Analysing poems

Use the bullet points outlined in step one to structure your analysis of the poems. For your analysis, you should pick out features of the poems and comment in detail on the effects of these when you write your response. You could follow the ideas below:

Content

This refers to what specifically the poems are about. This does not mean the themes of the poems, just the subject matter.

Ideas

This refers to the main themes of the poems. Are the poets trying to get the reader to think about specific issues or ideas? This could be something like love, what happens to people when they get old, loneliness, the negative effects of war, etc.

Mood/Atmosphere

Think about how the poems make you feel. Overall, what kind of feeling do the poems create for you? Be specific: this could be joyful, melancholy, romantic, gloomy, angry, etc. Find words or images in the poems that have particular associations and could contribute to the mood.

How they are written

This part has different sections:

  • Form and structure – the way the poems are organised. Is there a rhyme scheme? How are the stanzas split up? How is this linked to the main ideas of the poem?
  • Language – are there specific words or phrases that you think sum up the poems? Is positive or negative language used? What associations do the words have? Is there sibilance, assonance, alliteration? Talk about the effect of this.
  • Imagery – this means things like similes, metaphors, personification, etc. Again, think about how this is linked to the central ideas of the poem. Do these devices create a certain atmosphere?

Example Poem

In Oak Terrace

by Tony Connor
Old and alone, she sits at nights,
Nodding before the television.
The house is quiet now. She knits,
rises to put the kettle on,
watches a cowboy’s killing, reads
the local Births and Deaths, and falls
asleep at ‘Growing stock-piles of war-heads’.
A world that threatens worse ills
fades. She dreams of life spent
in the one house: suffers again
poverty, sickness, abandonment,
a child’s death, a brother’s brain
melting to madness. Seventy years
of common trouble; the kettle sings.
At midnight she says her silly prayers,
And takes her teeth out, and collects her night-things.

Analysis

  1. Content: the poem is about an old lady who lives on her own and the emptiness of her life.
  2. Ideas: the poem suggests that old age can be lonely and isolating because of the emphasis on negative descriptions and the way the poem starts with ‘Old and alone,’ as if this defines the woman in the poem. The woman is never named individually, just called ‘she’ so this character could represent many old women in a similar position.
  3. Mood/Atmosphere: an atmosphere of isolation and sadness is created through the description of the woman as there are no other people featured in the poem, except within her memories. There is a suggestion that things do not change for her so the poem also has a mood of hopelessness.
  4. Form and structure: the use of enjambment in several lines suggests that the character’s life is unchanging and that her isolation is relentless. The use of listing in the third stanza also adds to this impression. The stanzas are regular, with four lines in each stanza, which could reflect her routine life, added to by the repeated reference to the kettle in the first and then the fourth stanza.
  5. Language: the poet uses simple, everyday language throughout most of the poem, reflecting the ordinariness of the character’s life (adding to the impression that this could represent many others like her). There is a contrast between the quiet, unremarkable activities that she is engaged in and the distressing events that she remembers and reads about. There is no positive language used in the poem – even her prayers, which should be linked to hope, are described as ‘silly’, suggesting that they are pointless.
  6. Imagery: there is not a lot of imagery used in this poem, which is significant because it is simplistic in order to reflect the character’s small life. However, there are some devices used, such as the personification> the kettle sings. This is the only piece of positivity in the poem and it actually emphasises the character’s loneliness because the only humanity she experiences comes from an inanimate object.

Personal response

For this section you need to offer your opinion of the poems. You must justify your ideas. Try to find examples of particular things you liked or did not like in both poems and explain your feelings on these. You do not have to be 100% truthful here –find things that you can talk about and offer an opinion on. Don’t write something like ‘I didn’t like either because they were rubbish.’ For the above poem, for example, you could write something like: ‘This poem made me think about the way that people are affected by loneliness as they get older. The anonymity of the character in the poem suggests to me that she could represent many other old people, which makes me feel sympathy towards those who have similar experiences.’

You will not get any marks for just pointing out features of the poems, such as devices that are used. You must make sure that you always comment on the effects of the techniques, how they are linked to the content and ideas of the poems, and why you think they have been used. Whenever you make a point about the poems ask yourself why you think that is important, why you feel like that and what the poet was trying to achieve. Only refer to specific devices and structural points used in the poems if you have got something to say about the effect this has on the poem.