Poetry Explained

How to Approach Unseen Poetry

Approaching unseen poetry is one of the more challenging things that students might be asked to do in the classroom. How do you read a poem you’ve never seen or heard before and effectively understand what the poet is trying to say? This article, which should help any reader of unseen poetry, covers the best place to start, managing notes, and drawing conclusions. 

Before you start reading a poem is important to ensure that you have a good understanding of what your instructor or examiner wants you to do. This includes having a well-rounded knowledge of terms that are going to be necessary for completing your analysis. These include types of meter, like iambic pentameter, and poetic forms like sonnets, odes, elegies, and more. Take a look at Poem Analysis’s Literary Terms Glossary for more. 

It’s likely that your instructor, exam, or workbook will ask you to complete an analysis of language, structure and form, context, and literary devices. This might seem like a lot to handle, but it can actually be quite simple if you take the time to read the poem completely and take notes along the way. 

How to Approach Unseen Poetry


1, Read the poem twice

One of the most important things you can do while analyzing an unseen poem is to take the time to read it twice (at least!). You’re going to be far more successful if you use this time wisely. Do not rush through the text, anxious to start writing. The poem you’ve been assigned might be relatively straightforward but there is a great deal that can be easily missed if you try to get to the end as fast as possible. 


2. Consider language, structure, and techniques

When you read the poem for a second time, or perhaps the third, start thinking about what techniques the poet used. This is where your knowledge of literary devices and poetic structures is going to come in handy. Can you recognize a rhyme scheme? Does it match the rhyme schemes of any known poetic structures? For example, if your assigned poem has fourteen lines it’s a safe bet that it’s also going to conform to some other elements of a sonnet. 


3. Analyze language and form 

You’ll also want to ask yourself what kind of language the poet is using. Is it flowery and complex? Is the diction colloquial or more poetic? If it’s the latter, and the poet uses words that you don’t understand, make sure to circle those and take the time to figure out their context and possible definition. If you have access to a dictionary, it’s imperative that you read the definition, even if you’re vaguely aware of what the word might mean. Often, the smallest differences in definitions (for example what you think a word means and what it actually means) can help you put together central aspects of the poem. Similarly, it’s possible that a word that seems out of place, for which you know the definition, actually has a secondary or tertiary meaning that you aren’t aware of. If the poem was written in the 1600s or 1700s, it’s very likely that this will be the case. 

In regard to the structure and form of a poem, an important question to ask yourself is why a poet chose a particular form. If it’s a sonnet, why is it a sonnet and not a villanelle? If the poem is unrhymed, what does that contribute compared to having every line rhyme perfectly? This often adds additional meaning to the content as well. 


4. Annotate 

While reading, one of the most effective ways to understand an unseen poem is by annotating the text. This means physically writing on your copy of the poem. If you can’t write on it, take the time to transcribe it onto another sheet of paper (a practice that can also be quite helpful on its own). Highlight important words, underline sections you need to spend more time on, draw arrows, write definitions, do anything that you think will help you make this unseen poem less intimidating. Other things to consider while annotating are if words or images repeated. Then, what mood do those images create? What do you think the poet wants you, as the reader, to feel or think about? 


5. Start writing your response

When you feel like you’ve got a handle on what the poem is about and the techniques, form, and language the writer used (and why) it’s time to start writing your response. When writing, make sure to demonstrate your knowledge. Show the examiner that you can identify the poem’s poetic techniques and the poet’s style. You’ll likely also want to explore the poem’s theme, tone, mood, and effect on the reader. Depending on what your exam asks, you may need to offer your personal response to these elements. Your interpretation of the poem’s meaning may or may not play a big role in your exam essay. If the former is the case, make sure to engage with the questions effectively and provide examples from the poem for why you’ve come to your conclusions in regard to its meaning. 


6. Finalize your answers

Before finishing your writing, make sure to go back and check that you’ve given the examiner what they’re looking for. If they asked for something specific, it must be in your essay. The most successful responses have specific examples from the poem and were successfully justified. 

If you’re still having trouble figuring out how to structure your response to an unseen poem, it might be beneficial to take some time and look over other expert examples of unseen poem analyses. Consider the way that these experts phrase their answers and how they use citations to their advantage. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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