Interpreting a Poem's Main Idea & Theme

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  • 0:05 Main Idea vs Theme
  • 1:10 What is the Main Idea?
  • 3:46 What is the Theme?
  • 6:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Many poems have both a main idea and a theme. In this lesson, you'll learn techniques for finding both in poetry by studying a sample poem. Afterward, you can test your understanding with a short quiz.

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



We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

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.'

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