How to Interpret a Poem
To begin with, read the poem through once slowly without rushing through it. Unlike prose, poetry sometimes takes a longer time to be understood and appreciated because it can have many nuances. Therefore it is best to sit down quietly and read the poem through - line-by-line.
Next, figure out who is the “speaker” of the poem. A poem can be written by a poet, but the poet is not always necessarily the speaker of the poem. In fact there are numerous poems where the poetic voice is not the author but someone else.
Then look for what the poem is all about. In other words, what is the subject the poem deals with? Is the poet talking about some particular object or a feeling or a subject? For example, in Sylvia Plath’s "Daddy" Plath talks about her father and her image of him. In the poem "Ozymandias" Shelley is not talking about the statue but about the fickleness of fame and fortune. Some poems deal with a person or object, while others deal with feelings and emotions and still others deal with themes such as the one in Shelley’s "Ozymandias".
Now look for the mood of the poem. What emotion does the poem predominantly portray? Is it one of happiness or sadness? Does it talk about love or hatred? Does it deal with passion or jealousy or some other personal emotion or is it a holding forth on some common and everyday subject? Is the poet trying to tell you what he/she felt or is the poet talking about his/her thought process and not emotions.
I suggest that up until this point you do not attempt to know the poet. For once you know the poet and who he/she is and what his/her works are, that knowledge might influence your interpretation of the poem. That does not always work out well for us. But now once you have analyzed the poem yourself, go ahead and read a little about the poet and who he/she is, what their works are, what they predominantly write about etc.
Also read a little about the background of the actual poem itself – when it was written and under what circumstances. Not always is this information relevant or necessary but sometimes it proves invaluable in our understanding of the poem.
Now reread the poem in the light of the information you have gleaned and see where your ideas differ. If they do differ, reflect on why you thought what you did initially and what has changed your opinion now.
But in all this, remember that poetry is often highly subjective and there is no clear demarcation between a right and wrong explanation. Your analysis of a poem is just as valid as the next person’s provided you are able to substantiate your claims to your views. Interpreting a poem is a very enjoyable experience if you go about it the right way and you can do it not just for an assignment or as a project, but also as an extremely interesting literary exercise you can indulge in for leisure.
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