What to Look for When Analyzing a Poem

When analyzing a poem (or putting together a poetry essay), you will want to have as wide of a range of ways that you address the poem as possible. Here are a number of elements of any poem that you may wish to discuss – if you find that you haven’t mentioned these aspects when you are annotating a poem or writing an essay, add them to your analysis if possible.

Word Choice

This will likely be your most common method of analysis. Pay attention to the connotation of the words in your poem. To help identify the impact of the selected words, consider what the poet did not choose to say. You may also wish to consider the structuring of the sentences – does the arrangement of words bring more attention to any phrase? Are there any sentences that are organized in an irregular way? Your analysis isn’t going to work if you aren’t getting specific to the language in the poem – it’s your most important part of your analysis by far. But if you only stay in this territory, your work will begin to feel repetitive.

Images and Symbolism

Throughout most of this list, you have to trust that there are no accidents in literature, especially in poetry. That’s especially true for imagery and symbolism. Trust yourself. What images does the poet evoke, and why did the poet use these particular images? Are there any places where you can make a reasonable interpretation of something symbolic?

Sound Quality

This really is a part of “Word Choice,” I suppose, but it’s worthwhile to look at the sound of the language that the poet uses, not just the connotative meaning of the words. Poets can subtly shift the feel of a poem by deploying gentler, or harsher sounds. Think of euphony, cacophony, alliteration, assonance, consonance, anything that deals with the SOUND of the words of the poem. Aim to give some interpretation that gets into the way the poem sounds.

Title (and Epigraph?)

You really ought to make some statement about the choice of the title. Even if it feels really obvious, there are loads of other options available in any poem. Rilke’s The Panther could easily have been called The Cage or At the Zoo or even To a Panther. If the poem has an epigraph, you may discuss it if it helps.

Poetic and Literary Devices

We went over a number of poetic devices, and we have THIS LIST on our website. If you see that your poet has used any of these “tricks,” point them out. But you also have to make an attempt to indicate what the purpose of those “tricks” is. Don’t just say “line four uses slant rhyme,” but instead, “line four uses slant rhyme to create a lighthearted feel” etc.

References & Allusions

Does your poem make any references to information from outside of the poem? Part of your analysis could aim to clarify those references. This element of your writing is really the only time you ought to be looking up any information about your poem, and even here, you should not be looking up an interpretation of your poem, but instead, information about what is being alluded to.


Does an image, word, or phrase recur throughout your poem? Surely that can’t be a mistake. Even in a poem that has a refrain, or relies on repetition (like a villanelle for instance), you can always argue what that repetition adds to the poem.

Structure and Form

Does the poem have a rhyme scheme? Is it using meter? Is it a specific form? Are there any places where the line breaks (or the stanza breaks) seem to create tension, allow for a double meaning, or draw more attention to a word? If so, point it out. If you are making a statement about structure, like with Poetic Devices above, you really ought to add an interpretation. It isn’t helpful to simply point out that a poem has an ABAB rhyme scheme.

Helpful Hint for Poetry Essays: If your poem does have any structural elements, you will want to mention it fairly early in your essay, but you can address those elements at a point where you have less to say about the specific lines, as a sort of sneaky way of covering up a weaker part of your language analysis. You don’t have much to say about line 4? That’s a good place to bring up the rhyme scheme and its effect. Then move on to line 5.

Verb Tense & Perspective

These are two subtler decisions that every poem must make. What tense is the poem in? And does that change at any point? Also, who is the speaker? Is it a character in the poem? If so, is there any place where the speaker’s attitude seems to be either misleading or something that goes against the poem’s intent? Think of the speaker’s attempt to downplay the losses in One Art (“The art of losing isn’t hard to master”). The speaker says everything is OK. The poem suggests otherwise.

Tone & Tone Shifts

Tone generally gets covered by “Word Choice,” but like you do with any TPCASTT analysis, note any place where the tone shifts, and tell HOW and WHY it does.

General Curiosities

This is a sort of catch-all, but anything that falls into the “That’s weird” territory. Does the poem abandon capital letters? Does it use ampersands (&) instead of “and”? Do the lines start at different parts of the page? The list could go on, but in general, if there’s anything curious in your poem that doesn’t really fit into any of the above categories, then discuss it.

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