Item Descriptor

Identifying and deconstructing poetry in terms of language and themes

Statements of Learning for English

Students have the opportunity to draw on their knowledge of texts and language to clarify meaning.

Quality Teaching Framework

Intellectual quality: Metalanguage; Deep understanding



Skill Focus: Deconstructing poetry

Although the following teaching strategies relate specifically to poetry, they can also be used to assist the development of students' interpretive and inferrential skills in deconstructing prose texts.

The challenge of reading poetry

Students often struggle with poems because they do not always make immediate sense. It would be useful to discuss with students why poets might choose to write such apparently impenetrable texts:

  • Poetry often communicates complex thoughts and feelings. More direct ways of communicating for example, through prose might not capture this complexity of thought and feeling.
  • The fact that most poetry is so brief compared to other imaginative forms of writing means that poets are more likely to use the considerable resources of language to communicate in intense and subtle ways. Often the language can deliberately carry different meanings at the same time.
  • Poets often want their readers to work with them in contributing to making meaning of the poetry. Of course this is true of all texts to some extent, but it is particularly true of poetry. The fact that we often have to work hard is all part of the challenge and delight of poetry.
  • Some poets might even say that their purpose in writing poetry is to express their own private thoughts and feelings, and that the communication of these thoughts and feelings to an audience is only of secondary importance, so why should they be concerned about obscurity? Such a view, however, begs the obvious question: why then would poets go to the trouble of publishing their poetry if they did not want it to be read?

Strategy for reading a poem

Here is an easy three–step strategy that can be used to assist in the reading of any poem:

poin_table_01 poin_table_02 poin_table_03

Students may need access to a glossary explaining the meanings of some of the metalanguage needed for analysing poetry, highlighted above. Such glossaries are readily available in text books as well as on the internet.


  • Looking arrow seeing
  • Listening arrow hearing
  • Thinking arrow understanding

Activities to support the strategy

These activities are based on 'Wasp', a poem by Douglas Stewart.


Exploring metalanguage (QTF)

Consider Question 30, 2008 Year 7 NAPLAN Reading Test.

Ask students:

  • How do you know that the first verse is a question, and not a statement, instruction or exclamation? (Despite the unusual syntax of the first verse, students will identify the question mark, and eventually the word what.)
  • Who is the poet addressing through this question?
  • What is the poet asking in this question? Rewrite the question so that the meaning is clearer.

Choose another verse (or stanza). Note again the unusual syntax, or arrangement of words. Rewrite in your own words. What has been gained and lost by rewriting the verse in more simple and direct language? (Hopefully students will see that although the meaning, or at least a meaning, may be clearer, the verse will have lost some of its poetic effect.)

Ask students to write down the meanings of the following words: cool, web, dumb, hot. Now consider the title and first verse of this poem by Robert Graves:



Are the words cool, web, dumb and hot being used in the way you expected them to be used? What sort of web might be described as cool? In what sense are children dumb? We all know what a hot day is, but how can the scent of a summer rose be hot?

Now consider the second verse in Graves' poem:

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,

And speech, to dull the rosess cruel scent,

We spell away the overhanging night,

We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

Discuss by asking probing questions like:

How are the meanings of the four words confirmed or challenged in the light of the second verse?
Is it clear now what dumb means?
Who is the word we referring to?
Can you guess now what the cool web refers to?

For a summary of Graves' life and a discussion of this poem, see:


Discuss by asking probing questions like:

How do poets play with the different meanings of language?
Why do they do this? How does this impact on the ways in which we read poems?

Exploring deep understanding (QTF)

Get students to apply the easy three–step strategy to your reading of 'Wasp'. Discuss whether it makes the meaning of the poem clearer?

Responding to techniques to make meaning when reading

Consider Question 33, 2008 Year 7 NAPLAN Reading Test. This question does not ask students to identify or comment upon any of the poetic qualities used in the third verse or stanza. However, a consideration of these poetic qualities will assist students to understand what is being described here.

Ask students to use the TIE strategy to analyse the techniques used in the third stanza.

  • T: Identify the Technique.
  • I: Illustrate with examples.
  • E: Explain its effectiveness.

The following tables show a blank pro-forma and a sample completed analysis:

poin_table_04 poin_table_05

Clearly, the third stanza describes what the wasp longs for, in contrast to what it is currently experiencing.

This exercise demonstrates:

  • how composers use techniques, particularly drawing upon the resources of language, to create meaning in their texts
  • how good readers consider the ways these techniques are shaping their response to the text and helping them to make meaning.

Discuss how readers could use an understanding of techniques in the poem to help them identify the answers for other inferential questions in this section, such as Questions 31, 32, 34 and 35 NAPLAN 2008 Year 7 Reading Test.


The poem is written from the point of view of the poet. The fact that he is addressing the wasp indicates the use of second person – notice the references to you and your. However, what he is encouraging readers to do is to see the world from the perspective of the wasp. He does this by:

  • imagining what the wasp is thinking, e.g. World's all wrong
  • imagining how the wasp sees things in its world, e.g. Air itself in treason/Turns a sudden solid/ And shuts you in prison
  • directly capturing the feelings of the wasp, e.g. happy goes wasp
  • indirectly capturing the feelings of the wasp, e.g. the repetition and heavy rhythm of But up wasp down wasp/ Climb wasp and fall shows the wasps frustration and weariness

Consider Question 29 NAPLAN 2008 Year 7 Reading Test. Can you see now why the correct answer is that the poem is encouraging the reader to think about a wasp's view of the world?

Exploring deep understanding (QTF)

Students are to write a paragraph from the wasp's point of view which is considering the human and how he or she might see the world.

Then write a paragraph addressed to another animal (other than a wasp) in which the student captures the perspective of that animal.

Students are to use their knowledge of poetic techniques gained from these exercises to convert one of the above paragraphs into a poem. They should try to use the poetic techniques described above to take readers into the world of the subject of their poem, so that they really see things from this other perspective.