(Questions to ponder when analyzing poems)
What does the title denote/connote?
What is the title’s relation to the poem?
Does it have semantic possibilities (different meanings)?
Are there any allusions in the title?
Is there an epigraph (an introductory few lines set off from the beginning)?
How does it relate to the poem as a whole?
What other work of literature does the epigraph refer to, paraphrase, or quote from?
3. Atmosphere, Tone and Voice
What is the general atmosphere or mood of the poem?
What is the feeling the speaker has about what he/she is talking about (tone)?
How does the speaker in the poem present himself/herself (voice)?
To what extent is implied meaning detached from or close to what the speaker means to say
(i.e., is there irony)?
Be sure you don’t assume the persona in the poem, the voice, is the same as the real author,
although sometimes knowing the real author’s personal history will help you unravel one
level of meaning in the poem.
Is the poem didactic? What lesson does it teach?
Is there a more or less definite location for the events of the poem?
If so, what is it, and how does this help express or develop the theme?
Is there a specific time or occasion for the poem, and how is it important?
Does the poem deal with the past, present, future or a combination?
What is the importance of history/the past in the poem?
How would you describe the word choice or vocabulary (diction)?
Is it formal or colloquial (informal, slang) or a combination?
What kinds of imagery do you find?
What figures or literary devices are employed (e.g., metaphor, simile, irony, paradox,
symbols, metonymy, synecdoche, personification, pun, etc.)?
Are any of these figures (e.g., irony, symbolism) sustained throughout the poem?
Is there rhyme in the poem?
Are there any other devices of sound in the poem (alliteration, consonance, assonance,
euphony, cacophony, etc.)?
Is there a rhyme scheme (arrangement or pattern of rhyming words)?
Why has the author chosen to use the rhyme/devices of sound and how do they relate to the
content of the poem?
Some kinds of rhyme:
beginning rhyme - rhyme at the beginning of two successive lines
crossed rhyme - words in the middle of two successive lines rhyme
end rhyme - rhyme at the end of two successive lines
eye rhyme - rhyming words which give the eye the impression of rhyme, but
are not pronounced identically (e.g., forth, worth)
feminine rhyme - two or more syllables rhyme (e.g., rhyming, chiming)
identical rhyme - repetition of the same word
internal rhyme - rhyming words within one line of poetry
light rhyme - when one of a pair of rhyming syllables is unstressed (e.g., knee,
masculine rhyme - single syllables rhymed (e.g., appear, year)
monorhyme - all rhymes in the poem have the same sound
near rhyme - rhyming words which have a similar but not exactly identical ending sound (e.g.,
reverse rhyme - in rhyming words, the first consonant and vowel are the same, but
the final consonant is changed (e.g., yum, yuck)
single rhyme - single syllable masculine rhyme (e.g., stuff, rough)
true rhyme - rhyming words with identical ending sounds (e.g., steer, fear);
most rhyme is true rhyme
Some rhyme schemes:
couplet - aa bb cc
closed couplet - two rhyming lines in which the sense/sentence is complete
heroic couplet - rhyming pair of iambic pentameter lines
open couplet - two rhyming lines in which the sense/sentence is carried on past
the second line to the one(s) following it
triplet - aaa bbb ccc
tercet - three lines with linked rhyme between stanzas (e.g., aba bcb cdc
ded etc.; this type of tercet is called terza rima)
quatrain - four lines (quatrain with alternating rhyme scheme = abab;
quatrain with enclosing rhyme scheme = abba)
quintain - five lines
quintet - ababb
sexain - six lines
septet - seven lines
rhyme royal - ababbcc
octet - eight lines
ottava rima - abababcc
Spenserian stanza - ababbcbcc
dizain - ababbccdcd
quatorzain - 14 lines
blank verse - unrhymed iambic pentameter
free verse - no fixed rhythm or rhyme scheme
7. Allusions and Genre
Does the poem contain allusions to other works of art, and if so, what are they and how do
they relate to the poem?
Is the poem overtly intertextual?
Is the poem an example of lyric (short poem), epic (long poem, usually follow a journey of a
hero) or dramatic (essentially a play with dialogue between characters) poetry (which are the
three main broad categories of poetry)?
Is the poem an example of a particular genre of poetry?
Does this genre of poem have a particular form (see #9)?
Some examples of poetic genres:
ballad - song/poem that tells a story
carpe diem poem - a poem which encourages “seizing the day”
dramatic poem - a poem which has characteristics of a play—in that characters
each appear to have speaking parts—but which is not meant to be
performed on a stage
elegy - a poem of mourning, usually about the death of an individual or a
lament for some tragic event.
love poem - poem concerned with love
ode - a poem written for a particular occasion; sometimes this is a
public occasion, like a King’s birthday, and other times it is written
for a private occasion, and is more meditative in tone
pastoral poem - poetry concerned with the lives of shepherds
There are many other poetic genres—too many to name here—as well as poetic genres associated with
certain literary movements (e.g., imagism, symbolism, metaphysical poetry, etc.) and genres associated with
certain poetic forms (see #9 below).
8. Rhythm and Meter
Are traditional metrical patterns used?
Does the poem contain caesuras, which are mid-line pauses?
Does the poem contain end-stopped lines, lines which end with some form of punctuation, or
run-on lines (enjambment), lines with no punctuation at the end?
Or is the poem free verse, with no fixed rhyme scheme or meter?
Or is there a non-traditional rhythm produced by some other means (by typography or how
the poem is typed on the page, use of white space on the page, close repetition of similar
sentence structure, etc.)?
What connections can you make between rhythm in the poem and content (connections
between the rhythm of the poem and what it’s about)?
The basic rhythmic unit, a group of syllables containing at least one stressed syllable, is called a foot. All
words in English contain at least one stressed syllable. Traditional meter makes use of the natural stresses in
words and poets place the words in lines of poetry in such a way as to make a pattern out of the natural
stresses in words. To scan a line of poetry with a traditional metrical pattern (scansion is the act of finding
the pattern of stressed syllables in traditional poetry and identify the type and number of feet per line), mark
stressed syllables with a ′ and unstressed syllables with a ˇ. Traditional rhythm in poetry written in English is
usually either a duple rhythm (using metrical feet with two syllables) or a triple rhythm (using metrical
feet with three syllables).
Types of traditional poetic feet:
iamb - two syllables; second syllable stressed; ˇ ′ ; the words unite
and defeat are iambs; called iambic meter; this is the most
popular meter in poetry written in the English language
trochee - two syllables; first syllable stressed; ′ ˇ; the words formal
and writer are trochees; called trochaic meter
spondee - two syllables; both stressed; ′ ′; the words upkeep and
padlock are spondees; called spondaic meter
anapest - three syllables; the last syllable stressed; ˇ ˇ ′; i.e., the words
picturesque and matinee are anapests; called anapestic meter
dactyl - three syllables; the first syllable stressed; ′ ˇ ˇ; i.e., the words
massacre and durable are dactyls; called dactylic meter
A poet writes a line of traditional poetry fitting words on the line in such a way that the natural stresses in
words form a pattern. The line of poetry will use one particular kind of foot and have a specified number of
these feet in a line. Iambic pentameter is thus a poetry which contains five iambs per line:
ˇ ′ ˇ ′ ˇ ′ ˇ ′ ˇ ′
“True wit is Nature to advantage dressed”
(Alexander Popes Essay on Criticism)
Terms for meter (the number of feet per line):
monometer - one foot per line
dimeter - two feet per line
trimeter - three feet per line
tetrameter - four feet per line
pentameter - five feet per line
hexameter - six feet per line
heptameter - seven feet per line
octameter - eight feet per line
nonameter - nine feet per line
decameter - ten feet per line
Regular and irregular lines:
In traditional poetry, when there are deviations from regular or perfect lines, the poet has done this to vary
the rhythm and to produce a particular poetic effect (e.g., if a poem is talking about someone having too
much to say, for instance, the poet might purposely make the line too long). Lines which are perfect (contain
the number of syllables and stresses in the established pattern) are generally called regular lines; lines which
deviate from an established pattern of syllables and stresses are generally referred to as irregular lines.
Poets may base their poetry on one type of foot but vary the number of syllables and stresses in each
successive line (in other words, the whole poem may be irregular but tend toward use of a particular type of
foot/feet). Poets also employ poetic license to alter words so that they fit a line: contraction or elision, for
instance, is the leaving out or slurring of a syllable in order to make a regular metrical line (“‘twere” instead
of “it were”). A line ending with a stressed syllable has a masculine ending. A line ending with an
unstressed syllable has a feminine ending.
9. Structure and Form
Does the poem have any obvious structural divisions?
If no divisions are apparent, upon closer examination, does the poem fall naturally into parts?
Are the lines arranged in sections or stanzas (a strophic poem)?
Or are there no stanzas, just lines in one large block (a stichic poem)?
If strophic, is the stanza pattern repeated, or does the form vary?
Does the poem have a whole stanza which is repeated several times (a refrain)?
Does the poem have the shape of an identifiable object? How does it look on the page?
Consider the reasons for where lines begin and end and how white space on the page is used
if the poem is written in free verse.
Do the initial letters of each line make a word or words when read downwards (an acrostic
Is the poem an example of some kind of traditional form (e.g., sonnet, sestina, villanelle)?
What is the connection between the form used and the content of the poem?
Some forms of poetry:
concrete poetry - a poetry which presents each poem in a different shape. It may
thus use typography to produce visual poetry, as pattern poetry
does, but it may also present poetry which is on a page, glass,
wood, stone, steel and other materials.
haiku - a Japanese form consisting of seventeen syllables in three lines of
five, seven and five syllables respectively, expressing a single
image, idea or feeling.
pattern poetry - the lines of this kind of poem are arranged to represent a physical
object and suggest shape and even motion or mood.
prose poem - a poem which is written in prose instead of poetry. This kind of
poetry straddles the line between poetry and fiction. Elizabeth
Smart’s “By the Rivers of Babylon I Sat Down and Wept” is a
sestina - six stanzas of six lines apiece with an envoi of three lines. The
rhyming scheme requires that the same six end words occur in
each stanza but in a different order according to a fixed pattern.
“Sestina” by Elizabeth Bishop is a good example.
sonnet - a 14 line poem, composed of an octave (the first eight lines) and
sestet (the final six lines). Within the poem, usually at the end of the octave or the
beginning of the sestet, there is a volta (a turn or change in thought). There are
different types of sonnets, each with their own typical rhyme scheme: the major types
are Petrarchan (abbaabba and cdecde or cdcdcd), Spenserian (ababbcbccdcdee) and
Shakespearian (ababcdcdefefgg). This is a very popular form and Shakespeare wrote
villanelle - five three-lined stanzas or tercets and a final quatrain. The first
and third lines of the first tercet recur alternately in the succeeding
stanzas as a refrain and form a final couplet. Dylan Thomas’ “Do
Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” is a famous example of a
There are many other poetic forms—too many to name here. Particular poetic forms are sometimes
associated with particular movements in literature/poetry.
10. Interpretation, Analysis and Theme
What are the meanings of the poem?
What themes does the poem suggest?
Does the poem teach a lesson, have particular social or political agenda or any other kind of
How are all of the elements in #1 through #9 above connected to one another (i.e., how do
they all support the content and thereby produce meaning)? Try to work out a consistent
interpretation of the poem, one that accounts for as many of #1 through #9 as possible.
Remember that poetry isn’t mathematical in the sense that there’s not necessarily one “right”
answer. Every individual’s reading of a poem inevitably will be just that: individual. Your
teacher will be receptive to various interpretations of any given poem as long as these
interpretations reflect insight and originality and are supported with appropriate evidence
from the poem.