Identifying Themes in the Poetry We Read

by Sara Letourneau
published in Reading

I adore poetry. Not only do I write poems and have been fortunate enough to have several published, but I also read this brief but powerful form of literature extensively. And I’m willing to bet that many word nerds read (and maybe write) poetry as well. In fact, fellow DIY MFA columnist Brenda Patterson often covers poetry in her Writing Small column, like in her introductory post and this more recent deep dive into poetry.

So it only makes sense that we give poetry its time in the spotlight here at Theme: A Story’s Soul. Because, like with novels and short stories, poems are teeming with literary themes. And since single poems can be analyzed in as much depth as entire books of poetry, that’s how we’ll approach this post: first by determining the themes in an individual poem, and then in a book of poetry.

Before we do that, though, let’s establish how we can identify themes in the poetry we read.

Four Questions for Identifying Themes in Poetry

As we defined here, a theme is an answer to the question, “What is this story—or any piece of writing—really about?” When we read a poem, sometimes its themes will be clear from the first read-through. Other times we have to ruminate on the piece before we find those themes, or study it in a deeper, analytical way like we might have in school.

As we read a poem, here are some questions we can ask to determine the poem’s themes:

  • What are the explicit themes? In other words, what themes or topics do you see in the poem on the first read-through?
  • What is the poem’s overall tone? What thoughts or emotions does the poet convey? What images are used? How do these reveal the poet’s feelings toward the subject matter?
  • What is the poem’s overall mood? How does the poem make you, the reader, feel? What effect does the poem’s tone, setting, and word choice have on you?
  • What are the implicit themes? Now that you’ve considered the poem’s tone and mood, what other, less obvious themes have you discovered?

Why should we consider a poem’s tone and mood here? Because emotions themselves can be literary themes. Happiness, sadness, anger, fear—these and other reactions are not only feelings that characters or readers can experience during a piece of literature, but also part of the piece’s overall thematic web.

With poetry in particular, every word must be carefully chosen for its literal meaning and emotional weight. Those words and the phrases, images, and atmosphere they create give additional clues about themes we might not notice if we rely only on subject matter. It’s almost like how, in novels and other longer forms of literature, a conversation between characters contains multiple layers (topics, details, and opinions) that need to be considered when using dialogue to identify themes. So by considering tone and mood to find a poem’s themes, we’re taking all of the poem’s elements and layers into account and digging to the heart of the message that the poet is conveying.

Identifying Themes in an Individual Poem

Let’s practice identifying themes in poetry using Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day.” You can read the poem in its entirety here, but we’ll use excerpts as we answer each question.

What Are the Explicit Themes?

  • Man and the Natural World: Oliver does more than name animal species or list outdoor activities. She describes a grasshopper’s movements in surprising detail (“… who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down – / who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…”) as well as her own relaxed, almost worshipful motions of strolling through the fields and kneeling in the grass. From this perspective, the poem is about the small or everyday wonders of the natural world and the contentment that the narrator/poet finds in them.
  • Spirituality: The reverence expressed in “The Summer Day” isn’t limited to the narrator’s kneeling. Oliver introduces this theme halfway through the poem with the line “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” then goes on to detail actions that, to her, are a way of showing adoration or thanksgiving to something she believes is sacred.  

What Is the Poem’s Overall Tone?

The tone could be described as inspired or amazed. Oliver depicts the grasshopper’s motions so clearly and reverently that it seems as if she’s watching another living creature eat for the first time. Her word choices such as “gazing around,” “blessed,” and “enormous and complicated,” as well as the other images her words present and the questions she asks, also evoke her sense of curiosity, deep respect, and compassion for the natural world and for herself.

What Is the Poem’s Overall Mood?

When I read “The Summer Day,” the poem makes me feel alert and alive. Its tone and detailed imagery create a vicarious experience of sorts. I can imagine being in the field with the narrator, walking through the grass in the same manner and observing the grasshopper and everything else around me with heightened awareness and delight. In addition, the questions that begin and end the poem compel me to pause and think about how I want to live my life. So I would describe this poem’s mood as uplifting, thoughtful, and meditative.

How would you describe the mood of “The Summer Day”? What do you feel as you read the poem?

What Are the Implicit Themes?

  • Wonder & Amazement: These words aren’t mentioned in “The Summer Day,” but this emotion is absolutely part of the poem’s thematic makeup. Oliver’s wide-eyed observations demonstrate an openness to the wonders of the world and an appreciation for things great and small. The latter also emerges in the poem’s opening and closing questions. We may have ideas about how the world was created, but do we really know “Who made the world”? It’s an awe-inspiring thing to think about.
  • Life & Existence: “The Summer Day” is a celebration of life in verse. The narrator’s observations of the grasshopper and mentions of her day’s activities are full of movement, so they’re not just examples of things that are alive but also embodiments of the state of being alive. The existential questions that bookend the poem also address life from a philosophical perspective, beckoning the reader to think about the creation of the world and the quality of her own life.

Identifying Themes in a Book of Poetry

With chapbooks and longer collections of poetry, you can take two routes for determining their overarching themes. You can answer the Four Questions listed above for multiple poems in the book, which can help you hone your poetry analysis skills. But if you’d rather do it more casually, you can read the book from cover to cover and take note of which topics, concepts, and emotions recur throughout.

This emphasis on repetition brings us back to our working definition of “literary theme.” Any given theme doesn’t have to appear in every poem in a poetry book. But it should recur often enough that you, the reader, notice its importance and sense the weight or emotive quality of that theme as you continue. And if that theme is delivered with the right amount of subtlety and eloquence, it can make your experience with the poet’s work all the more powerful and unforgettable.

Here are some examples of themes I noticed in poetry books I’ve recently read:

  • Billy Collins’ Nine Horses is grounded in a wide range of everyday activities and events. Sketching, writing and reading poetry, listening to (and pretending to play) music, traveling to foreign countries, rescuing a sparrow from the housecat on Christmas Day—you’d have to read all of the poems to fully grasp the breadth of Collins’ subject matter. And once you do, you’ll find themes such as imagination, the power of literature, the natural world, and gratitude woven throughout.
  • Jenny Xie’s Eye Level, on the surface, appears to be a collection of poems about travel experiences and Xie’s childhood as a Chinese immigrant in the United States. But her word choices and introspective, pensive tone cue you in on Xie’s feelings of restlessness and lack of belonging. Thus, the themes in Eye Level include exploration, isolation, self-discovery, and identity.
  • Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard is organized into three seemingly distinct sections. The first one features elegies to her mother, the second confronts the Deep South’s long history of racism, and the final third focuses on Trethewey’s own experiences as a biracial child growing up in Mississippi. Thus, the central themes of each section overlap so that, as a whole, Native Guard is as much about race, mortality, and loss as it is about identity, family, and the significance of the past and one’s memories.

Looking for more DIY MFA posts about poetry? Check out Gabriela’s DIY MFA Radio podcast interviews with Marilyn Singer, David L. Harrison, and Kallie Falandays, as well as this post on Gabriela’s “not-so-epic” journey into poetry.

What are some of your favorite poems or poetry books? Can you identify their themes, either from memory or upon re-reading them? Do you have particular themes you enjoy reading about most in poetry? If so, what are they?

Sara Letourneau is a freelance editor and writing coach based in Massachusetts. She’s currently taking clients with manuscripts in speculative fiction, literary fiction, or YA, though she’s open to other genres as well. She’s also a poet whose work has appeared in Amethyst Review, Canary, Muddy River Poetry Review,Soul-Lit, and elsewhere. A Massachusetts resident, she can often be found performing her poems at local open mic nights, reading good books, and enjoying a cup of tea. Learn more about how Sara can help you with your writing at Heart of the Story Editorial & Coaching Services. You can also connect with her at her writer website, Twitter, Goodreads, or Instagram.

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