One of the things that many students struggle with is analysing poetry. I remember sitting in my high school class; we read a poem out loud, and our teacher asked us to weigh in on the meaning. In all honesty, I had absolutely no clue. None. Then the smart girl raised her hand and started talking about rebirth imagery and Christian overtones. I was stumped. I had no clue where she got that from.
Fast forward to nearly 30 years since I sat in that high school class, and I’ve figured out the keys to analysing poetry, and I’m only too happy to share them with you. Understanding written text doesn’t have to be a mystery, and it certainly doesn’t have to make you feel as dumb as I did on that high school afternoon.
Once you have discussed the poem in an impressionistic and personal way, you can give the students a schema that may help them as they begin to work through an academic analysis of the poem. One helpful strategy is “TP-CASST(T),” which stands for:
T – Title: Look at the title of the poem and think of its implications (how does it focus the poem? what does the title suggest even before reading the poem? could the title be ironic in relation to the content of the poem? what does the title suggest? what does the title make you think of? etc.)
P – Paraphrase: Work through a line-by-line paraphrase of the poem. Basically this is like “translating” it from poetic language into straightforward language that you can understand. It’s like putting the poem into your own words.
C – Connotations: Look for figurative implications in the poet’s word choice. Are there poetic devices, such as metaphors, that you can recognise? Are there images that are at play? What do the words suggest beneath the surface?
A – Attitude: What do you think the attitude or tone of the poem is (what is the speaker’s attitude towards the subject? the reader? etc.)? Is the poem angry? sad? happy? romantic? ironic? etc.
S – Structure: Identify the genre of the poem and any important structural features (i.e., if it is a sonnet, what type of sonnet etc.). Note any unexpected features of the spatial layout. What is the rhyme scheme (is there a rhyme scheme)? Here’s where you think about the form of the poem – spacing, sentences, rhyme etc. – more than the content.
S – Shifts: Identify any major shifts in the poem (shifts in point of view, tone, structure etc.). Often a shift of some sort indicates something important in a poem.
T – Theme: At this point, you can think about what you think the theme(s) of the poem might be. Use your answers to the previous steps to help you determine what you think the theme(s) might be.
(T) – Thesis: Once you have worked through all the previous steps, you have the rough material to come up with a thesis about the poem. Essentially, this is where you will posit a claim about what you think the poem is about or what is its most significant aspect. You will use the things that you noted above as support for this thesis.
If nothing else, the above schema gives you a starting point, a way into a poem so that you aren’t simply staring at words dancing on a page, waiting for that smart student in class to raise his or her hand and tell the entire class what the poem is all about while you scratch your head and slightly panic!
*Note: I got TP-CASTT analysis from an old text book, and then I’ve adapted it to suit my teaching needs and slightly changed the acronym.