We know you've tried all these years to avoid it. You stayed the hell away from those cats haunting the coffee shops, the ones that dress in black and smoke American Spirits. Or maybe you're actually into this stuff. It's perfectly legal. More likely, though, it's the one required literature course you just couldn't avoid.

The time has come to read a poem, figure out what the hell the poet is talking about, and ask yourself why he couldn't just send a telegram. We're here to help: read on, and learn how to interpret a poem with flair. And guys, as to whether poetry will really help you "woo women," we're afraid the jury's out on that one.


Before you interpret a poem, there's a little detail you have to make sure of: that what you're reading is, in fact, a poem. So what makes a poem a poem? Concentrate on these five things: the line, the sound, the density, the associations, and the irony. Not every poem will exhibit all of these features, but they're a good starting point anyway.

Attention to the line as a basic element, not the sentence

The line is a poem's most basic unit. The length of each line of a poem is part of its composition. Compare this to normal prose, where it doesn't really matter where on the page the sentence ends, just so long as it ends. The length of the lines in a poem will affect the meaning of the words within those lines, as well as the sound and rhythm as the poem is read.

Line breaks can essentially be used to add another form of punctuation.

Often, a sentence or clause in a poem ends at the end of a line, and this is called an "end-stop." But poets also commonly allow a sentence or clause to leak over into the next line, a process called enjambment, and this has interesting effects on how a phrase is read and how we react to it. The choice of words that come before and after a line break may also be used to alter a poem's meaning. Here's an example of enjambment:

Whenever I think of a pretty
Girl, I grow old.

Greater focus on the sound of words

The most obvious way poems make unique use of sound is through rhyme (if you don't know what "rhyme" is, then 1) go back to kindergarten, and 2) OD on Dr. Seuss). Full rhyme, rhyming the last word of each line, has become less frequent in this century, as modern poets find the technique too simple and predictable. However, looser types of half rhyme, matching some of the sounds between words at various places throughout a poem, are still a fundamental component of most modern poetry. Be conscious of when a modern poet uses rhyme, and ask yourself: what is his/her purpose is in using it? For example, does it comment on tradition? Does it more closely associate two images?

Rhythm (the flow and beat of a poem) is another important aspect of a poem's sound, and a metered poem has a carefully prescribed rhythmic structure.


Density refers to a poem's richness in texture that is, the level of mental effort required to draw out its multiple levels of meaning and emotion. We read poetry more slowly and carefully than other prose (when we read it at all) because of these subsurface meanings that arise from what the words imply, their connotations, in addition to what they mean literally, their denotations. Density is what can often make a poem such a bitch to read.

Much of poetry's density comes from its focus on simile, metaphor and symbolic language. While a simile compares two dissimilar things directly, using the words "like" or "as" (you're as happy as a dog in heat), a metaphor implies that one thing actually is another thing (you are a dog in heat). A symbol is a concrete thing that stands in for another thing, usually an idea or quality. You probably learned about these three things in eighth grade.


By associating concrete images in unexpected ways, poetry is able to get closer to abstract concepts like Life and Love and Death, engaging our emotions rather than our intellect. Poetry can thus do more than just signify, using the limited number of words in our language. Instead it uses language to paint a picture. For example, in Emily Dickinson's "The Chariot (Because I Could Not Stop for Death)," the image of death coming for the narrator is conveyed by the image of a thoughtful coachman, rather than a literal description of her death, and the poem is more haunting and effective as a result.


Often a poem introduces distance between what happens or is said and what we expect to happen or to perceive, causing us to feel the tension between the two conflicting ideas. This uneasy (and sometimes amusing) distance, or disassociation, is called irony. It's easier to illustrate than explain. Emily Dickinson uses irony in much of her poetry, as when in "There's a certain slant of light" she refers to light as a thing with weight, thus playing on the fact that light literally has no weight, and also that the word "light" literally signifies the absence of weight.

Despite - and in part because of - these contradictions, we know what she means. Irony does not mean simply, "things that suck." For example, if it were to rain on your wedding day, that would suck, but it would not be ironic. A better example of irony would be to write a song with irony as its topic, and then to list a bunch of events that aren't at all ironic. Don't ya think?