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Interpretation of Poetry for AP English Literature

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Interpretation is not license for you to say just anything. Your comments/analysis/interpretation must be based on the given text.

How do I begin to interpret poetry?

To thoroughly understand a poem, you should be able to view it and read it from three different angles or viewpoints.

The first level is the literal reading of the poem. This is the discovery of what the poem is actually saying. For this, you only use the text:

  • Vocabulary
  • Structure
  • Imagery
  • Poetic devices

The second level builds on the first and draws conclusions from the connotation of the form and content and the interpretation of symbols. The third level refers to your own reading and interpretation of the poem. Here, you apply the processes of levels one and two, and you bring your own context or frame of reference to the poem. Your only restriction is that your interpretation is grounded in, and can be supported by, the text of the poem itself.

To illustrate this approach, let's analyze a very simple poem.

      Where ships of purple gently toss
      On seas of daffodil,
      Fantastic sailors mingle
      And then, the wharf is still.
  1. Read it.
  2. Respond. (You like it; you hate it. It leaves you cold. Whatever.)
  3. Check rhyme and meter. We can see there is some rhyme, and the meter is iambic and predominantly trimeter. The first and third lines are irregular. (If this does not prove to be critical to your interpretation of the poem, move on.)
  4. Check the vocabulary and syntax. Are there any words you are not familiar with?
  5. Look for poetic devices and imagery.
  6. Highlight, circle, connect key images and words.
  7. Begin to draw inferences from the adjectives, phrases, verbs.

As an example, we have provided the following notes:

Interpretation of Poetry

Syntax

  • Ships of purple = purple ships (Where or when do you see purple ships?)
  • Seas of daffodil = daffodil seas (When would seas be yellow?)
  • Fantastic sailors = sailors of fantasy = clouds moving, birds flying (What might they be?)
  • Wharf is still = place is quiet = ?

Put your observations together and formulate your interpretation. Write it below.

Some students have said that they saw a field of flowers, bees and butterflies, a coronation, a celebration, and/or a royal event. These are all valid interpretations. Remember, this is only a simple exercise to acquaint you with the approaches you can use to analyze complex poetry. By the way, Emily Dickinson was writing about a sunset over Boston harbor.

Poetry for Analysis

This section will walk you through the analysis of several poems, presenting the poetry and a series of directed questions for you to consider. For maximum benefit, work with a highlighter and refer often to the poem. Always read the entire poem before you begin the analysis.

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