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So You Say You Can't Understand Poetry!

John has been writing poetry since his school days. He was awarded the "Best Poet 2014 and 2021" Hubby Awards.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Poetry Month

April is "Poetry Month" in the USA, and other countries allocate a certain month to the same, but you don't have to wait for a specific time to write poetry. For me, anytime is the right time. This short poem, however, I did originally write for April's Poetry Month and for all those people out there who say they don't like reading poetry because it is too difficult to understand. Well, maybe they are right after all.

The thing is, you don't have to analyze every poem you read. You can just also just read poetry for enjoyment or entertainment. A lot of poems are really just songs without music, especially rhyming ones.

The genius of a composer is found in the notes of his music; but analyzing the notes will not reveal his genius. The poet's greatness is contained in his words; yet the study of his words will not disclose his inspiration. God reveals himself in creation; but scrutinize creation as minutely as you wish, you will not find God, any more than you will find the soul through careful examination of your body.

— Anthony de Mello, Awakening: Conversations with the Masters

To Analyse or Not to Analyse? That is the Question.

I am far from an expert at analysing poetry, in fact, I find it a much harder process than actually writing a poem. To me, writing poetry is for fun and enjoyment. I never spend time analysing my own, or other people's poetry.

But for the literature students out there, and for those who feel the need to do so or get satisfaction from trying to put themselves in the poet's head, I offer you the following guidelines compiled by real experts.


Typical Questions Asked When Analysing a Poem

Analyzing poetry can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply break the poem down to its basic elements. The main idea of poetry analysis is to investigate and evaluate the way the poet makes an impression.

Questions about the theme:

  • What is the theme of the poem?
  • Are there multiple themes? How do they relate to each other?
  • Is the poem trying to deliver a message or moral?
  • What audience/audiences is the message for?
  • What techniques does the poet use to deliver the themes in the most effective way possible?

Researching the poet can help you understand the poem and context:

  • Do details about the poet’s life suggest a specific point of view?
  • Does the culture of that era (i.e. time, and/or place) have any effect on the interpretation of the poem?
  • Does the poem belong to a movement? How might this affect its interpretation?
  • Is there a common theme in much of the poet's other work?

Questions about mood and tone:

  • What is the mood of the poem?
  • Does the mood change over the course of the poem? Why do you think the poet created this change?
  • What strategies does the poet use to convey the mood?
  • What is the tone of the poem? Does the poet agree, disagree, admire, ridicule, or condemn the subject of the poem? What is the reason?
  • How does word choice affect the tone of the poem?
  • What strategies does the poet use to convey the tone?

Questions about literary devices used in the poem:

  • What are the most prominent literary devices used in the poem?
  • What function do the devices have in the poem? Do they build the structure?
  • Do literary devices contribute to the mood? Do they support the theme?
  • How does the poet’s use of literary devices make the poem better and more meaningful? (source: Creative Writing News)

So You Say You Can't Understand Poetry!

Razor sharpened butcher's knives

Slice cleanly through my heart.

It's only bricks and mortar

But at least that is a start.

It could be Whistler's mother

Or Mona Lisa's smile.

But winds are blowing from the East,

So it may rain in a while.

I want to be a poet

But can never find the words,

And every time I look at trees

I can never see the birds.

But since you cannot understand

I’ll take a hammer and go pound sand.

(final couplet courtesy of Maya Shedd Temple)

Image by Dr StClaire from Pixabay

Image by Dr StClaire from Pixabay

Critical Analysis Invited

For anyone who thinks they can understand poetry, I invite you to do a critical analysis of the above poem (in comments). I would love to find out what the poet was thinking or intending and what poetic devices were used.


© 2014 John Hansen