Poems, unlike other forms of writing, convey messages by uniquely constructing words and language in a very precise manner. The method of constructing words in poetry is a form of art in which much importance is placed on how the words are used rather than what's being shared or discussed.
When we analyze a three page personal essay
on poverty and race we focus our attention on the writer's main argument, supporting evidence, and important discussions or analysis of the topic. In poetry a writer can present the same message in a concise format but rather than searching for supportive evidences we would search for the reason behind the writer choosing a particular form and structure for the poem along with word choice, figurative language, tone and other key poetic elements.
Though many of these elements also fit into essays or other forms of writing, the way we approach and analyze each form is based on its purpose and the particular qualities of that type of writing. For poetry the items mentioned such as figurative language are very important, but may not be as important, for example, in a critical or compare and contrast essay
If not accustomed to reading and analyzing literature in general, poetry may seem a little intimidating. But with most large things, if they are broken down into smaller components they are likely easier to handle. An important factor in analyzing poetry is to know what literary elements to look for, why they were selected by the author and the role they play in accurately relaying the author's message.
Where do I start?
Read the poem several times to yourself and aloud
To obtain a basic literal meaning of a poem you should read it several times. Many people find it helpful to read aloud in general because not only are you using your eyes but also your ears to strengthen comprehension. Also if you read the poem two or three times by the third time you may gain something from it that you didn't notice before.
Summarize the poem in your own words
One way to demonstrate understanding in literature is to paraphrase or summarize a piece. This will help provide you with a general understanding of the poem noting any obvious points and the main topic being discussed.
Pay attention to any overriding themes, patterns or unique implications
This refers mainly to the key elements of a poem (to be discussed later). But overall you should take note of any observations you have of the poem and anything unique that stood out to you or you found interesting. If you're writing an analysis for class you may want to keep these notes handy to assist you in formulating your argument.
What exactly am I looking for?
Though this may depend somewhat on the type of poetic analysis you are conducting, in general, you will be looking for specific things unique to poetry and then analyze how the author utilizes those things to convey his message.
Poetic elements to pay attention to
This is the main topic or subject matter discussed in the poem. For example; triumph, disappointed, love. hate, war, politics etc.
Type or Genre
Knowing the type of poem you are reading will provide you with a better grasp of the specific structure and poetic elements unique to that poem. For example, limerick poems consist of five lines, may be humor-based, and have a very specific rhyme scheme in its structure.
Speaker or Narrator
Figure out who is speaking, telling the story, and to whom they are speaking to.This will not only allow you to better understand what you are reading but may give you some insight into the poem's message (based on the speakers that were chosen and how they may affect the poem).
To help you understand tone, simply think of the exclamation "don't use that tone with me!" Tone is the mood or attitude that the writer portrays through his or her's text. It can change throughout the poem and be obvious or hard to detect. A poem's tone may be sad, joyful, angry, humorous and so on. A poem about emotional topics such as abuse or racism, for example, may come off as angry or accusatory.
Structure or Form
The structure or form of a poem is very important and is one of the very things that makes poetry so special. There are many ways to structure a poem and the poet's choice will tell you a lot about the their objective and overall message. The form of a poem usually refers to it's physical setup such as the amount of stanzas and lines, whether it has rhyme or rhythm, and the poem's meter.
Additionally, poems can be structured as opened or closed. Closed poems have many rules to them and follow a very structured format. *The limerick poem for example follows the rhythm pattern aabba, i.e. that the first, second and fifth lines rhyme with one another and the third and fourth lines rhyme with one another.
This is one thing that brings intrigue and excitement to poetry. Metaphors, similes, allegory, symbolism, all of these many uses of language should be carefully abstracted when studying a poem. If a writer provides a metaphor such as "all the world's a stage" you should identify why he or she is referring to the world as a stage, when we know that literally the world is not a stage. What is he trying to imply with this? How is the use of figurative language important to the overall meaning of the poem?
Historical and Cultural Context
Lastly, the historical and cultural context of a poem is extremely valuable. It can reveal several things about the poem and its purpose as well the author's connection to writing styles of that particular time and place. For a thorough poetry analysis examine the history surrounding your poem and the environment of the author. For example, was it written during post-war times, the renaissance, a time of religious revival, etc.? Answering these questions should unveil some unclear aspects of the poem and the part of the message being conveyed by the author.
Analyzing poetry is not an easy task. When studying each line you may even feel like a detective on the hunt for a hidden treasure. Poets often take a lot of time to convey a powerful message in a small amount of words. So just as they carefully built up the structure of their poem you need to likewise carefully break it down. This takes time, patience, a critical eye and knowledge of poetic terms and styles. Though hopefully overtime this task will significantly improve your analytical skills (since poems are one of the most difficult things to analyze) and overall make you a better student and writer.