Close Reading of a Poem (50 pts)

With your groupmates, perform a close reading of your assigned poem and prepare a GooglePresentation on it. You will be the experts on the poem, and you will teach the entire class about the poem.

Read stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word. What does the poem say? What does it mean to your group? Any interpretation is a possibility — as long as you can support it with evidence from the poem.

We will work on these in class on Tuesday and return to them on Thursday (Wednesday is for peer editing haikus). Everyone in the group will be a part of the presentation to the class, meaning everyone must speak.

In your presentation:

  • Discuss what you believe the poem means.
  • Show evidence of your interpretation — point to particular parts of the poem that support your interpretation.
  • Point out interesting figurative language or other literary devices.
  • Discuss what you think the theme of the poem is — remember, theme is a SENTENCE, not a word. (See notes on theme below.)
  • If you include images, please cite them.

Ideas to help you out — look at:



Pay exceedingly close attention to what individual words mean—and especially to what you think might be keywords, since this is where meaning can be concentrated.

  • Which words stand out, and why?

Consider how words may carry more than one meaning. A dictionary is obviously useful, especially one based on historical principles, since it will point to how the meanings of words may have changed over time. “Silly” once meant “helpless.”

  • Do any words carry non-contemporary or unfamiliar meanings?
  • Do any words likely carry multiple and/or ambiguous meanings?  
  • Do repeated words carry the same meaning when repeated, or do they change? Words often gather or evolve in meaning when repeated.  
  • Do particular words or phrases seem drawn to or connected with each other? These often add up so that a clearer sense of the poem emerges.
  • Do you notice lots of material or immaterial things (nouns) or lots of action (verbs)? Is the poem concrete, about specific things and places, or is the poem more abstract, about concepts or ideas? Is the poem full of movement, or does it seem to stay still and look at one thing?
  • Do certain words seem to clash with each other, and what effect does this have? Think in terms of oppositions, tensions, conflicts, and binaries.

2. TONE:

Address the tone of the speaker or narrator, which is the attitude taken by the poem’s voice toward the subject or subjects in the poem:

  • What is the attitude taken by the “voice” of the poem toward the subjects of the poem? Is the tone serious, ironic, amorous, argumentative, distant, intimate, somber, abrupt, playful, cheerful, despondent, conversational, yearning, etc.—or is it mixed, changing, ambiguous, or unclear?


Related to word meaning is figurative language, which often plays a crucial role in both condensing language yet expanding meaning. Most generally, figurative language refers to language that is not literal. The phrase “fierce tears” (the personification of tears) is not literal, but it is both precise and suggestive in carrying meaning.

  • Are certain words used in unusual, non-literal, non-standard, exaggerated, or metaphorical ways? What effect do these figures of speech have?
  • Which words or phrases are used literally (they denote something literal) and which are used figuratively (they connote something figurative)? 

Much of what we read is literal: The evening sky was dark; he looked up; he felt sick. Figurative language refers to language not used literally—it is used abstractly, indirectly, and often evocatively. The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Here we have an evening (a thing), spreading (an action), a patient (thing), etherizing (an action), and a table (thing). But an evening cannot be a drugged patient spread out upon a table, perhaps ready to be operated upon; this description cannot be literally true (there is no patient, no etherizing, no table, and evenings don’t literally spread out against skies); this language is used figuratively.

  • How does non-literal or figurative language suggest a certain meaning?
  • What mood or feeling is evoked via this figurative, non-literal language?


When figurative language (like metaphor or simile) provides a picture that evokes any of the senses, we call this imagery. “She is the sun” (a simile) contains imagery of light and warmth (the senses of sight and touch).

  • What imagery—pictures or senses that are evoked in words—is present in the poem? What imagery, if any, is most striking, frequent, or patterned?
  • What images seem related or connected to each other?
  • What mood or atmosphere is created by the imagery?
  • Which details stand out? Why?
  • What sense (if any) seems to dominate the poem: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell?


Poetry sometimes contains brief references to things outside itself—a person, place, or thing—that will expand, clarify, or complicate its meaning. Sometimes they are obvious and direct, and sometimes they are subtle, indirect, and debatable. Allusions are frequently references made to other texts (for example, to the Bible, or to another poem).

  • What allusions, if any, can you detect?
  • What effect do the allusions have upon the poem?
  • If it is a literary allusion, how does it relate to or connect with the original text?


symbol represents or stands for something other than the image itself. Asymbol, then, is often something concrete—a word, a thing, a place, a person (real of fictitious), an action, an event, a creation, etc.—that represents something larger, abstract, or complex—an idea, a value, a belief, an emotion. A river (a thing) can be symbol for life; Gomorrah (a place) can be a symbol of shameless sin; Homer Simpson (a fictitious person) can be a symbol of innocent stupidity; a strawberry (a thing) can be a symbol of sensual love.

  • Does the poem have any clear or central symbols? What meaning do they bring to the poem?


  • Are the ideas of the poem simple or complex, small or large?
  • Is there one main problem in the poem? How does the poem think through that problem?
  • What are the ideas that the poem seeks to embody in images?
  • What is the poem’s process of thinking? Does it change its “mind” as it proceeds?
  • Does the poem proceed logically or illogically? Can you tell the way it is thinking, or is it unclear, opaque, and confusing?
  • How do the ideas change from line to line, stanza to stanza?
  • Does the poem offer an argument?
  • Does the poem reflect a particular experience, feeling, or concept?

“Purity” is a subject, not a theme; “purity is vulnerability” is a theme. “Theme” refers to a larger, more general, or universal message—a big idea—as well as to something that you could take away from the work and perhaps apply to life. One way to determine a theme is to

1) ask yourself what the poem is about;

2) come up with some one-word answers to that question (subjects of the poem); and

3) ask what general attitude (tone) is taken towards those subjects in the poem.

You might conclude that, for example, “love,” “trust,” or “loss” are subjects. Now, try to figure out what the attitude in the poem is toward that one-word subject and you have theme—for example, “love is dangerous,” “you cannot trust people close to you,” “loss makes you stronger.” But don’t think this is always easy or straightforward: many poems resist reduction to simple themes or even subjects, and such resistance—sometimes in the form of ambiguityparadox, abstraction, or complexity—strengthens our interest in and engagement with the poem. Poems are not necessarily answers, but they may be problems or questions.


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