As aids to the understanding of a poem, we may ask ourselves a number of
questions about it. One of the most important is: Who is the speaker and what is the
occasion? Instead of assuming the speaker is the poet himself, it is safer to assume it is
someone else. Even when the poet does speak directly and expresses his own thoughts
and emotions, he does so ordinarily as a representative human being rather than as an
individual. We may well think of every poem, therefore, as being to some degree
dramatic, that is, the utterance of a fictional character rather than of the poet herself.
Many poems are expressly dramatic.
A second important question we should ask ourselves when reading any poem is:
What is the central purpose of the poem? The poet may tell a story or reveal human
character. He may impart a vivid impression of a scene, express a mood or an emotion,
or convey to us vividly some idea or attitude. Whatever the purpose is, we must
determine it for ourselves and define it mentally as precisely as possible. Only then can
we fully understand the function and meaning of various details in the poem, by relating
them to the central purpose.
Once we have answered the two questions above, we can consider a third
question, equally important to full understanding: By what means is that purpose
achieved? It is important to distinguish means from ends. The question is partially
answered by describing the poem's dramatic framework, if any. The complete answer
requires an accounting of various resources of communication which may be discussed in
The following list of discussion items, though not exhaustive, may be applied to any poem.
1. Who is the speaker? What kind of person is the speaker?
2. To whom is he speaking? What kind of person is he?
3. What is the occasion?
4. What is the setting in time (hour, season, century, etc.)?
5. What is the setting in place (indoors or out, city or country, land or sea, region, nation, hemisphere)?
6. What is the central purpose of the poem?
7. State the central idea or theme of the poem in a sentence.
8. Discuss the tone of the poem. How is it achieved?
9. Outline the poem's structure and development; summarize the events.
10. Paraphrase the poem.
11. Discuss the diction of the poem. Point out words that are particularly well-chosen and explain why.
12. Discuss the imagery of the poem. What kinds of imagery are used?
13. Point out and explain examples of metaphor, simile, personification, and metonymy, and explain their
14. Point out and explain any symbols. If allegorical, explain the allegory.
15. Point out and explain examples of paradox, overstatement, understatement, and irony. What is their
16. Point out and explain any allusions. What is their function?
17. Point out any significant examples of sound repetition and explain their function.
18. Discuss the meter of the poem. Discuss the adaptation of sound to sense.
19. Describe the form or pattern of the poem.
20. Criticize and evaluate the poem.
Adapted from Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, ed. Laurence Perrine, 6th ed., p. 549.