How to understand poetry

At school, I was the only person who enjoyed reading and interpreting poetry. Whilst everyone else thought it to be an ordeal, I had a copy of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on my bedside table. When everyone else sighed at the thought of another sonnet being analysed, I revelled in the metaphors, images and linguistic finesses that Shakespeare was renowned for.

If you’re currently having to undergo poetry analysis, or you’re past that but can’t shake the wish to at least understand one poem in your life, these tips might be useful.


Make yourself free from restraint.

When I studied Medieval English as part of my degree, my lecturer had us read medieval texts out loud all the time. Of course, we were embarrassed, because we were cool first-years who had a reputation of ‘I don’t care about this at all’-attitude to lose, but looking back, it was a really good exercise.

It takes a bit of apprehension away from the ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ and ‘seest’, which can make your brain immediately switch off from wanting to read one more word. Reading them out loud helps to minimise the threat, but also, to not pay too much attention to single words. Context is what is needed to understand the message, not a word or two that look like a cat has run over the keyboard.


Try to find images.

And by that I don’t mean opening up Google and seeing if you find a picture that speaks more than a thousand words. I mean metaphors, similes, comparisons; all the lovely stylistic devices the poet used to make their work more enjoyable to read. Yes, I just used the word ‘enjoyable’ in connection with poetry. Wild, huh?


Then piece together the message.

Once you’ve read your poem out loud (a few times, if you can bear it) and you found all your images, you should hopefully get a general feel for the message. Is it a happy poem? Does it feature a lot of metaphors for death? For love? For time? Does it sound or feel upbeat when you read it, or is there a melancholy to it? This will give you a hint as to what story the poet wants to tell you.


But also… don’t overdo it.

Not every single word in every single poem has a hidden meaning. I know, your teacher wanted you to believe that, but that’s just a method of torture they like to use. I used to teach, I should know. Some poems are simply a figurative descriptions of something.

Maybe the poet looked out the window in early October, and instead of writing things like, “Mate, it’s getting proper chilly out there now! Look, the tree over there has barely got any leaves left, and the bird family from the nest in the garden have left”, they go, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang;” (that’s the first stanza of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73).

It's fun finding hidden metaphors and messages in poetry, but it’s always a subjective analysis which doesn’t necessarily have to correspond with the poet’s intentions. It’s part of the game! (See, poetry is enjoyable AND fun.)


And if you still hate it…

…that’s cool, too. Poetry is not for everybody, and there are tonnes of other genres out there which are just as entertaining to read all year round.

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