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How to Analyze Poems in College

by Amy Sterling Casil, studioD

Many students dread being asked to analyze poetry that features archaic words and expressions, particularly Renaissance or Shakespearean verse. Other students enjoy reading poetry but dislike describing artistic or emotional poems in dry academic language. Learning to analyze poetry helps to develop skills in close reading, understanding figurative language, and writing in-depth about sophisticated language and meaning.

Read Carefully

Make a copy of the poem you are analyzing if you do not want to mark in your text. Read the poem over several times. The Purdue Online Writing Lab and professor Ivan Marki of Hamilton College advise reading the poem aoud. Note the poem's rhyme and meter. Underline or highlight any repeated words, syllables or images. Take notes on any theme or concept that you identify during your first readings. Look up unfamiliar words.


Consult your class notes and textbook about the type of poem you are analyzing, whether it is a sonnet, ode, elegy or lyric. The poem may also be written during a different historical period, such as the Romantic era or the Renaissance. The genre and historical period will influence your analysis of the poem.

Figures of Speech

Poets may use figures of speech for many different purposes. Be aware of and watch for major figures of speech, such as metaphors and similes, which compare one unlike thing to another. Other figures of speech that you may find in poems include metonymy, in which a phrase or symbol stands in for something closely related, for example, "a rose" used to signify a beautiful young woman. Make note of the figures of speech for your analysis.

Context and Interpretation

According to M.H. Abrams, editor of the "The Norton Anthology of Poetry," "There is no one, right interpretation of a poem but there is one which is more right than any of the others." Abrams means that you should adhere closely to the words the author uses when you write an analysis of any poem. Consider the poem's context and the author's specific words and poetic techniques as you select the elements of your analysis.

About the Author

Amy Sterling Casil is an award-winning writer with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She is a professional author and college writing teacher, and has published 20 nonfiction books for schools and libraries.

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