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Practically criticizing a Poem

1) Read through at least twice.

You will have to read a poem multiple times before even attempting to approach it for
deeper meanings. Give yourself a chance to thoroughly and fully experience the poem.
Read the poem at least three times; read it out aloud; taste the words on your tongue as
you say them. Only once you have done this are you ready to try and figure out what the
poet is actually saying.

2) Read it aloud.

Yes. You must do this. Poems are meant to be heard. Often you will find that places in
the poem that gave you trouble on the page suddenly make sense when read out loud.
You may feel silly at first, but soon you’ll be comfortable. (Cats and dogs, by the way,
make particularly good audiences...though cats tend to be more critical and may leave at
a pivotal point in your performance.) Read in your normal voice. Don’t try to sound
like Maya Angelou. Unless you are Maya Angelou.

3) Is there a title?

Don’t forget to take this into consideration. Readers often skip over a poem’s title, which
may contain important clues for understanding the piece. Often the title is an introduction
that can guide you; for example, Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” immediately lets
you know who the speaker of the poem is and to whom she is speaking.

4) Stay calm!

If there are any unfamiliar words or even a few foreign terms, don’t panic and don’t
obsess. On your first read through, just let them go and try instead to focus on the larger
meaning of the poem. On the second and subsequent passes, you should then look up
those troublesome words or anything else that is problematic for you.

5) Pay attention to punctuation.

Most poems use punctuation to help guide the voice of its reader. You need to pay
attention because the end of a line is frequently not the end of a sentence. Consider these
lines from Robert Frost’s “Birches”:

When I see birches bend to left and right


Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging in them.

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If you stop reading or pause at the end of the first line, it will sound broken and unnatural.
If you read smoothly through, pausing briefly at the comma and making a full stop at the
period, the poem will have its proper conversational tone.

6) Try paraphrasing.

It may be best for you to write in your own words what the poet is saying in each line of
the poem. As you work through it, you’ll see which areas you need to concentrate on. But
again, avoid the notion that there is “one true meaning.”

7) Identify the speaker.

The poet and the speaker are not the same thing. The poet writes the poem, but there is
someone "speaking" in it who is not necessarily the poet. Knowing who the poet
is and when and where he/she wrote can sometimes provide useful information
which will help you understand what is being said.

Remember: all literature is written in a social, cultural and historical context and
understanding this context can add greatly to your understanding and interpretation of the
poem.

The poet and the speaker are not the same thing. The poet writes the poem, but there is
someone "speaking" in it who is not necessarily the poet. The speaker in poetry is similar
to the narrative voice in prose fiction. S/he is not always identifiable, but may be real or
imagined, personal or impersonal.

8) Settings.

The setting of a poem is where the poem takes place. It may be located in a specific place
which has direct bearing on the poem's message. For example, William Blake's
"London" is, obviously, set in London and the poem critiques what was
happening in London at the time of the poem being written.

However, identifying the setting of a poem is not always as easy and obvious as Blake's
"London". A poem can be set anywhere, in the past, present or future, in an imagined or
real location. Knowing the setting of a poem can indicate the mood or atmosphere that
the poem is trying to convey, as well as help your understanding of the poem's message.

9) Be open to interpretation.

Give it a chance. For example, William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”
is often dismissed as cryptic, confusing, and ultimately unknowable. But being open to

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the poet’s intentions can lead you to some interesting ideas and questions (in this case,
what is important to life?).

10) Form and Structure of the Poem.

When a poet decides to write a poem, s/he also chooses a specific form that they think
will best convey their ideas. Poetry encompasses many modes: narrative, dramatic,
satiric, polemic, didactic, erotic, lyrical/personal etc. For example, the sonnet form is
used when the poem's message has something to do with love. The ballad form is
generally adopted for a narrative form.

The form of a poem is closely connected to its structure; that is, the arrangement of lines
and stanzas. Become familiar with the different poem structures and use that to decide
what form the poet has chosen.

11) Subject and Subject Matter of the Poem.

The poet is trying to say something through his poem. S/he chooses the speaker, setting
and form to convey the theme or central idea. There are no limits to the subjects
poets choose to write about: it could be about events, actions, thoughts, memories,
arguments, polemic, and so on. What’s the basic situation? Who is talking, and
under what circumstances? Try writing a paraphrase to identify any gaps or
confusions.

12) There are no useless words.

Poets select each and every word carefully. None should be dismissed. Images and
symbols all have a purpose in the overall meaning of the poem.

13) Imagery’s contribution to the Poem's Meaning.

Figurative language and imagery are a part of everyday speech, but the are often
highlighted and emphasized in poetry. Words are not confined to their literal
meanings and are used to create sensory associations, be they visual and aural.
They are also a source of connotations that they have accumulated as their
meanings have altered. Imagery is used to discuss one thing through an indirect
reference to something else, and can add multiple layers of meaning to a poem.

14) Tone of the Poem.

The tone of the poem expresses the attitude of the speaker towards the subject matter, and
is closely linked to the feeling and mood that informs the poem. The tone is not
static and may alter as the poem develops and more ideas are introduced.
Understanding the tone of a poem is an integral component in comprehending its
overall message. Factors such as diction, rhythm, speaker, setting and imagery

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can inform the tone of the poem. What's your attitude to the subject? Is it
appropriate to content and audience: assured, flexible, sensitive, etc.?

15) Message of the Poem.

The things that happen in the poem - the actions, scenes or events - constitute the subject
matter, but the theme is portrayed through the central message of the poem. It can
be rather abstract and is a marriage of subject matter, speaker, setting, imagery
and tone. In order to glean fully what the poem is trying to say, you must
understand all the components that make up the poem.

Don’t expect a definitive reading. Many poems are intentionally open-ended and refuse
to resolve their internal tensions. While it is desirable to understand what a poem is
saying, remember that there are approaches and interpretations other than your own.

16) Shape.

What are you appealing to: intellect or emotions of the reader? What structure(s) have
you used — progressions, comparisons, analogies, bald assertions, etc.? Are these aspects
satisfyingly integrated? Does structure support content?

17) Word choice.

Appropriate and uncontrived, economical, varied and energizing? Do you understand


each word properly, its common uses and associations? See if listing the verbs truly
pushes the poem along. Are words repeated? Do they set mood, emotional rapport,
distance?

18) Repetitions.

Pay attention to repetitions, these might be in words, meanings or in the lines. These
repetitions are used for creating music, asserting meanings or showing any other
expression to give a forceful message.

19) General statements about life ("philosophy of life")

Any poem presents something really meaningful in it. Search out the use of it in life and
discuss it.

20) Comparison and contrast.

Though not a highly appreciated technique while analyzing a poem but it is a useful one.
You can compare and contrast with any other work of any other writer or poet that you
feel is useful and comparable or contrasting.

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21) Personification.

Find and discuss the personifications in the poem that poet has used it those may be
striking but persuasive, adds to unity and power?

22) Allusions (references to a world "outside the poem")

Find out the references from history, culture or any other area of knowledge.

23) Metaphor and simile.

Search out the similes and metaphors from the poem and discuss their use. They might be
mentioned as fresh and convincing, combining on many levels?

24) First and last lines.

First and last lines are of the poem are always meaningful and convincing to convey the
central message of the poem, so concentrate on them.

25) Rhythm and meter.

Natural, inevitable, integrate poem's structure?

26) Rhyme.

Fresh, pleasurable, unassuming but supportive?

27) Overall impression.

Original, honest, coherent, expressive, significant?

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