Whether you love it or hate it, poetry is an essential part of studying English literature; here are some of the best ways to find your way into a poem.
Song lyrics and dirty jokes, slogans, and graffiti, love letters, and high art: we read, analyze, critique, and deal with poetry every day in our regular lives. So, despite what the occasional literary scholar or weighty critical textbook would like you to believe, poetry is accessible, essential, and endlessly appealing to us in all kinds of forms.
There is no big secret to understanding poetry: no particular elitist clique you have to join or a long list of rules you have to memorize. Poetry truly only gains meaning when you read a poem and assign meaning to it yourself, and the ways into a poem are far more natural and familiar to you than you might realize.
Finding Meaning: Focus on Why (Not What)
Brace yourself for this. No matter what poetry dictionaries, footnotes, or even your English teacher, lecturer, or tutor might seem to imply, the fancy jargon critics use to analyze and express opinions about poetry is not essential learning to find meaning in a poem.
That’s not to say that being able to identify elements such as iambic pentameter, Petrarchan sonnet form, voltas and enjambment is not extremely worthwhile, or that having these valid poetic words in your lexical toolbox is not a distinct advantage. Students often get too caught up in the vocabulary and forget the main point is to make meaning, not point out the obvious.
It’s great that you can recognize a couplet or spot when a poem is in trimeter, but unless you can explore why having every two lines rhyme together is significant, or what the point of choosing a rhythm for the poem of three beats per bar – it’s not meaningful.
Understanding Narrative: Story Time
Poems still have a sense of the story: a series of events, a beginning/middle/end, scenes, places, and characters. It is often more dense and succinct than prose writing and couched in more obtuse and unusual language, but you can still analyze the story just as you would in a novel or play. What is the narrative of the poem you’re reading – what happens in it, where does it happen, and who is involved?
Speaker and Addressee: Who to Whom?
Like stories, poems can use first, second or third-person narrative, and the question of ‘Who is speaking to whom?’ is always a fascinating one in poetry. Even if the poem professes to be autobiographical or objective, there is still an invented speaking voice and an implied audience. Analyzing these characters, their motivations, tone, and relationships are always revealing.
Moreover, it opens up thinking about how the poets themselves are connected to their work and how they are connected.
Are we invited to be part of a conversation, overhearing secret thoughts, reading diaries or letters, or listening to music or speeches?
Poetic Language: Words, Words, Words
Poetry tries to capture the impossible in words: an image, an emotion, an event that a photo or a spoken explanation, or a written account could not hope to encapsulate. To achieve poetry delves into the most surprising places to find the perfect word or phrase and plays about with all kinds of language possibilities.
Usually, ordinary words and simple ways of saying things will not suffice to articulate the extraordinary, so the best poems are not trying to exclude you from reading them with difficult or complex language. Instead, they’re trying to share something with you as precisely and thoroughly as possible. Keep the dictionary at hand and enjoy the poetic register’s musicality and flexibility instead of the boring vocabulary of everyday life!
Unpacking Imagery: Imagine This
In seeking that perfect way to express something both complex and sophisticated visually or emotionally, poets not only use unusual words but marry them in strange and innovative ways. Similes, metaphors, and tropes are stock tools for the poet, and puzzling them out to make the picture work in your head or unpacking them to get to the heart of the feeling being shared with you will open up all kinds of new meaning in a poem.
Poetic Form and Format: Get Into Shape
One of the critical ways we recognize something as a poem is its shape on the page. How has your poem been formed? Does the body suggest a certain kind of poetry or indicate a way to read it? (ie. four-line verses might offer a ballad, an overt visual break in a fourteen-line sonnet is implying an apparent change of idea, mood, etc., is taking place, and something like Lewis Carroll’s The Mouse’s Tale uses the poem’s shape to highlight the wordplay!)
Read Aloud for Meaning: Listen Up
While the format of poetry can be a key to understanding a poem, it can also form a series of visual cues for reading aloud. When you read or hear the poem audibly, what strikes you? Listen for rhythm, rhyme, repeated words or sounds, musicality, and pace: what clues do these elements give for understanding the poem?
Rhyme Scheme: All In The Rhyming
As mentioned, identifying the particular type and pattern of rhyming is commendable but ultimately pointless unless you examine why the poem uses it. For example, rhyme can emphasize critical phrases, images, words, or ideas, develop tone or imply emotion (i.e., harsher-sounding verses like p/ck/t are angrier or more violent),
Suggest character (couplets are more childish, iambs more natural, etc.), or create onomatopoeia (words that sound like a sound, such as the abundance of s-words in Lawrence’s poem Snake). How is rhyme working in your chosen poem, and for what purpose?
Rhythm and Poetic Meter: Get Into the Groove
As with rhyme, rhythm can create the sound of galloping horses in the rollicking meter of Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River or the lowing cows and tolling bell in the ponderous meter of Elegy in a Country Churchyard, establish pace and energy, cause tension in or soothe the reader, and suggest a location, emotion or character traits (i.e., Shakespeare used a meter to indicate class in his plays, whereby his high-born characters will speak in impeccable pentameter, while his lower-class characters tend to use blank or free verse).
We often react to rhyme and rhythm instinctively because they are so embedded in natural sounds and everyday speech, but exploring why poems use their patterns opens up rich possibilities for finding meaning.
Personal Interpretation and Intertextuality: Playing the Poetry Game
Poetry is playful, rebellious, daring, outrageous, and often very aware of and pleased with itself. Despite what the Romantic poets liked to imply about themselves and their art, writing good poetry is complex, structured, time-consuming, intense work – not some easy and inspired flight of fancy that flows out unedited onto the page. Part of the charm of poetry is how self-conscious it and its creators are of themselves, their ancestors, and their contemporaries.
Poems talk to and about each other, muse about the apparent rules of poetry and how to break them, and emulate, challenge or invert any other verses that inspire, antagonize or insult them. The more poetry you read, the more every other poem before and since starts making more sense and yielding up more meaning – how gratifying is that?!
So, don’t be afraid of poetry – and don’t reverence it either! What you think of a poem, having considered some of these ways into it and thus having performed an informed and intelligent reading, is as important and worthwhile as those of any scholar or poet.
And, don’t feel the need to enjoy every poem you read, like a poem to appreciate it, or write poetry yourself to understand it. As with any art form, poetry is a way to express the most complex, beautiful, terrible, fundamental aspects of ourselves, our lives, and our worlds – and every one of us has profound and meaningful opinions about that.