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.

When you look at the poem, what do you see? Is the poem short or long? Is there a visual pattern? Is it arranged in stanzas? (Stanzas are groups of lines.) Are all the stanzas the same length, or are there quatrains (stanzas that are four lines long)? Does the poem use couplets (stanzas that are two lines long)? Is the whole poem written in triplets (stanzas that are each three lines long)? We’ll consider this element of the poem’s structure, i.e., the length of the stanzas, as the edge pieces along the left side of the puzzle.

Now that you’re familiar with the poem, let’s look at the rhyme scheme. Rhyme scheme refers to the rhyming pattern within a poem. To find this pattern, look at the rhyming words at the end of each line of poetry, one stanza at a time. (This is my favorite part!) Assign the letter A to the last word of the first line. (Remember that we are working only with the first stanza.) Now look at the next line. Does it rhyme? If so, give it an A also. Assign an A to every line with the same rhyme.

Look at the next line that does not have an A. This line is B. Now assign a B to every line that rhymes with that word. Look at the next line that doesn’t have a letter assigned to it. That will be rhyme C. Can you find other lines that rhyme with it? They will also be C’s.

Are you catching on? After you have the first stanza labeled, start over with the next stanza. Once you’ve assigned letters to all the lines, you will see a pattern. That pattern is the rhyme scheme of the poem. Some common rhyme schemes are ABAB or AABB or AAAA.

Some poems don’t have any rhyme scheme at all. These poems are known as free verse. If you begin to search for a rhyme scheme and you can’t find anything, you will know that it is written in free verse.

Let’s find the rhyme scheme in “The Crocodile.”

The Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin!
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

—Lewis Carroll

(ABAB CDCD)

Let’s consider the rhyme scheme to be the edge pieces on the right-hand side of our poem puzzle.

Poetic Devices    

Within a poem, a poet uses certain techniques, called poetic devices, to paint a word picture. Here are some examples of poetic devices:

  • Hyperbole—a figure of speech that uses exaggeration for effect. Example: move a mountain
     
  • Personification—a figure of speech that gives human traits to non-human objects. Example: the smiling moon
     
  • Simile—a figure of speech that uses like or as to compare two objects. Example: as fit as a fiddle
     
  • Metaphor—a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things, finding a similarity between them. Example: Life is a journey.
     
  • Alliteration—the repetition of certain sounds to create an effect. Example: Dolphins dance delicately.

These are some of the many tools that a poet keeps in his toolbox when he’s putting together a poem. They are the puzzle pieces that complete the poetry puzzle, filling in the middle and giving a poem depth and beauty.

Let’s practicing looking at a poem as a puzzle. Follow this link and print out a copy of the free Poetry Puzzle Graphic Organizer. Now read “The Eagle” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

1. While you read, what image comes to your mind? Using colored pencils, draw that picture on the puzzle. (This should be something like an eagle, possibly diving, above an ocean.)

2. Next, write the title across the top edge pieces. (“The Eagle”)

3. Look at the format of the poem. What type of stanza is used? Write the answer along the left edge pieces of the puzzle. (Triplets)

4. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem? Write the rhyme scheme along the right edge pieces. (AAA)

5. What poetic devices does the poet use? Fill in the pieces in the middle with whatever poetic devices you can identify. (Personification: “wrinkled sea beneath him crawls,” simile: “like a thunderbolt he falls,” alliteration: “clasps the crag with crooked hands”)

The next time you’re tempted to let poetry intimidate you, remember that it’s a puzzle, and it’s...fun! Go, read poetry, and immerse yourself in the words, images, and emotions that it evokes. When you’re ready to dig a little deeper into your favorite poems, print out a copy of the Poetry Puzzle Graphic Organizer and put that puzzle together for a greater understanding of the poem.

Melissa Craig and her husband, Jim, are in their thirteenth year of homeschooling. They live with their four strong-minded children in southeastern Michigan. When she’s not wrangling children, building character (her own included), or praying for wisdom, Melissa works for Bright Ideas Press. She is co-author of A Young Scholar’s Guide to Composers and the upcoming A Young Scholar’s Guide to Poets and Poetry.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Publication date: July 17, 2013