Tips For Poetry Interpretation

Without understanding nothing is possible. Not comprehending what a poem means eventually begets a false, hollow performance. A reader must be invested to the piece in order for the audience to believe the words. Without grasping the theme or the significance of composition of the work a competitor will flounder. Provided are eight considerations to be made of the piece to form a solid interpretation, and thus a better performance.


Diction, or the language of the piece, is something that should be thought of while reading a poem. Circle/underline/mark any words that strike as significant to the piece. Word choice is often a clue to the intent of the piece; why use this word over another? Strong words or words that carry weight and stick out also indicate which words to stress while reading aloud. If any words are unknown, look up their meaning in the dictionary to fully discern what that word means. Also, be aware that some words have taken on new meanings over time. Definitions change, and these new/older definitions might alter the interpretation of a section of poetry.


Any sort of punctuation (comma, italics, boldface, semicolon, colon, ellipsis, hyphen, period, capitalization, pauses, etc.) is key to not only finding the piece’s rhythm but also an interpretation. As punctuation is language’s method for telling a reader how to read literature, it follows that punctuation can give insight into meaning behind a line/sentence. Take for instance the use of italics or boldface. Both are a means to add significance to a word, yet both have slightly different interpretations. A word/phrase in boldface implies confidence, urgency, certainty and, well, being bold about an opinion. Italics however is “quieter” and a tad more subtle than boldface. Also, pending on the context of the sentence/line, italics can express uncertainty or a calm confidence, among other things.

Looking at sentences with or without pauses also brings about different interpretations. The use of many pauses such as line breaks or multiple marks of pauses (commas, colons, etc.) can mean a narrator is thinking, uncertain, has a fear to speak, is calm, and more. A line with little punctuation can indicate high energy, fear, excitement, and so on.

Also, words that are capitalized have more significance than those without capitalization because being in uppercase is a sign of importance. Realize though that hundreds of years ago there was little regulation of punctuation. This was due to a minority of people, spaced between vast distances with almost no communication, being capable of reading/writing. Thus, styles changed by region--and other factors. Therefore, while some words might be capitalized for significance, some are done so based upon customs of the area and the writer’s preference. Literally, some authors would capitalize every noun because they felt it was necessary. So take heed.

Further, the type of punctuation used holds meaning as well. There is a distinct difference between the use of a period and a semicolon. Each mark of punctuation has its own use (reference a dictionary to learn what precisely). And each mark has a certain weight that goes with each one; almost a symbolic meaning. Such as a comma being merely used as a short breath/break and an ellipsis implying thought, a piecing together of lines, or prolonged pause. A period is a definite end to a thought. Use context clues to figure out the rational behind the poet’s use of a semicolon in one section over a hyphen. Sometimes, these little choices in punctuation can influence the interpretation of a poem.

Structure and Tone

How the poem is constructed can influence the interpretation of the piece. For instance, changes in meter (the breakdown of a line into feet which are the sequences of stressed and unstressed syllables) alters the rhythm of a poem, which in turn can change the tone of the piece. An iambic pentameter sounds different from an anapestic tetrameter. Also, whenever there is a change in meter that is usually the poet indicating there is something important. Even adding the use of rhyme might mean something vital was introduced. Further, look towards the overall structure of a piece. How do the stanzas or the placement of words on the paper (such as E. E. Cummings unusual style) effect reader perspective. And of course always be aware of the tone, the feeling, of the words and piece. The tone is usually a clear sign of what prevailing emotion dominates the interpretation of a poem.

Poetic Devices

Readers must constantly be aware of the use of poetic device within a poem. Things such as personification, assonance, alliteration, repetition, symbolism, metaphor, simile, etc. all add to the interpretation of a poem. For example, assonance, alliteration, and repetition are all techniques used to call attention to a phrase or particular word. These can be indicators of stressed importance. Ask why a form of poetic device was used and if it holds bearing to the overall interpretation of the piece. There was a reason why the poet employed its use; it is the reader’s duty to gather why.

Author’s Perspective and Zeitgeist

Oftentimes knowing what the author’s intent for the poem was helps with the interpretation of the piece. This is not to say the author’s perspective is everything. Usually a piece can be interpreted in ways the author never considered. This does not make either view more right than the other. What matters is finding an interpretation that works for the performer and the message they wish to deliver--as long as this view is supported by the text. All that is being suggested is that grasping what the author’s vision was for the poem can offer a new interpretation never thought of for a poem. Also, doing some research into the zeitgeist (the historical context; the ideologies and general views of the populace, minority or mass, for a particular time period) in which the poem was written can yield many benefits. For instance, a poem written in Victorian England will most certainly have been influenced by the standards of the day. Thus, an interpretation of the poem develops a significantly different implication when viewed from that period’s viewpoints. Even the subtext or language of a poem can take on new meaning as words and context often alter throughout time.


The goal of an interpretation is to arrive at a theme, the message, behind the poem. Why was this written? What is its purpose? Why read it? What is gained from this work? Use all the tools listed above to conceive what the theme is. Formulating a personalized theme, internalizing it and wording it in a way specific to an individual, is the only way to perform a Poetry selection with conviction. If a reader has no idea what a piece means, then why present it to others expecting them to gain something from which the performer has not? Finally, understanding the theme behind a piece informs the reader of ways to present the piece to the audience, leading to a better developed piece.

These are a few key components to focus on when beginning to interpret a piece of poetic literature. In order to present a better imagined piece, it is crucial to fully grasp everything one is capable of from a poem. Dissecting a piece of poetry with all these elementary parts culminates in a rich, in-depth analysis. Only then will a competitor begin to see the piece’s possibility and take risks for advancement.