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Unlocking Poetry

Apr 9, 2018

If your student complains about studying poetry, rest assured that you are not alone! Of the various elements of literature that I teach, the one that undoubtedly is met with the most skepticism is poetry. I am never surprised, but I am always a little sad to see that many students generally do not like studying poetry. In my years of teaching, what I have noticed is that this hesitancy actually comes from a lack of understanding poetry and how to analyze it properly.

If you have (or if you are) a reluctant poetry reader, consider these 5 steps to unlocking poetry:

  1. The first step is to let go of intimidation.

One common concern that I hear is that students are “afraid of getting the wrong answer.”  While there are some poems that have documented evidence for their intended interpretation (and while there are some instructors and professors who want a student’s interpretation to fall directly in line with their own), part of the beauty of poetry is that it meets readers where we are; it invites our prior knowledge and our experience to be part of the poem. Therefore, you will likely see that interpretation can vary vastly, and as long as textual evidence can be pulled out, don’t fear arriving at the incorrect meaning!

  1. Annotate!

Because annotation is such a crucial key to understanding any piece of writing, underline, highlight, ask questions, and make notes. Look up words and allusions you are unfamiliar with.

  1. The third step is to consider structure, scansion, sound devices, and literary devices.

A wonderful place to start when you are uncertain of meaning within a poem is structure! Elements of structure (lines, stanza, overall look), scansion (meter and rhythm), sound devices (rhyme, alliteration, assonance, repetition of hard sounds or soft sounds, and so on), and literary devices (mood, metaphor, symbolism, imagery, personification, hyperbole, and so on) provide vital clues into a poem’s meaning. Even before you determine “what is going on” within a poem, identifying any of these elements will hint at the meaning, theme, and intended effect of a poem. Oftentimes, readers gain direction and focus from analyzing the general construction of the poem. If you notice repetition, think about why it is there. If you notice the use of constant hard sounds, think about why it is there; how does it make you feel?

  1. The fourth step is to begin explicating by looking at the words in light of the analysis of structure.

I generally tell students to break the poem into chunks. If the poem is divided into stanzas, this is relatively easy. If not, find a place where the writing seems to shift in some way; maybe it is as simple as reading until the next punctuation mark. Once you’ve broken it into chunks, begin looking at the poem piece by piece. Remember that in a poem, absolutely everything is intentional because the space of expression is shorter than in prose, so if it is there, it warrants consideration. Look at the words individually and collectively. Think about connotation (implied meaning of words) and denotation (actual meaning of words). Think about the imagery and the way it makes you feel. Moving piece by piece, determine what is literally going on in each section, and then reflect to see if there could be a deeper, figurative meaning. Oftentimes, there is.

Unlocking Poetry

A second component of this is that digging into allusions or social/historical/author context can also aid in your interpretation success.

  1. Lastly, grab a friend.

This one is fairly straightforward. Two brains are better than one, and poetry is always more fun with a friend.

Want a little more direction?

Check out the image below to see my annotation of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

Hear Frost read the poem himself here:

Watch me tour Bennington, VT, where Frost resided and is buried, here:

Watch one of my former students’ visual interpretation of another Frost poem (“House Fear”) here:

About the Author

Jess Woods graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor's degree in English Education and from Arizona State University with a Master's degree in English. She began her career teaching in a public high school; however, since 2013, she has been teaching middle school and high school English courses online.  Jess is a life-long reader and writer.  She comes alive in the company of words and music, and she has a passion for literature that reaches through every part of her being.  She believes wholeheartedly that each person has a relevant voice and perspective, and she eagerly teaches her students to embrace their individual voices by exploring their own thoughts and learning to confidently articulate them.  It is her desire to encourage growth in all students (regardless of their love for English courses…or lack thereof).  She considers it a tremendous success if she can awaken a love of literature and/or composition in her students. Jess currently resides in Alabama with her pastor-husband, Josh and their three kids. They also have a lot of animals and plants.  While reading and writing are clearly on the top of her hobby list, Jess also enjoys all things musical, cooking competition shows, gardening,  hiking, and traveling.

The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and should not be taken to represent the views of Excelsior Classes, LLC or the consortium of teachers.