This resource created by Jonathan Sircy, Department of English, Charleston Southern University.
We can distinguish poetry from prose by its
Poetry favors the concrete and particular over the vague and abstract. Poetic language isn’t disconnected from normal communication. Rather, it conveys ideas and emotions with greater precision than everyday language.
There are several ways to skin the poetic cat. What follows are four large categories with accompanying questions that can help us systematically interpret a poem. Not only are these categories not mutually exclusive, they are often complementary.
If we pay attention to a particular poem’s meter, tone, imagery, and figurative language, we are able to talk about a poem’s unity. This attention to structure starts from the premise that each of the poem’s parts work together organically (rather than, say, mechanically) to achieve a unified goal. If we were to put that goal into a single sentence, we would have the poem’s theme, a succinct statement of the poem’s central idea and emotions.
Chief question: What idea or emotion UNIFIES the poem’s different parts?
Key terms: meter, tone, imagery, figurative language
Meter: the pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in a given poetic line
Tone: the speaker’s attitude toward his subject, audience, or himself
Imagery: the poetic representation of any sense experience
Figurative language: the non-literal use of language to achieve an effect
When we pay attention to a poem’s structure, we pretend that it is an artifact that can be separated from the outside world. But every literary work had an author and an audience, and both are deeply influenced by a particular place and time. This not only affects the way we read poetic allusions but the way we interpret particular words.
Chief Question: How do the poem’s words reflect the cultural context of the author and/or poet?
Poems aren’t just in conversation with history. They’re in conversation with other poems. This means that a literary work—in its form and/or content—resembles other literary works. When we focus on formal similarities, we’re concerned with genres, the different types or subcategories a poet has chosen (e.g. epic, lyric, satire). When we focus on similar content, we are either discussing allusions—intended references to another literary image—or archetypes, images or characters that appear so frequently they are less the domain of one author than part of a common literary heritage.
Chief question: How is this literary work like/unlike other literary works?
Every poem interprets life and thus, explicitly or implicitly, provides us with a view of the world. Defenders of poetry have long maintained that poetry is uniquely able to delight AND instruct; in fact, it often instructs BY delighting. That means every literary work presents actions/beliefs for us to applaud or denounce. This is often the most difficult thing to interpret about a particular work of art, and we must keep in mind that a work may present objectionable actions or beliefs in order to criticize them.
Chief question: What actions or beliefs does the poem support?