities, along with its pitch (high, low, midrange) and intensity (muted, high intensity, emotive, rapturous, bloated, etc.) Rhyme is a common sonic effect. Where words with similar endings are placed, often at the ends of lines, to create sonic and semantic echo effects. A rhyme scheme exists when those rhymes follow a set pattern. A pararhyme is sometimes called off-rhyme or near-rhyme, where the words almost rhyme exactly, but not quite. Readers and listeners take pleasure in effective rhyme schemes, it is a way of expressing different ideas and keeping them sonically unified at the same time. Assonance (words sharing common vowel sounds) is another. Alliteration (words sharing common consonants) is another. A poem’s texture is its “feel” or how the poem weaves its sounds into perceptible patterns, e.g. sharp consonants, softer/sibilant sounds, alliteration, and assonance, etc.
Rhythm and meter - Rhythms can be jerky, jumpy, smooth and languid, "singsongy", meandering, dramatic, steady, jarring, and so forth. We might also speak of a poem’s pace (fast, slow, lumbering, galloping). Many poems make use of enjambement, which is a running together of sound and sense from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. If the end of the line doesn’t cue you to pause as you’re reading it by means of a punctuation mark, see if the poem reads more fluidly and sensibly by running it right it into the next line. Using enjambement, poets can build variety into otherwise regimented meters. When we speak of a poem’s meter, we are looking at its regular patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. These patterns combine into units called metrical feet, e.g. iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls, spondees, etc. The difference between rhythm and meter is that rhythm is less formalized and more irregular, swaying and flowing the music of the lines and the sweep of the poem. Meter is a more regular pattern of syllables. A poet can create interesting effects by playing new rhythms within the more strict metrical patterns.
Words and music – Some poetry is written to be sung along with music. Such poems strictly follow a set meter (rhythm). While song lyrics can stand on their own as poetry, they are best read in context, while listening along with the music, so describing and relating musical effects to poetic effects is appropriate.
Poetic Structure – the formal construction of a poem. How is it set up to express its subject matter and theme? What rhetorical patterns does it follow? It is useful to trace a poem's "argument" through the course of the poem. Is the poem set up as a narrative (story)? Does it present more of a dramatic situation like a play? Or is the presentation more thematic – as in a theme and variations, an argument and proof, an itemized list or catalog of ideas/descriptions? Your cues to discerning structure are the stanza form of the poem, its use of rhyme, meter, and syntax. Some poems follow established forms like the sonnet, ballad, blank verse, and sestina, which often have complementary rhetorical structures. Begin by summarizing the poem’s “train of thought” and marking off points in the poem where you see a change in tone, attitude, perspective, time/place, shifts in argument, etc.
Stanza form – traditional patterns of lines, meter, and rhyme schemes used by poets to achieve special effects. When studying stanza form, analyze how many lines are used per stanza. Is there a rhyme scheme being employed? Scan the meter (the rhythmic pulse of stressed and unstressed syllables). See if you can identify a traditional stanza form being used such as the haiku, sonnet, terza rima, villanelle, sestina, blank verse, alexandrines, traditional ballad stanza, 12 bar blues, etc. Does the writer follow all the traditional rules within that form? Does he break the rules? Why? How does the poem's form help to determine its rhetorical structure, tone, theme, and musicality?
Open form (free verse): free verse does not follow rigid rules for meter and rhyme. The form is open. This does not mean that you can’t analyze a free verse for rhythmic patterns, sound effects, and other patterns. They will be there; it is just that a free verse poem doesn’t follow a fixed format: it makes up its rules for the occasion of that poem.
Irony – a contradiction or disparity between the appearance or expectation and reality. Irony can exist in many forms: as verbal irony (a contradiction between what someone says and means, what someone says and does, what appears to be true and is actually true); dramatic irony (the gap between what a character knows and the audience/reader knows), situational irony (discrepancies within situations and events themselves), and structural irony (wherein an aspect of the work's structure creates discrepancies that operate throughout the work, e.g. an unreliable narrator).