Whether you’re an English major who loves poetry (like me) or you’re someone who takes a low-level literature class as a general education requirement, sooner or later, you’re going to have to figure it out. I always tell people to take poetry early on in their course load so that they can get it out of the way, especially if they aren’t particularly fond of it. But part of that means you actually have to try to understand the poetry that is presented to you. Here are a few steps that you can take to guide you on your path to understanding a piece of poetry.

Read straight through

First thing is first, no matter what kind of poem it is, read it straight though fully before anything else. This will give you a general sense of the poem. The key to this step is to make sure that you don’t stop on the hard parts of the poem. Even if the language structure is hard, just read it through all the way once before you go back to reevaluate and assess the poem for a second time.

Meaning and organization

Some elements that will help you understand the piece of writing include, but are not limited to:

1. Title. This is a huge part of the poem, mostly because it gives you the basic information that you’ll need to know before reading the poem; the theme of the piece of work or what the poem will represent.

2. Meanings of words, familiar or unfamiliar. Some poems have very clear language and diction. Some unfortunately do not. It would be a good idea to invest in a nice dictionary that will be able to help you define any words that you struggle with. Knowing the content of the words being used is super important in understanding what the poem is trying to do.

3. The speaker. It’s always good to figure out who is the speaker in the poem. You’ll be able to know who’s point-of-view the story is being told. This can give you some insight on what that character may be feeling or their thoughts on the theme of the poem.

4. Setting. Learning as much as you can about the setting of a poem will help you understand why the poet chose to write about it. Maybe the setting is the same as the author’s homeland or something of the sort. That’s an important piece of information that may be vital to the story’s overall understanding as a reader.

5. Form. Knowing the difference between a narrative epic and a sonnet is important. Each form of poetry serves its own purpose of understanding. It’ll also dictate the way that the poem is read just based off of what kind of poem it is.

6. Theme. Figuring out what the poem is exploring is crucial to understanding poetry. This information can tell you exactly what you need to know in terms of why the author writes the poem.

Read it aloud

Reading poetry out loud may sound silly but it really does help. I suggest going to a quiet place on campus where you won’t be able to distract anyone and you won’t be embarrassed when you’re talking to yourself out loud. The key to this is sounding out each word as clear as possible. This will give you a great start to understanding poetry!

Be sure to check out the top English schools in your area to find out more about these types of courses.

Is there anything else that you would add?