How to Analyse (Unseen) Poetry: The 6 Basics

When studying literature, most of us, during the course of our academic study, will be faced with an exam which tasks us with analysing an unseen poem. Stressful? Well, yes, initially, it can be. Unless, you remember to notice 6 basic things that you can critically analyse in your answer. These 6 things are:

  1. Form
  2. Structure
  3. Punctuation
  4. Tone
  5. Language
  6. Meaning

The perceived problem with unseen poetry analysis is that, unless you had already been familiar with the poet by some stroke of luck or fate, you will not know anything about the context of the poem. This means that you have to analyse purely on what you will read in front of you and your general knowledge. The good thing about this is that it is a purely skills based exam that you don’t need to learn anything new for. So, to start developing your skills, lets look at the 6 basic things you need to analyse when looking at an unseen poem.

1. Form…is what it looks like.

Form, quite literally, is the type of poem you looking at, I.e. what does it look like? In terms of technical language you would notice whether the poem is a sonnet, haiku, ballad etc. These different types of poems have different forms, in other words they look different on the page. Some are long, some are short. Even if you can’t figure out which technical name to use, comment on what the poem looks like on the page. Some poems have been written to have a specific shape, intentionally. 

Noticing and commenting on form is worthwhile in your analysis as the poet has used it to help them convey, create, or emphasise meaning. Think about:

  • What does the poem look like on the page?
  • Can you identify what type of poem it is?
  • Is there anything odd or interesting in what you see?

Noticing odd or interesting things in a poem is useful as, even if you don’t know what they mean at first, they are usually placed for a specific purpose. Highlight or make an annotation for you to come back to it later. Don’t worry if your initial analysis seems lacking after just looking at the form, as you go through this list of 6 you will start to see how the form is related to the structure, punctuation, tone, language and meaning.

2. Structure…is the frame.

Structure is the frame on which the words are built. Without structure meaning can be deformed; without structure information is difficult to understand. The same is the case for a poem. The structure of a poem is what holds it up. 

You can think about it in terms of a building: the steel girders or wood beams hold the building up before the walls go up – without that frame the walls have no supports. Or, you can think about it in terms of yourself: your skeleton is your structure, if you had no skeleton you would crumple to the ground and wouldn’t be able to stand.

In the case of poetry notice:

  • How many stanzas are there?
  • How many sentences are there?
  • Is there repetition?
  • How many lines in the entire poem?
  • How many lines in each stanza?
  • Does the structure change in the poem?
  • Is there a rhythm or syllable structure?

Once you’ve noticed the structure, then you need to think about “why is the structure the way it is?” Does this create, reinforce, or change meaning within the poem? How does this frame affect your reading of the poem; does it create more impact or strength to the poets intended meaning?

3. Punctuation…what’s the point?

Punctuation tells you how to read something. Punctuation is like the nails, or pins, in the structure, an integral part of the whole that although small, are greatly missed when not around. Let’s look at an example:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Let’s eat Grandma!

I love my Grandma, we both like food; but I wouldn’t like to eat her! Notice that one little comma after ‘eat’? That comma just changed the ENTIRE meaning of that three word sentence…

Punctuation are the small but mighty pins in a poem that a poet uses to help the reader emphasise, organise, separate and accentuate meaning in their poem. Our job as scholars is to notice how they have used punctuation in the production of meaning.

When looking at a poem, ask yourself “how has the punctuation helped me understand the poem? What does it help me understand? How does it help me understand and why?”

*N.B* Poetry is meant to be performed – read the poem aloud paying special attention to the punctuation and see what you can notice about the structure through figuring out how to read it. (Obviously don’t read a poem aloud in an exam though!!)

4. Tone…is how something is said.

Tone is how something is said, and in English, tone is incredibly important when conveying meaning. For example, think about when you go into a shop to buy something: you hand the product to the person at the counter, next you will often be asked “can I get you anything else?” 

Now, look at the speech directions in [italics] below and say the question aloud:

Tone 1: [cheerfully, wanting to help, slightly higher pitch voice said with a smile] can I get you anything else?

Tone 2: [bored, sour faced, monotone sounding voice] can I get you anything else?

By saying “can I get you anything else?” in these two ways, you have changed your tone and you know immediately the feelings of the person whose said it. Tone 1 [cheerful] wants to help and would like to get you something else if you would like it, and that probably inclines you to smile back and perhaps buy something else. Tone 2 [bored, sour] in complete contrast couldn’t care less whether you wanted something else, actually they’d rather you didn’t. This is not a person you would want to have sustained contact with and would probably buy whatever it is you want and leave the shop as fast as possible.

As you can see tone conveys meaning. Now, in the poem you don’t get speech directions, but through the choice of language and use of punctuation you will be able to understand tone. To identify tone, you will need to notice:

  • Are words sharp/soft/abrupt/strong/floaty/other?
  • Are there long or short sentences/lines? Does this affect the way you say the line?
  • Does the rhythm affect how you say the words?
  • How do you feel about the topic the poet is taking about? Why?
  • Is the poem written in first or third person? Does that affect how you react to the poem?

*N.B* Try reading the poem out loud in a few different ways with different voices, use of the punctuation and see how that changes the tone. Does that change the way you understand the meaning? Does it clarify some meaning or give you more questions? Write down your questions and observations in your annotations.

5. Language…is words.

When you analyse poetry you need to notice the words that are used, and this is the language. The language is like the decoration and furniture, they colour the meaning and make it comprehendible. When you are looking at a poem, notice:

  • Descriptive language
  • Similar words (e.g. poet could use a group of similar words through a poemto continue an idea, e.g. ‘unlatch-unbound-release’ in this instance an idea of being free from restraints)
  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism
  • Pronouns!!*
  • Rhyme

Notice all these different types of words and ask “how do these words convey the poet’s intended meaning? Does the poet convey meaning effectively through these words? Do these words impact my understanding of the poem and why?” You should also think about how these words are emphasised by the form, structure, and punctuation; also, how these words help convey or create tone.

*N.B* A note on pronouns: pronouns are incredibly useful as they tell us the perspective from which the poet is writing. Is the poet writing in first person or third person? First person can make the writing more intimate or personal this can also change the lexicon (type of language: formal/informal). Third person could make the language seem more distant or show that it’s not the poets own experience. However on the flip-side, a poet could also write in the third person about their own experience to speak about it in hindsight, or to show a separation between them and the event. Perhaps this is used to show anguish or pain?

6. Meaning…how do I find it?

When analysing any type of writing you will look for two types of meaning: explicit and implicit. Explicit is the obvious surface level meaning: it is the answer you might think is probably too obvious to be right (but actually, it is). The implicit meaning is when you read between the lines of the text to the understand what message or theme the poet is wanting the reader to understand.

So how to do you go about finding out the meaning and then writing it in your answer? Start with the obvious (explicit): state the obvious, exactly as you see it (use quotes!). Then, from there, go on to show what associated meanings you can notice. Here is when you start going from stating whether there is a metaphor to what this metaphor is showing. For example, if the poet is using imagery and language related to storms and the poem is about a relationship; the poet could be saying that a relationship is like a storm, sometimes there is calm sometimes it is rough. The tides turn, people change, they have emotions that are uncontrollable but you have to go with the waves and stay strong. Here you have started with stating the obvious, then you have shown what it could mean.

Remember to also look at the title of the poem. The title can give you a clue as to the meaning of the poem. Think about why the poet titled the poem with that word or phrase. Ask yourself, “does the title have significance to the meaning of the poem?”

If you’re having trouble finding a quote, think about what in the poem – literally the word or line – told you answer or gave you that idea. That is the quote you should use! Don’t over-think it, it is simply, you got an idea or a thought, what line or word have you that idea or thought.

Final Advice

The above are the 6 basic things you need to notice when analysing unseen poetry. You will not have context so you will need to analyse what is in front of you. One of the brilliant things about the unseen poetry exam is that you cannot revise. That means that there are no extra quotes or contextual information you need to remember, it is purely as exercise to test your skills. So in order to do well in this type of exam is to develop your critical analysis and writing skills, which are skills you are developing throughout your English course anyway.

So, as we are at the end of my 6 basic things to analyse an unseen poem, here us some final advice and takeaways:

  • If ever you start getting lost, go back to the question and then look back at the poem. ALL the answers are in the poem. 
  • Technical devices [punctuation, structure simile, metaphor etc] are the support beams to the language: they enhance, create and reinforce meaning -> so make sure you comment on them in your answer.
  • State the obvious first – because it’s usually the answer!! – then go into detail with explaining ‘why.’
  • Questions are useful! Don’t be worried if you have more questions than answers. Questions are a tool for analysis and they are what you can use to unlock meaning.

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