Subject Matter, Title, and Occasion for Writing
The subject matter, the title, and its occasion for writing are global matters to figure out when reading anything and especially poetry. It would seem to go without saying that we should pay attention to titles, yet we often don't. That is because we often don't expect to understand the title well without reading the poem. So good advice is to note first the title, of course, but always to go back to the title and ask yourself why the poet titled it in that way.
Also keep in mind that some poems are untitled. In that case the first line is routinely used by the reader or anyone else, such as a book editor or librarian, to keep track of or refer to poem. One should not try to infer a title function in those instances. When this occurs the title is always enclosed in brackets.
The subject and situation can be informed by titles, but don't overlook other clues such as editor's notes or dates of publication that can often be found published with poems. Sometimes the date and context of publication can make all the difference in the world.
Here is a discussion which exemplifies what I mean about how critical this can be. Go to this page and read John Dryden's often anthologized poem, [Why should a foolish marriage vow] <http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/dryden10.html>
After you have read the poem consider what you can learn about the poem from these clues given at the top of the page:
Here is a commentary found online describing the play: <http://transcriptions.english.ucsb.edu/archive/topics/masquerade/issues.html>
Does it affect your initial understanding
of the poem to learn that the speaker is a woman in this play and that
the situation is a complex one of mascarade? Can we any longer take the
speech which seems to be a precursor to our own jaded notions of marriage,
a "praise of adultery," at face value, or should we go back
and evaluate more closely the subtext of references to "vows"
and "oaths" taken before God in marriage. The title of the play
alone can help, Marriage à-la-Mode, for anything à-la-Mode,
is merely of the fashion and not enduring. The connotations are of a travesty
Reread the poem with its situational irony in mind.
Determining the implications of title, situation and occasion for writing are essential for all poetry but especially so for detecting irony.