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Whenever you study a poem, you will be called upon to analyse it. This means that you will need to know where the poet has used language techniques and how rhythm and meter is being used. You must be careful that in doing this you do not reduce the poem to individual and unrelated parts. Deconstructing a poem can be like taking apart a car engine and having learned how each separate part works then having no idea how to put the engine back together. Whenever you discover a language technique, think to yourself straight away - 'Why has the poet used this technique, this word or this rhythm?' Language techniques are useless on their own, they derive meaning from their context - where, how and why they are used.

In this topic we will be attempting to break down the process of analysing a poem into chunks. As above, remember that this will only improve your understanding and appreciation of poetry if you constantly relate it back to the fundamental question of 'How has the composer achieved their purpose?' To do this you will need to ask 'Why has the composer used particular techniques or imagery and so on.

Reading

Don't expect to understand a poem immediately. You will need to read the poem a number of times before you start to get a feel for it. Most of the poems that you will be studying will be relatively short. This will afford you the time for multiple readings. Read the poem without analysing it and think about how it makes you feel, what is your initial response? You should write this down in your notebook or in the margins of the poem (only if it is a photocopied poem).

Topic

The first and probably easiest part of the process is to determine what the subject or topic of the poem is. This does not need to be the theme or message. It is simply to record what experience, object or feeling that the poet is writing about. This can be as simple as the poet writing about a balloon or a bicycle (objects) or a tenth birthday party or witnessing a person shoplifting (experience). Generally this topic or subject will be the springboard from which the poet develops his/her themes or the muse that inspires the poet to ponder something about life. Consider why the poet has chosen this topic.

What is it that has particularly caught the attention of the poet and inspired them to write a poem about it/based on it?

Be sure to write down your initial thoughts.

Themes and messages

The next step is to determine what the poet is trying to express. This is similar to purpose. You need to think about what the poet wants you to know more about now that you have read the poem or alternatively, how the poet wants to make you feel. Many poems don't have a message or point other than to amuse or entertain the reader. You should try not to be too concerned about whether your answer is 'correct' at this point. Keep an open mind and as you continue to analyse you may find other messages. Think about this non-exhaustive list of possible themes:

  • To amuse
  • The pains of growing up
  • Lost dreams and hopes
  • The folly of arrogance
  • The nature of friendship
  • The relationship between parent and child
  • The nature of love
  • The importance of honesty
  • The importance of looking after the environment
  • The nature of death
  • The nature of birth
  • The beauty of friendship/nature/love

Be sure to write down your initial thoughts.

Emotion or mood

There are three things that you should look for while deciding upon what to record for this aspect of analysis of the poem. Firstly, what mood dominates the poem? Think about what you have read. Is it sad, bright, gloomy, aggressive, violent, humble or happy and content? (Again, this is not an exhaustive list.) Do you think the mood or tone changes in the poem anywhere? Perhaps the tone shifts from sad to bright or from happy to gloomy? Also think about what mood or feeling the poet might want to evoke from the reader. This will be your impression. Remember to keep an open mind because as you analyse the techniques you may need to add to your list or change your mind completely.

Write down your initial thoughts.

At this stage you will be able to start thinking about how and why the reader has used a particular mood. Here are some examples. If the poet's topic is a ten-year-old's red bicycle and the predominant mood is bright and happy, this is going to add to a theme that is about the joy of childhood. On the other hand, if the same topic is written with a sad or melancholic mood, this will add to the theme of the pains of growing up.

Write down your initial thoughts.

Tone

In some ways tone has a similar effect on poetry as do emotion and mood. The tone of the poem will give you an idea about the composer's attitude towards the subject or topic. The tone is the tone of voice that the composer has used. A good way to understand this is to see the tone that we describe and use in English as being along the lines of:

'Don't use that tone of voice with me!'

Has anybody ever said this to you? What tone of voice were you speaking in? Possibly you had a sarcastic tone or a threatening tone. It is possible also to have a light-hearted tone or a serious tone. The important thing to remember is that the tone that is used implies a specific attitude towards topics or subjects.

It is a lot easier to understand tone verbally but let's consider the effect of tone through the following examples of the word great:

Great!

Good job/well done

Great!

Not great/bummer (in a sarcastic tone)

Within text, how do we establish what tone is being used? You will need to consider the context as a whole. Notice in these examples how just a change in emphasis and punctuation changes the tone of the text:

Example 1

Yeah, that paella was great!


Example 2

Yeah, that paella was great.


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