A guide to analyzing poetry

In poem analyzation there is a fine line between understanding the authors intent and over analyzing it. Many poems must be taken simply for what they are because they are to short or they are to simple.  Many people make the mistake of reading way to much into a poem when it is not justified. For example, Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “the cold before the dawn”.

In this poem Rexroth presents an image of the night right before the rising of the sun. There are two options the can be pursed. Leave it as it is and take it for exactly what says literally, or to examine it for deeper meaning. In this particular poem there does not seem to be much more than a descriptive phrases about the nighttime. However there are several phrases that are worth examining. If there is a word you don’t understand then it probably well worth finding the definition so that you can better understand the image the author wishes to convey. Often times a poet will use obscure wording to draw attention to a certain phrase and pack more meaning into it. For example “ the gibbous moon”. This particular phrase means simply that the moon is not full, but is also more than a half moon. In this instance would it be wise to ascribe more meaning based on our feelings? No. This word is being used simply to give the reader a clearer picture of the scene that Rexroth is trying to paint. The last line is also interesting. It says “ the peacocks cry to each other, as if in pain”. Now this one we must take more seriously. Why would Rexroth put this in? What do peacocks have to do with time of night?  A good test might be to ask yourself what the author is trying to convey through a particular phrase.  In this case the question would be is this merely an event that happened to Rexroth that he is describing? Or is there deeper emotional or philosophical meaning behind it? Here the reasonable conclusion would be to assume that this is a scene or event that Rexroth experienced and is describing poetically. In that case we should examine only the image of the poem. If Rexroth is trying to convey an emotional state through an observation of nature then we should take a closer look at his words and try and deduce what they are saying.

The key word here is “reasonable”. If it does not seem reasonable to assume a meaning or argument behind the words, then we should not. Unless a poet it is being purposefully   obtuse then the meaning behind their poem should be clear and not hidden. Making the mistake of either over analyzing or under analyzing can be harmful to our experience of poetry. Either by making us bored with because nothing has any meaning, or by adding things to poems that the author did not intend and therefore ruining the message meant to be communicated.


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