4.9 Interpreting a Poem’s Main Idea & Theme
Main Idea vs. Theme
Imagine you’ve just stepped out of the movies. You and some buddies went to see the latest sequel in a superhero franchise. You spot another friend in line for tickets. She quickly asks you, ‘What was that movie about?’ You tell her, in your best movie trailer voice, ‘The hero faces incredible odds and inspires his city to join his fight against crime.’ With a snarky grin on her face, your friend says, ‘So what did you learn from this cinematic journey?’ Unphased, you fire back, ‘One motivated man can be the catalyst for change.’
Okay, so maybe you don’t talk like this with your friends, but this imagined scene represents what your English teachers ask you to do. The first question – what was it about – that’s one way of asking about the main idea. The second question, about the lesson of the piece – that’s a way to ask about theme. In this lesson, you’ll learn the difference between main idea and theme, and you’ll pick up some strategies that you can use to analyze superhero movies or poems on the AP Literature exam.
What is the Main Idea?
Main Idea is what the piece is mostly about. This is different from a summary, which includes relevant details and the major plot points. Main idea gets to the big picture and does so in usually a single sentence. Think about Romeo and Juliet. The opening Prologue is Shakespeare’s summary of the play, and it took him 18 lines. Main idea is much briefer. Two young lovers are destined to die, and their romance threatens their warring families. All the little details work to support the main idea.
When you’re reading a poem, the main idea might not be as obvious as in a play or a movie, so here are some steps to follow to help you discover the main idea. You’ll need to rev up your brain, so let’s use the acronym RPM.
R – Read the poem slowly. Read aloud if possible. I know you can’t do this on the AP exam, but at other times, you should always read poems out loud.
P – Paraphrase it. Put the poem into your own words. Take the piece a few lines at a time and say (or think) those lines in your own words.
M – Main Idea. Now that you have the poem in your own words, what is the idea that holds up the whole poem? Remember, it’s going to be a single sentence that connects all the small details.
Let’s try this with a short poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, ‘We Real Cool.’ Time to rev up those RPMs!
Step one : Read the poem.
We Real Cool
THE POOL PLAYERS.
SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Step two: Paraphrase. Seven kids are playing pool at a joint called The Golden Shovel. They think they’re cool. They’re skipping school and getting into all sorts of trouble such as drinking and singing raunchy songs. They don’t expect to grow up.
Step three: Main idea. What’s the idea that holds this short poem together? Seven truant kids embrace vice. If someone were to ask you what the poem is really about, you could give the main idea and answer their question.
What Is the Theme?
The other side of the coin is theme. Theme is the lesson or message of the poem. Does the poem have something to say about life or human nature? That message would be the theme, and there can be more than one theme for a single poem, even something as short as ‘We Real Cool’!
I gave you a straightforward system for determining Main Idea, but there’s no simple method for approaching Theme. You can start with main idea, but you’ll have to get out your magnifying glass and play detective before coming up with the theme. Examine the poem carefully. Do you notice anything about the way the poem is set up? What about the sounds of the poem? Are there metaphors, symbols, or other poetic devices? Make a mental list of everything you notice and see if it points in the same direction, or in a few directions. Those, when you’ve worked out how to word them, would be the themes. Let’s try that with ‘We Real Cool.’
When I look at the poem, I notice some things about the way the poem is set up. There’s a bit at the beginning that doesn’t fit because it’s some upfront info that sets the context of the poem. Then the poem starts, and rather than end the lines on the pause, the pause happens just before the end of the line. When I look down the right side of the poem, I see the word ‘we’ set apart from the rest of the line seven times. Wait – there are seven kids playing pool! I also notice, when I read the poem aloud, that there’s a jazzy, smooth rhythm to the poem. I see pairs of rhymed lines – we call these couplets – but the rhyme doesn’t fall in the usual spot at the ends of each line. The rhymes are all about seedy activities like lurking late and striking straight and singing sin. Finally, I see the words ‘Die soon’ by themselves at the end of the poem.
As I look over my list and think about the main idea, a few possible themes emerge. The word ‘we’ keeps coming up, so I think the poem must be about the ‘we’ – the collective. We define ourselves not only through shared belief but also through shared rebellion. That’s a statement about human nature; it’s our theme! The boys in the poem are such a tight group because they’ve bonded through their rebellion against the society that tells them to go to school and get to bed at a reasonable hour. There are certainly other ways to interpret this poem, and adding historical context can give additional avenues to meaning.
In the case of this poem, it was written in Chicago in 1961 in a time of discrimination and unrest. When looking for theme, use all the tools you have at hand – what you see in the poem, what you know about the author, what you hear in the words. All those become tools for you to use to formulate a lesson about life in the poem. As far as the essay on the AP Literature test goes, as long as you can support your idea with strong evidence from the text, it’s not expected that you come up with the same theme that your reader sees. Don’t worry about finding THE MEANING, just find a meaning.
Main idea is what the poem is mostly about. It’s not a summary because it doesn’t contain many specific details. The main idea is the idea that all those little details go to support. To find the main idea, rev up your RPMs.
R – Read the poem.
P – Paraphrase (put the poem in your own words)
M – Main idea.
What is the central idea that’s supported by all those paraphrased statements?
Theme is the lesson about life or statement about human nature that the poem expresses. To determine theme, start by figuring out the main idea. Then keep looking around the poem for details such as the structure, sounds, word choice, and any poetic devices. Consider the effect of these devices as you ask yourself about what lesson the poem might be teaching about life. While you’re doing that, take the pressure off yourself. You don’t need to find the single true theme for the poem; you only have to find a theme – one that you can support.
Complete the lesson in order to subsequently:
- Compare the main idea and theme of a poem
- Follow the steps of RPM when analyzing the main idea
- Discuss tips for finding the theme(s) in poetry