What to look for in a poem

Annotated poem with a checklist of what to consider when looking at a poem: meaning, imagery, structure, tone, languageIt's always worth thinking about meaning, imagery, tone, structure and language when looking at a poem

Once you have thought about your own personal response and other people's possible responses, think in more detail about how the poem is achieving its effect. There may not be a clear, right answer, and there isn’t a comprehensive list of things you must comment on. However, there are some general approaches that can help you think about the power of a poem.

Themes, ideas and attitudes

There are popular themes in poetry such as love, conflict, time, place, nature, family, and childhood, but a poem can have any theme. Poets want to express something to the reader. This is often something they feel very strongly about so thinking about the message behind the poem is a good starting point.

Questions to consider:

  • is it clear what the poem is about and is there a clear theme?
  • could the poem be about different things and why might you think this?
  • are there key lines or phrases that stand out to you as saying something strongly?
  • are the themes/ideas clear throughout, or do they emerge or change during the poem?
  • are there any particular clues in the title or at the start and end of the poem?

Example question

Read the title and opening four lines of To Autumn by John Keats. What themes , ideas or attitudes are emerging?

To Autumn

by John Keats
Seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun:
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;

Sample response

The title tells the reader that this poem is centred on the season of Autumn. The opening stanza focuses on and establishes aspects of nature during this season, with references to mists, the sun, vines and the eaves of a thatched cottage. This gives the impression that the speaker very much admires this beautiful, rural, autumnal scene.

Feedback

This response demonstrates the reader's understanding of the poem being about nature and autumn and that they form the central themes for the poem. It also shows an understanding of the speaker’s attitude, which is admiration of the season.

Explore the study guide for 'Neutral Tones'.

Explore the study guide for 'To Autumn'.