I remember it like it was yesterday – entering that poetry course in college on Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. The desks were in a U-shape, and the professor sat in a comfy chair leaned all the way back with his hands clasped in his lap. I was a little shy then.
I sat at the back of the room (farthest from the professor) and got out my notebook, textbook and my favorite pen. Class began, and we dug into analysis of “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost first. I smiled – I had read and prepped for this poem! It was SO easy. Right?
Approximately two minutes later, I had cold chills running down my back as I forced myself to breathe normally. Every single person in the room was making really, REALLY deep comments about a poem I had seen as basic. They had covered my “analysis” of the poem in the first fifteen seconds, and moved onto elements of it that my brain hadn’t even registered.
Did I dash from the room at the end of class? Honestly, I can’t remember. I just remember feeling totally, and utterly, worthless. Stupid. Incapable. And I had been the valedictorian of my class in high school.
After that day, I went on a mission to figure out techniques for analyzing poetry in a way that actually brought every aspect of it to light for me. So, I will share with you my technique that I dubbed, “Layering”. I hope it provides enough insight into analysis to aid you in your own journey through any poem you choose.
This analysis technique is performed much like its name implies – reading through a poem multiple times to find each “layer” of meaning. Each read through is deliberate, with a different focus each time. At the top of the page, make a KEY for each color marker used when layering.
Layer 1 – Gut Reaction
Print out your poem with room in the margins and between stanzas. I personally print my poems so that it is centered on the page, and I write my “Layer 1” notes on the left hand side of the paper.
This is the most relaxed layer. Taking a black fine point marker, I read through the poem (including the title) once.
As I read, any thoughts that pop into my head, any at all, I jot down in the margins near the line that incited the thought.
When teaching this to my students, I tell them that this is them writing down their gut reaction to the words. It is important not to “judge” our thoughts in this layer, but to get them out of our system. This clears the way for deeper analysis later, since we have acknowledged out brains initial connections.
Layer 2 – Author Angst
Layer 2 requires some brief research on the poem itself, as well as the poet.
I dig into Google and look up when the poem was written/published. Then, I do some research on trustworthy website that reveal the life of the poet. I especially pay attention to what was occurring in the poet’s life during the time the poem was published.
Oftentimes, any anxieties or personal issues the poet is grappling with can become apparent through their poems. By researching their life story, the meaning behind the poem can become more clear.
It is also crucial to find out what was happening globally during that time. For example, if a poem was published in 1950, the reader must know that World War II had ended merely years before. This may affect the analysis of the poem.
Then, read the poem again with this new understanding. Write notes about what surfaces in the left margin, but with a colored fine-point marker.
Layer 3 – Literary Whispers
At this point, you’ve read the poem twice. You will have noticed certain literary elements are present throughout. Choose one significant literary element, and read the poem again searching for the meaning behind its inclusion.
This layer can (and probably should) be repeated multiple times for different literary elements. Each poem is unique in its use of literary elements, and so it is difficult to make a concrete number for how many times this layer should be repeated.
For this layer, I choose a different-colored, fine-point marker and write on the right-side margin.
When teaching “layering” to students, I offer them this comprehensive list of poetry terms. They can scour the list and choose a literary element to use for this layer, or choose one that stood out to them while reading.
Layer 4 – Rhyme Shenanigans
With poetry, it is important to pay attention to the rhyme scheme that the poet chose when composing their literary work. With a new color marker, I go line-by-line and mark a, b, c, d and so forth for each rhyme. For example:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
BY ROBERT FROST
Whose woods these are I think I know. (a)
His house is in the village though; (a)
He will not see me stopping here (b)
To watch his woods fill up with snow. (a)
My little horse must think it queer (b)
To stop without a farmhouse near (b)
Between the woods and frozen lake (c)
The darkest evening of the year. (b)
He gives his harness bells a shake (c)
To ask if there is some mistake. (c)
The only other sound’s the sweep (d)
Of easy wind and downy flake. (c)
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, (d)
But I have promises to keep, (d)
And miles to go before I sleep, (d)
And miles to go before I sleep. (d)
Frost’s rhyme scheme follows a very strict a, a, b, a scheme throughout the first few stanzas. It isn’t until the last stanza that all of the lines rhyme with each other.
Looking at this, I would dig deeper and try to make some meaning from this choice. The poem itself is talking about a man travelling at night through snow. The rhyme scheme may suggest the piling up of snow, and the last stanza is the culmination of the snow piles.
Layer 5 – Metaphorical Magic
After you have “layered” the poem enough times that you feel you have a deep grasp of the content, you must read the poem a final time.
Search for a metaphorical meaning to the poem, one that goes far beyond the “gut reaction” summary, and ties in elements of each of the previous layers.
This is where the true analysis is happening. The previous layers were the footwork, while this is the end result. You will find that your mind no longer entertains the simple ideas from layer one, and instead can form intricate and thoughtful responses to the meaning of the poem itself.
Did you find this useful? Please let me know! I enjoy hearing about your success stories.