Michelle Wittle On Deconstructing a Poem

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

Okay, again, I am in teacher mode, so deal!


I think that in order for you to be able to create something, you need to be able to rip it apart. When I was little, I used to destroy everything. I would see an old television just sitting there and then I would just know that it was sitting there waiting for me to crack it open and look inside. One time I totally dismantled a telephone and I thought I was going to get the beating of my life. Instead my mom just laughed at me because I reminded her of when she was younger and what she used to do to things. Did I mention my mother was odd?


Yesterday, I talked about building vocabulary from what you read and I mentioned that Gary Soto poem “Oranges”. Well, that jumpstarted another lesson I used to teach to my students and I wanted to share it with you now. My hope is that by seeing how teachers analyze a poem, it will help you create a better poem.


Now, I know what you are thinking. I am always saying that I am a failed poet. Which is true and false at the same time. I don’t put as much effort into poetry as I do prose. I did when I was younger, but I just feel like my voice is stronger in prose. With poetry I tend to loose my voice too much and if I loose that, I have nothing but words on a page. So that is why I am seriously looking into the wonderful world of non-fiction. One can’t hide so easily there.


Anyhow, about deconstructing a poem. There are seven steps I used to teach my students and now I am passing them along to you. Of course some of these steps are used when deconstructing prose, but I found that using these seven steps is the best way to really understand a poem.


Step One: Simply put…read the poem and write down you initial reaction to the poem. Most times you will see something in the first reading that will help guide you to understand the poem. You might not notice it as something that will help you, but it will.


Step Two: Look for any words you don’t know the meaning to and look up the definition. Keep in mind you have to pay attention to how the word is used in the sentence (is it a verb, adjective, etc.).


Step Three: Look for words and phrases that are repeated. Write down the words and look them up. If an author is repeating a word in a poem, it means that word is very important and it does not mean that the author’s vocabulary is just poor. Poets pick words for a purpose and if they keep repeating them, the poet is screaming for you to take notice. The same is true for phrases. There is a reason the poet is using those same words over and over again. In those words is a message that the poet is hammering into your brain.


Step Four: Do some light research on the poem’s poet. You can argue all you want that what an author writes is purely fictional, but there is always at least a grain of truth in the work. Poets are normally a sensitive bunch; therefore, many times they veil their own feelings and emotions in their works. Also, we can’t discount the confessional poets who announce that their life is in their poems.

Do your research and you will at least find something that can shed meaning on your poem.


Step Five: Look at the poem again and look for words that “bug” you. The more well read you are, the easier it will be for you to pick up on words that are “bugging” you. By “bugging” I mean look for a word that strikes you as an odd fit. Why would the author say that word when the author could have just said this? Was the author trying to impress someone with his or her vocabulary? Most likely the answer to that question is no. Much like I discussed in step three, authors are picking words for a particular meaning or feeling. Look up those words that bug you and write down the impression you get from them. You have learned a bit about the author at this point, so use an intelligent guess as to why the author picked that particular word.


Step Six: After you have done all your research with the words and the poet, it is time to once again read the poem. At this point, the poem should become clearer and much easier to understand.


Step Seven: You will write down your interpretation of the poem. Using the words and your research you need to back up your claim. Then reread your first reaction to the poem. What are the similarities and differences you gained from the first reading to the last reading?


Remember that poetry is one of the most hide and seek forms of writing. The poet tries to evade his or her readers by using words to trick you. The poet wants you to work for the meaning a bit. To read a poem for all that it is worth, you have to do some digging and some sleuthing.


In that same vein, in order to create a good poem, you have to be willing to add clues into your work. A poem isn’t a poem just because it rhymes. The truly great poems use little words but convey a deep meaning that can be interpreted and reinterpreted in many ways. We all bring our own baggage to whatever we read. It is impossible for us to forget our own lives and struggles when reading something. You need to keep that in mind when you are writing a poem and you have to be willing to accept the fact that others might not get your intended meaning. Art is always open for self-interpretation and be thankful that your words helped someone else see something within him or her self and that gave them comfort.   


7 thoughts on “Michelle Wittle On Deconstructing a Poem

  1. Michelle,
    I’m glad that you got into teacher mode and put in this template. Looks like a useful one for working with a student or any reader that really doesn’t know how to approach poetry. I like the before and after steps. I’m definitely going to read it out in my workshop and see what they think as well. I just think we need to be careful, as Billy Collins points out in his famous poem, of tying a poem to the chair and beating meaning out of it.

  2. Your method, which might indeed be helpful to you when teaching grade-school or middle school students, has nothing to do with “deconstructing”.

    1. How do you mean? I wrote this blog so teachers could help their students understand poetry. I am interested in what you mean it has nothing to do with deconstructing a poem. I would think that means ripping a poem apart. Michelle Wittle

  3. I think he means that it has nothing to do with the formal theory of deconstruction, Derrida and such. I was googling articles on that and ended up here, which might be the source of yehudit’s annoyance.

  4. Maybe you are right Laura. I was just talking about how I taught my students how to take apart a poem. This method wouldn’t work for an advanced reader or writer of poetry.

  5. May I know how u distinguish between analysis of a poem and deconstruction of a poem?

    The word deconstruction is a technical term specifically referring to Derrida’s theory of deconstruction. I felt the same way and so did not read ur 7 steps fully. I will when I have time. in the meantime please let us know what you have on trace and differance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s