How to Read a Poem

by Cate Mahoney

For those who find poetry opaque, graduate student Cate Mahoney, Princeton Writes’ University Administrative Fellow, has this advice.

OK: first you actually read it. Read it twice: first to enjoy it, second to feel it. Then, if you want to analyze it—if you like it, or if you need to for a class—look for a few things. I start with imagery, word choice, rhythm, and sound.

Basically, you want to figure out what images the poem is making and how it’s doing that, and if that narrative changes through the work. Word choice: what word sticks out? Why? (It could be a loud word, a vibrant word, a strong word—something that startles you when you’re reading through, or something that makes you feel pleasure and you’re not sure why).

Rhythm: how is this poem moving? Does it stop and suddenly start again in a weird place? Is it moving along at a nice rate and then seems to gunk up because of periods, commas, semi-colons? A dash? What does that change of pace do to the words around it?

Sound: this goes with word choice, but it basically means – how do the actual sounds of the poem change, what moods do they create? Is there alliteration, assonance, rhyme? How is the poet coupling words together through their sound?

If you are mystified by a word in a poem, look it up. Look at the definition, the synonyms – this way you can figure out why the poet chose this specific word and not others.

Let’s turn to a poem by Emily Dickinson. She’s known as a “difficult” poet, but she’s awesome and often funny, and her difficulty is akin to a puzzle that reveals a new image each time you try to take a crack at it.

Here’s my go at one of them, from an article I published on ED and elegy:

“Dickinson’s speaker often begins with a flush of certainty, only to rapidly undermine herself:

The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be –

But how can that stupendous come

Which never went away?


The poem is presumably about confronting the unexpected: ‘the Infinite’ as God or, in my interpretation, death. When the poem is broken into two independent clauses, the speaker is separated into two minds—and the mind which assumes is put to question. Dickinson, however, never allows ‘the Infinite’ to take more shape than as a ‘Guest,’ maintaining its amorphousness through the ambiguity of the third line, which can be read either with emphasis on ‘that,’ ‘stupendous,’ or ‘come,’ depending on whether ‘the Infinite’ is envisioned as a nondescript pronoun, as a colossal adjective assuming noun form, or—in a stretch of imagination—as a noun in a verbal mode, for the poem reckons with conceptualizing motion and stasis.

The speaker first introduces ‘the Infinite’ as a guest, that is, as one who comes to stay with the speaker. But Dickinson immediately makes us question the meaning of ‘stay,’ since the Infinite also ‘never went away.’ Departure and arrival are condensed into an inseparable dual action: the guest cannot stay over because that presence was intrinsically there already. Yet that is not the only evocative resonance heard throughout the poem. Within the twenty-word piece, Dickinson plants the sibilant sounds of ‘sudden,’ ‘guest,’ ‘assumed,’ and ‘stupendous.’ This sibilance, combined with the assonance of the ‘uh,’ in ‘sudden,’ ‘assumed,’ and ‘stupendous’ forms a subtle refrain of ‘us,’ reiterating the closeness of the speaker—the living—and the Infinite.”

From “Disavowing Elegy: ‘That Pause of Space’ and Emily Dickinson’s Discourse of Mourning.” The Emily Dickinson Journal. 24.1 (2015): 52-71.