Reading poetry

So you have to read a poem and, what's more, understand it. Where do you begin? Ask these questions of your poem and you should end up with a much better understanding of any poem. 

Starting out
Read a poem with a pencil in your hand. React to it and get involved with it. Circle important or repeated words. Mark difficult words, lines, and passages. Read through the poem, several times if you can, both silently and aloud.


Examining the basic subject of the poem
Consider the title of the poem carefully. What does it promise? After  you have read the poem, go back to the title.

Keep asking yourself: "What is this poem about?"

What is going on in it? Who is talking? To whom? Under what circumstances? Where? About what? Why? Is a story being told? What can you point to in the poem to support your answers?

What is the author's attitude toward what he or she presents in the poem? Serious?  Ironic? Satiric? Angry? Humorous? Detached?

Poems are meant to be heard, so sound effects are important.  Rhyme, repetition and alliteration (= bokstavrim) are the most important sound effects used in poetry.

Rhythm is what gives poetry a musical feel. The meter can be measured by counting the beats in each line.

Consider the sound and rhythm of the poem. Is there a pattern? If so, how regular is it?

Does the poet use rhyme? What particular words or phrases in the poem are made to stand out?

Many poems do not have any rhyming or any set pattern of rhythm or meter. They are called free verse. There is free variation in the length of lines, the form and content of the poem. Repetition of words and phrases often contributes to making the poem coherent (= sammenhengende).


Are there divisions within the poem? Marked by stanzas (= vers)? By rhyme? By shifts in subject? By shifts in perspective? How do these parts relate to each other?

Literary terms when dealing with poetry
Metaphors, similes and symbols are used to create images in our minds. They appeal to our senses.

A metaphor compares two things without using the words "like" or "as". It gives the quality of one thing to something that is quite different.

Example: The winter wind is a wolf howling at the door.

A simile compares two things by using the words "like" or "as". A famous example is the line "My luve is like a red, red rose".

A symbol has a fixed meaning.

Examples: A heart means love, a dove means peace.

Looking at word choice of the poem
Are there any consistent patterns of words? For example, are there several references to flowers, or water, or politics, or religion in the poem? Look for groups of similar words.

Looking at the purpose or the theme of the poem
Ask, finally, about the poem, "So what?". What does it do? What does it say? What is its purpose? Does the poet want to:

Share feelings? (of joy, sadness, anger, fear, loneliness)

Tell a story?

Make us think about something important?

Make us laugh?

Describe something?

The theme of the poem is the total effect the poem makes on the reader. The theme is more general than the subject-matter of the poem, or what the poem presents in concrete terms.