Analyzing The Practical Truth Of Harmful Over-Analysis In Poetry

Analyzing poetry is part of the fun, discovering new meanings like a literary detective. But at what point is it a chore instead of a hobby?

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Man with a magnifying glass and a Sherlock Holmes style hat looks at an open book.

Analyzing poetry is nothing new. After all, it helps readers enjoy and understand poetry a little bit better. But at what point does analyzing become overanalyzing? There is a difference between enjoying poetry and playfully poking it for more meaning compared to dissecting the poem and tearing it apart in search of meaning that might not even be there. Poetry is crafted with careful word choice to give a deeper meaning to each line, but what starts as a quick analysis might avalanche into a rabbit hole of blindly grabbing at meaning.

Reader-Response Criticism

I’m willing to bet people remember trying to analyze poetry in school. I would also bet your teacher told you ways to analyze and respond to poetry. I would go so far as to bet my car keys that your teacher didn’t tell you about reader-response criticism, which is a literary theory that focuses on the reader in interpreting a text. Traditional literary theories focus on the author’s intention or the text’s qualities, while reader-response suggests that the meaning of texts comes from the reader.

At its core, reader-response criticism suggests that each reader brings their background, experiences, beliefs, and emotions to the act of reading. Therefore, no two readers will interpret a text in the same way. Reader-response critics argue that understanding a text requires examining how readers engage with it, how they make sense of its language, symbols, and themes, and how their personal experiences shape their interpretations.

A girl reading a book in a field with a body of water behind her.

This approach emphasizes the active role of the reader in constructing meaning, viewing reading as a dynamic and subjective process rather than a passive consumption of information. Reader-response critics explore how different readers, influenced by their perspectives, cultural contexts, and literary conventions, can create diverse interpretations of the same text.

Reader-response criticism also acknowledges the importance of the text itself, but it asserts that meaning is not fixed within the text. Instead, meaning emerges through the reader’s interaction with the text. This perspective highlights the fluidity of meanings inherent in literature, as well as the significance of the reader’s subjective experience in shaping those meanings.

Over-Analyzed Poetry

The Raven – Edgar Allan Poe

As a fan of Poe’s work, I once found myself digesting each line of this poem in search of deeper meanings. With the word choice, the rhyming, and the bleak setting, I knew there had to be something deeper to this poem. I sifted through it like an old California miner panning for gold. I had a magnifying glass up to my eye and a long, plaid trench coat over my shoulders. I was committed to finding something in this poem hidden in the seams. But I never found anything.

A raven perched on a branch.

While it could be said I’m not great at analyzing, the potential issue is that the poem never had anything more to offer. It’s a poem about a man grieving in his room and slowly succumbing to madness because of his grief. The word choice, the dreary setting, and the personification of the raven all support the pain of the narrator’s grief. There isn’t much else to dive into with this poem, the meaning is cut and dry. And yet people like me still think there is something to discover.

O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman

This poem was created to celebrate the end of the American Civil War and mourn the loss of Abraham Lincoln. There are joyful reminders that the war is over while also being an elegy for Lincoln. On the surface, this poem reads like a seaman writing about their captain who perished during a journey but successfully saw the ship safely back to port. A deeper analysis, such as looking at the year of publication and the writer, reveals a connection to the American Civil War.

A sailboat in the water with mountains in the background.

That is about as deep as an analysis should be. A quick search to find out more about the author, the time they lived in, and any possible inspirations for their work help paint a possible image of why the poem was written in the first place. The face value of this poem of a captain perishing while getting their ship back to port safely is completely changed when you know that the author intended to honor Lincoln and his accomplishments during the Civil War. Despite that, the meaning of the poem remains the same as before; honoring a leader for their sacrifice.

Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day (Sonnet 18) – William Shakespeare

As a surprise to no one, Shakespeare is an overanalyzed poet, and Sonnet 18 is a common target. The simplicity allows the poem to be enjoyed at face value while also allowing for deeper meanings in the word choices. The poem is a simple statement of praise about the beauty of the beloved. Summer is personified as having a short timeline, being too hot, and giving a golden complexion. The end of each line has punctuation which supports pauses between each line and adds importance to them.

As a stand-alone poem, this writing compares the beauty of Shakespeare’s muse and a summer day. A deeper analysis of this poem would not give deeper meaning and context because the sonnets that come before this one provide a deeper understanding. Sonnets 1-17 are written to persuade the muse to procreate to preserve his genes. Shakespeare finds this man so attractive that he believes it would be a gift to the world if this man continues his lineage. Sonnet 18 is a bit different in that it suggests the muse in question would live eternally through Shakespeare’s writings and may not need to procreate for the sake of his beauty.

The Road Not Taken – Robert Frost

This poem has been cited as a source of inspiration to many people. One interpretation is that the road less taken has led to a better life and amazing results. People struggle to make decisions and they want to feel like their choices matter and serve to make them better people. Another possible interpretation is that the road a person took could have been any other road but the one they took was the correct one. In that moment of their life, their choice benefitted them the most and they wonder if another road could have been better or possibly resulted in a worse situation.

Fork in road with two road signs painted red and blue pointing down the different roads.

Believe it or not, Frost did not intend for this poem to be inspirational. Despite Frost being a prolific writer, when he sat down to create this poem his intention for it was to be an inside joke between him and his friend. The friend in question, Edward Thomas, another English writer, was very indecisive. And this poem was Frost’s way of making fun of Thomas for his inability to make choices. While creating and discovering meanings within poetry is good, overanalyzing can lead to something like this. Where the initial meaning of the poem was a simple joke to a friend but now is a popular and inspirational poem.

Introduction To Poetry – Billy Collins

This last poem, while not technically overanalyzed, describes perfectly what overanalyzing a poem can do to it. It detracts from the enjoyment and strips away the readers’ ability to creatively infer any possible meaning from it. Taking time to interrogate a poem and trying to pull out additional information rather than simply enjoying it for what it is can create a level of unenjoyment.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Billy Collins

Through this poem, Collins wants to ensure readers that there is nothing wrong with simply reading a poem and moving on. Strapping it to a chair and interrogating it for deeper meaning may only result in wasted time. Sometimes there isn’t more hiding beneath the hood. Poems aren’t trying to smuggle meaning past readers and play them for fools. Sometimes a blue curtain is just a blue curtain and not a reflection of a character’s mood.

Overanalyzing poetry serves to lessen the enjoyment of reading to readers. While analyzing poetry is part of the fun, especially those you find interesting, it becomes a problem when it impacts your enjoyment of poetry. Poems are usually digested rather quickly and can be reread several times to find additional meaning. Reading poetry isn’t meant to be a sprint, it’s a marathon. Enjoy a few poems a day like savory chocolates. Take too many and you will feel engorged with poetic words, finding it hard to digest them and you might even grow sick of them.

While it’s important to analyze poetry to discover a deeper understanding of the writer’s word choice, if you sink too deep the enjoyment becomes tasteless. You’re no longer enjoying the poem for what it is, you’re dissecting it for additional meanings that might not even exist.

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