English 110AP/ Wong
QUESTIONS FOR WRITING ABOUT POETRY
The following questions can help you respond to important elements that
reveal a poem’s effects and meanings. The questions are general, so not all of
them will necessarily be relevant to a particular poem. Many, however, should
prove useful for thinking, talking, and writing about poetry.
Before addressing these questions, read the poem you are studying in its
entirety. Don’t worry about interpretation on a first reading; allow yourself the
pleasure of enjoying whatever makes itself apparent to you. Next try to
paraphrase the poem to determine whether you understand what happens in it.
Try to get a sense of who is speaking and what the setting or situation is. Then
on subsequent readings, use the questions to understand and appreciate how
the poem works. Use these questions as a means to explore the meaning(s) of
1) Who is the speaker? What does the poem reveal about the speaker’s
character (i.e., age, sex, sensibilities, values, etc.)? How do you know?
2) Is the speaker addressing anyone in particular? If so, who, and why is the
speaker interested in him/her? How do you know?
3) How do you respond to the speaker? Favorably? Negatively? Are there any
special circumstances that inform what the speaker says?
4) Is there a specific time or place? How do you know? If past events are being
recalled, what present meaning do they have for the speaker?
5) What does the title emphasize or suggest?
6) What are the themes or issues addressed in the poem? Are they presented
directly or indirectly?
7) How does the figurative language contribute to the poem’s vividness and
meaning? More specifically, do any objects, persons, places, events, or
actions have allegorical or symbolic meanings? (Allegory—“A narration or
description usually restricted to a single meaning because of its specific
events, actions, characters, settings, and objects represent specific
abstractions or ideas.” Symbol—“ A person, object, image, word, or event that
evokes a range of additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than
its literal significance.”) If so, which, and what might they mean?
8) Do any allusions enrich the poem’s meaning? (“A brief reference to a person,
place, thing, event, or idea in history or literature. Allusions conjure up biblical
adapted from Michael Meyer’s Thinking and Writing about Literature
authority, scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, historic figures, wars, great love
stories, and anything else that might enrich an author’s work. Allusions imply
reading and cultural experiences shared by the writer and reader, functioning
as a kind of shorthand whereby the recalling of something outside the work
supplies an emotional or intellectual context…” If so, which, and what function
do they serve?
9) How does the diction reveal meaning? For instance, are any words repeated?
Do any carry evocative connotative meanings? Are there any puns or other
forms of verbal wit? Which and what do they suggest?
10) What is the tone of the poem? Is the tone consistent?
11) Is irony used? (“Irony is a literary device that uses contradictory statements
or situations or reality that is different from what appears to be true. For
example, it is ironic for a firehouse to burn down, or for a police station to be
burglarized.”) If so, what function do they serve?
12) What sounds are repeated? Is there a rhyme scheme? If there are rhymes,
what are their effects? Do they seem forced or natural? Do the rhymes
contribute to the poem’s meaning?
13) Does the poem’s form—its overall structure—follow an established pattern?
Do you think the form is a suitable vehicle for the poem’s meaning and
14) Did you enjoy the poem? What, specifically, pleased or displeased you about
what was expressed and how it was expressed?
15) How might biographical information about the author help to determine the
central concerns of the poem?
16) How might historical information about the poem provide a useful context for
17) To what extent do your own experiences, values, beliefs, and assumptions
inform your interpretation?
18) What kinds of evidence from the poem are you focusing on to support your
interpretation? Does your interpretation leave out any important elements that
might undercut or qualify your interpretation?