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kwikguide - analysing a poem

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1. Plan
2. Write
3. Check

1. Plan
With any poem, it is very important to get a 'well-rounded feel' for what the poem is generally all about and what the poet is trying to achieve. Read the poem several times, if possible coming back to it over a period of days. At GCSE level, most poems you will study have several 'layers' of meaning so you must consider both the 'surface' and the 'deeper' levels within the poem.

The poet's intention in writing the poem will have developed out of some personal motivation or inspiration (i.e. why he or she felt it important to write about this subject in this way). You must try to develop insights into what this motivation might have been.

The motivation may well relate in some way to the context in which the poet lived and wrote - the effect of their time, place and situation. Think about the way the poet might have reacted to the ideas and general beliefs that prevailed in their society at that time.

Make notes of the ideas, feelings (i.e. moods and tones of voice) and images the poem creates as it progresses and its meanings develop. Especially notice how these ideas and images are sequenced and are built up - this forms the structure of the poem. Look at each image or idea and work out how it was created (i.e. the methods or techniques the poet has used for the reader to respond to) ask yourself why such methods and structures might have been chosen.

You should also consider if particular fashions in writing (called literary traditions) are obvious within the poem. These may have influenced the form or style (see below) the poet chose for the poem in a way that is important to its overall effect or meaning (hint: this may be difficult - often such things may only be discernible to a more experienced reader of poetry).

As complex as many poems may seem to be, a poet's raw materials are simple enough: nothing more than words. And - believe it or not - words have just two main qualities that poets can put to use: form and content.


A poem - indeed any written text - can be split into form and content. It is a useful way of considering the effects that are possible using words. You will read below what each term means, but, in reality, the two are intimately combined and cannot be truly separated they are like the two sides of the same coin. However, they are a very helpful way of looking at the different ways by which a writer uses all of the effects of language to help create effective meaning.

What is FORM?
Form is the technical word for the look and sound of language. Poets use the shapes and sounds words make to add extra qualities to the meaning contained in the words themselves. Poets are expert at using patterns of shape and sound to help give, for example, more subtlety or greater impact to their meaning.

Poets use form when they choose to use different lengths of line, stanza and poem or when they cut a sentence up into lines they also use form when they use patterns of sound such as rhythm (i.e. a repeating sequence of stressed syllables), rhyme (i.e. a repeating sequence of final sounds either within or at the end of lines), alliteration (i.e. a repeating sequence of initial sounds), assonance (a repeating a sequence of internal vowel sounds) and onomatopoeia (a word whose sound suggests its meaning).

Here are some more examples of the way a poet can use the form of words:

  • sentence style and length, for example, extra short sentences can mimic real speech
  • line endings can add emphasis to words within a sentence
  • traditional rhythms such as 'iambic pentameter' can appear restrained, formal, 'safe' or controlled
  • pauses can be created between words or lines ('caesuras') to add impact
  • 'run on lines' or 'enjambment' can add interest and impact
  • using traditional forms such as the sonnet can add extra layers of subtle meaning.

What is CONTENT?
Words contain meaning this is their content. Poets choose their words with precision and place them in carefully considered structures to increase the effect and meaning they need.

You will have realised that, especially in poetry, words and phrases can be used in ways that they have more than one 'layer' of meaning (i.e. the word means more than its 'surface' or literal meaning - the one that can be found in a dictionary). A word's basic meaning is technically called its denotation; however, in some contexts or uses, a word can take on extra 'layers of meaning'. These 'associated meanings' are called connotations, i.e. what the word connotes or suggests. As an example, the word 'rose' denotes a flower to a gardener, but in William Blake's poem 'The Sick Rose', the word has a variety of interesting, and often symbolic, connotations:

O Rose, thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Connotation is the lifeblood of poetry. Poets use connotation when they choose words or phrases that 'paint pictures' or create a strong image or feeling. The use of metaphor and personification are ideal ways to create strong images. This kind of language is called 'figurative language'. Another use of connotation is irony. This is when the poet says one thing, but the reader detects that what he or she means is something rather different (sarcasm is a rather offensive or coarse kind of irony intended to hurt someone's feelings). When a poet uses connotation, the reader becomes naturally more involved with the words of the poem because their mind is caused to do a little extra 'work' in finding the meaning and this deepens the effect the poem creates.

What is STYLE?
Style refers to the way a writer chooses suitable and effective language for a particular purpose and audience, as well as to put their own imprint on what they say. Some poets have a particular style which identifies them - William Wordsworth is such a poet, as is William Blake. This aspect of style is often called the poet's 'voice'. When you discuss 'style', you are looking for and commenting on only the particular choices of words and phrases (which must be something to do with the way they LOOK, SOUND or MEAN) that the poet seems to have made to add to the overall effect or meaning of the poem.



Imagining yourself in the poet's place, time and situation can help you to develop the insights needed to provide answers to the all-important questions:
why (reasons and intentions) and how (reasons and methods).

2. Write
a. Read the question with great care and make sure you highlight its key parts or bullet points as these must be covered in your answer.

b. Begin to tackle the question immediately, avoiding waffle and wasted words: simply state which poems you are writing about and how they will help you answer the question next, briefly summarise what each poem is about generally (its theme) and specifically (its content) end the first paragraph by briefly suggesting what each poet's overall message for their poems is and why you feel the poets were motivated to write about these subjects in this way.



c. If you intend writing a thesis essay (click here for extra help), now is the time to state your thesis.

d. Spend the remainder of your essay exploring the poet's methods (see above) in a way that allows a full answer to the question to develop. If your essay is a thesis essay, the remainder of the essay should be used to support your thesis by providing analysis, evidence and insight from within the poems.

e. Conclude by restating the main point of the essay and by summarising your major points (but keep this short and avoid repeating them in exactly the same way). Finish with a brief statement of your personal interest in the poets and their poems.

f. You will probably be asked to compare two or more poems in your GCSE examination. Remember that when you compare and contrast poems, it is best to write about similar or contrasting ideas or methods side by side as you progress (i.e. you use each paragraph to covers a similar aspect or part of each poem). This can be difficult, however an alternative approach is to write about the first poem in full, then move on to the second. As you write about the second, you can then compare and contrast it to the first and so on. If even this proves difficult, you can write about each poem and in your final paragraphs compare and contrast them - never fail to compare and contrast when you are asked to write about more than one poem.


3. Check


In this part of the exam, you gain marks for writing in an accurate, clear and fluent way. Each year the examiner's report mentions that many students failed to achieve a higher grade because they failed to check and correct their work. Always give yourself time to check your writing thoroughly before handing in the exam paper.

Read each sentence after you have written it
Write using a variety of sentence types and styles but remember especially that shorter sentences are often more interesting because they are crisper and clearer. An occasional ultra-short sentence can add real impact to writing.

Never fail to re-read your sentences after writing them to check that they are complete in their sense, accurate in their grammar and spelling and follow on logically and smoothly from the last.

Check every paragraph.
A paragraph is a written discussion that covers a single topic - one topic among the many that are needed to cover the subject matter of the whole piece of writing. One of the sentences in the paragraph, and quite often the first one, is called the 'topic sentence'. This is the sentence that introduces, or tells 'in a nut shell', what the paragraph is going to be about. The remaining sentences do no more than expand and explore the ideas raised by the topic sentence in more depth. No points that are unrelated to the main topic should be covered in the same paragraph.

Each paragraph should flow smoothly from its predecessor. This is achieved by the use of a subtle 'hook sentence' at the end of the paragraph this is a sentence that 'hooks' into the new topic of the next paragraph.

To correct a missed paragraph simply put this mark where you want in to be:// then, in your margin write: // = new paragraph. The examiner will not mark you down for this so long as you have not forgotten all of your paragraphs.

Examine each comma
Over, or misuse, of commas is a common and important error that can lose many marks. Many of you will occasionally use a comma instead of a full stop to end some of your sentences. You are failing to recognise where the end of the sentence should have been. Too much of this leads to a dreary and difficult-to-read style because it destroys the clarity and crispness that is a necessary part of all good writing.

A sentence is a group of words that is about one main idea or 'thought'. It should seem 'complete' to its reader. Sentences that drift into several ideas, or which seem incomplete, are less clear and interesting to read. Ending a sentence with a comma (or even nothing but a space) instead of a full stop will allow it to 'run on' or drift in this way. Try to use commas only to mark off parts of a sentence so that the sentence reads more smoothly or makes clearer sense.

Look at every apostrophe.
Look at the words you have used that end in 's'. Are they plurals? If so the chances are they do not need an apostrophe. Apostrophes are used to show when a letter has been missed out (as in: shouldn
't) and when two nouns belong to each other (as in: the school's entrance). Also... make sure that when you write 'it's' you do mean 'it is' (as in it's cold) not 'belonging to it' (i.e. as in: its surface).