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What Does the Poem Mean?: 10 Questions to Help You Understand Poetry

Poetry is not in demand these days, which is a shame because it has so much to offer. We're busier than ever and we're reading less as a consequence. A UN study concludes that Americans work more than those in other developed countries. And according to a recent Gallop poll, the number of books read per year went down to 12.6 books from 15.6 in 2016. There's got to be a connection. If you're one of those people working more hours and you're trying to balance time between work and family, why not consider a book of poetry instead? Books of poetry are frequently much shorter than the latest blockbuster novels. And, if you frequently have long periods between your reading sessions, poetry might be the answer you're looking for. After all, you don't have to worry about losing your place or forgetting crucial plot points in a book of poetry. You just move on to the next poem.

Below are a list of questions that will help you understand and interpret poetry better. I found them in one of my old college notebooks, and they help me immensely. I hope they help you too.

  1. Who is the speaker in this poem? What kind of person is he or she?

  2. To whom is the speaker speaking, or in other words, who is the audience?

  3. What is the situation and setting in time (era) and place?

  4. What is the purpose of the poem?

  5. State the poem’s central idea or theme in a singular sentence.

  6. Describe the structure of the poem. How does this relate to content?

  7. What is the tone of the poem? How is it achieved?

  8. Notice the poem’s diction. Discuss any words which seem especially well-chosen.

  9. Are there predominant usages of figurative language? What is the effect? - Does the poem use metaphors or similes? - Any familiar allusions or references? - What type of images does the poem use?

  10. Explain the use of any sound devices and whether or not they aid in conveying tone or theme.

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