It’s true. I’m poetry-phobic. It’s not actually that I hate poetry; it’s just that my initial reaction is “Eww...” I think it’s the result of too much time spent in high school English class with sonnets and dead poets and a teacher who was burned out and just wanted to slog through the material. And slog we did.

Fast-forward to present day. When I told my oldest, a senior in high school, that I was going to be writing an article about poetry, she said: “That’s great! You’ll have fun with that!” I was stunned and asked her if she didn’t realize that I’m not known as a fan of poetry. She was surprised and said she really enjoyed poetry, even if she didn’t understand it all the time. “Score!” I thought. Ten years of homeschooling, and I have managed to pass on an appreciation of poetry to my children. And if I can do it, so can you, no matter what your poetry background is. To help with our understanding of poetry, let’s think about a poem as a jigsaw puzzle.

What Is a Poem? 

To begin our study of poetry, we need to consider what poetry is. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a poem as “a literary composition that is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm and imagery.” So what does that mean? Let’s look at it this way. Poetry is a type of creative writing that sometimes involves rhyme and always pays special attention to the way words sound, as well as the way they sound together. It also uses words to paint a picture or create a feeling. Because poetry is sometimes confusing and intimidating, let’s consider poetry as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, and we will put it together, piece by piece.

How Do I Read It? 

When you’re piecing together the poetry puzzle, first look at the title. What do you expect the poem to be about? Next, read the poem out loud. What is it about? What kind of an overall picture does it create in your mind? This overall picture is like the picture found on the top of your jigsaw puzzle box.

Now, read the poem out loud again. Reading a poem out loud helps you get a feel for the way the words sound, and hearing it helps you to understand it better. Read it out loud three times. The first time, just get a feel for the way the poem is put together. Look for any words that you’re not familiar with. The second time you read it, pay attention to any rhymes, and listen to the way the words sound. The third time you read it, look for images found within the poem—pictures the poet has created with his words. Now that you have a feel for the poem, look at all the pieces that make it the beautiful puzzle that it is.

How Is It Structured? 

When you put together a jigsaw puzzle, you always start with the edge pieces. The edges of the puzzle give form to the rest of the puzzle. A puzzle is usually rectangular, but sometimes puzzles are produced in different shapes, such as circles, ovals, or even clocks! To create an even greater challenge for jigsaw lovers, some puzzle-makers design puzzles that have no uniform shape! Those are the most difficult, but all puzzles have some form, and you simply re-create that form as you put the puzzle together.

Like a puzzle, a poem has a form. Some forms are common, just as rectangular-shaped puzzles are common; others are more unusual, like the puzzles produced in the shapes of circles, ovals, or butterflies. Some poets like to write poems without form, just as puzzle creators design “edgeless” puzzles, but for now, we’ll figure that most of the poems we look at will have a form.

The first part of a poem puzzle is the title. You could regard the title as the edge pieces along the top of a puzzle. The rest of the edge pieces represent the structure of the poem, the “rules” that the poet follows as he writes his poem. The structure includes both (1) the type of stanzas he uses and (2) the rhyme scheme he follows. We’ll look at those next.