Students unfamiliar or uncomfortable with poetry often struggle to understand new poems. In many cases, students do not know how to analyze a poem, let alone the most effective steps with which to approach a challenging poem. When this is the case, simple mnemonic devices like SMILE can help them get started.
SMILE is an acronym that helps students remember important aspects of a poem to interpret. Each letter stands for a separate poetic element as outlined below.
The structure refers to the physical and grammatical composition of the poem. For this element, students should consider the following for their poetry analysis:
In identifying the meaning, students should be able to articulate the basic subject of a poem along with its deeper significance. To truly capture meaning, a reader must also be able to accurately identify a poem's message or theme. Often this requires working out a poem’s figurative meaning. In Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, for example, the basic subject conveys a man walking in the woods who has difficulty deciding which path to take. To fully understand the poem, however, readers must recognize that the forest paths represent the journey of life, and the poem’s message reminds us that each choice in life has irrevocable consequences. It is often useful to establish a poem’s basic meaning and then revisit step M for a poem’s deeper significance following further analysis of other elements (steps ILE).
Imagery refers to language that appeals to one of the five senses - touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight. Imagery helps strengthen a writer's description by providing physical details that enable the reader to better imagine the scene or understand the speaker's feelings. Imagery can contain figurative language, but does not have to, as in the examples below, taken from “City Autumn” by Joseph Moncure March.
No figurative language: A thin wind beats/ Old dust and papers down gray streets
Figurative language: A snowflake falls like an errant feather
Both examples of imagery in “City Autumn” give us a visual picture of the autumn weather. One does so with a literal description and the other with an effective simile.
By adding imagery to a particular object, person, or scene, the writer heightens the importance of that detail and helps add negative or positive value to it.
Language refers to a writer's diction, or word choice. Use of figurative language should be noted here and interpreted, along with sound devices, repetition, the speaker' dialect, and particularly significant words. Students may find the questions below useful when analyzing poetic language.
In determining a poem's effect, readers can include their initial reactions. How do they feel after reading it? What is the mood of the poem? The readers should also review this element after studying the other four (SMIL). In this way, students can consider the effect of the poem's structure, imagery, language, and message as they work together.
The elements in SMILE are certainly not an exhaustive means of analyzing any particular poem, but they provide a useful basis for understanding. The various steps of SMILE do not need to be completed in any particular order, but can build on one another as a student’s understanding unfolds.
An easy way to engage your students in SMILE is to have them storyboard the five elements. By combining textual analysis with visual representation through storyboards, the students will demonstrate a concrete understanding of the poem's nuances. Consider the storyboard below for Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays". Use this example and its template as a springboard to get your students SMILE-ing!
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