Poetry Overview

For many senior English students, one of their biggest challenges is to overcome their fear of poetry. Yes! Admit it! Some of you are terrified by a little, harmless couplet... or a menacing line of iambic pentameter. Yikes! Nevertheless, whether you like it or not, you must deal with poetry because it is a major part of the English 12 exam. [How's that for motivation?]

The first thing you should know is that there are established methods for reading poetry. You can also analyze poetry in many different ways; please download and print the following .pdf file for an overview of all of the major poetic concepts that can be used:

Poetry  Word Doc Poetry Concepts Overview

Below are the major categories of poetic analysis:

1. Theme: The first goal of any poetry analysis is to identify the poem's theme or themes. A theme is usually a recurring social or psychological issue, like aging, violence or alienation. The poet sometimes makes a direct statement (a moral) about this issue, but can leave the conclusion open to the reader. This open-ended approach makes some readers uncomfortable; they like the answer to be clear, tidy and geometric. However, good poetry tries to reflect the rather untidy realities of human existence. This is a great strength of poetry!

2. Emotional Impact: A second way to examine a poem is to explore its emotional impact on the reader. How does it make you feel? How is the poet expressing his or her feelings? We often look for emotive elements like tone and descriptive imagery in order to discuss this aspect of poetry.

3. Structure and Form: Another way to examine a poem is to analyze its structure and form. Certain forms of poetry tend to be very popular, like the sonnet, ode, ballad and elegy. They often have specific structural characteristics, like the type of stanza and number of lines, and/or a certain style. [They may also have a recurring pattern of rhyme and/or meter.] Click here for more detail about structure and form.

4a. Rhyme and Meter: A fourth approach for examining a poem (though sometimes combined with #4b below) is to explore any consistent rhyme schemes and rhythms. However, not all poems will have these elements!

4b. Sound: Many poets also like to play with the sound of letters and words. Often their poems will be full of "sound devices" like alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia. Click here for more detail.

5. Meaning: Most poets love to "play" with meaning. Poetic language is often called "metaphorical" or "figurative" language because meaning is intentionally made indirect and plural. Examples of figurative language include metaphor, simile, metonymy, symbol, verbal irony and personification. Click here for more detail.

Remember: A lot of poems may only exhibit one or two of the features above. A common mistake for poetry students is to believe they have to apply every thing they've learned about poetry to every poem they read.This is not the case, because poets - especially modern poets - rarely "pack" their poems with every poetic device or feature. Sometimes there is no patterned structure or obvious figurative language. Modern poetry doesn't always exhibit rhyme or meter, and sometimes theme is ignored in favour of imagery.

I hope this provides a bit of context to your study of poetry. If you are unclear about any of the terms I've used, go to the English Links page and explore some of the excellent websites on literary terms and devices.

For more details, please visit my Elements of Poetry page.