How to Read a Poem:
Part 1: An Introduction to What, Why, and So What
See also: Assignments and Updates
Any human language is hugely complex, and that means that a writer can use its many complexities to make what would otherwise be simple language into a kind of verbal puzzle. Usually, writers try to avoid too much complexity, since they want others to understand their thoughts quickly and easily. But different poets do things differently.
Which means: sometimes we want to say things with a special kind of emphasis, or we want to say something that seems very hard to get into simple language. In these cases we may make up ways of saying things that push readers to see our language as what we could call “Language-Plus.”
But because Language-Plus is special, even unusual, its readers often need practice before they can read it easily. They thus need to learn the usual ways writers of Language-Plus add special effects or make unusual choices in the words writers use.
And that’s really all that poetry is—Language-Plus used to express particular ways of thinking. For much longer than the English language has even existed (the words “poet” and “poetry” actually come from the ancient Greek!) human beings have been creating special meanings—some comic, some tragic, some hard, some easy.
As examples, here are two short poems:
As you can see in these poems, poetry often calls attention to itself by special effects—some small, like not capitalizing things you think should be capitalized, and some larger like running small sentences together into one long sentence. Figuring out why poets do unusual things is a way of forcing our minds to think new thoughts—and solving such puzzles is one of the pleasures of reading literature.
As a reader, then, whether in short and playful poems like these or in more serious poems, your job is to learn the ways poets use special language to make ordinary language become Language-Plus—or, we can now say, poetry. Much of what poets do is conventional—they rhyme, they use metaphors, they develop symbols. So we sometimes say there is a “language of poetry” and in this class we will help you discover the English forms of this language and figure out how they work. And here is how we’ll do it:
Step 1: Noticing: A poem is a kind of puzzle, and you will get better at solving poetic puzzles by learning to notice choices that a poet has made. Each word a poet uses represents a choice, since she/he always could have made a different choice. So your first job is to become aware of What choices your poet has made. Some of the choices poets make include:
Who is the Speaker? Are the words you read those of a particular person or of a general third-person voice? If it is a particular speaker, what adjectives would describe that speaker? Serious? Ironic? Angry? What action does the speaker seem to be taking? Warning? Reflecting? Insulting? Amusing?
Word choice/diction: Look for key words. What are the strongest words? The ones which call attention to themselves somehow? Which are used figuratively? Which seem weird or strange? Or funny? Or odd? Or have multiple, or special, or surprising meanings?
Metaphor/simile/symbol: Much poetry works by comparing one thing to another. What is being compared to what in this poem?
Syntax: Is the syntax simple? Or complex? Is it weird? If so, how? Can you determine what effect the poet’s choice of syntax has?
Patterns of Sound: Alliteration, assonance, consonance and rhyme create sound effects and often cluster significant words. Do you see any such effects in the poem you are reading?
Setting or story : What, exactly, is being described or enacted? What, if anything, is happening? If it describes an action, who is doing what? To whom? Where is it set? Outdoors? In a kitchen? Or…?
Step 3: NOW: For each of the details you notice, Why do you think the poet make the choices she/he does? Your job here is to explore what you have noticed, looking to explain those choices in terms of what you think the poet may be trying to accomplish by writing the poem.
Step 4: Finally, now that you have noticed a lot of choices the writer has made and tried to understand why it might make sense to make them, your next question is: So What? What does it all amount to? What do you think the poem’s “function” is? Is it to please? To amuse? To confound or push us to deep thoughts? Is it to teach? Is it to propagandize? Is it just to be beautiful? Or is it to engage us in a problem or invite us to an understanding of an insight on human action or the human condition?
This last step is not always easy, especially for new readers of poetry. But it gets easier with practice, and that’s why we will keep working with these poems all quarter long….
Part 2: So What? or The point of Reading Literature (Poetry included!)
Reading literature can be a powerful experience, informing us about the world, sharpening our understanding of our own and of others’ behavior, creating pleasure or shock or excitement, or making us feel closer to other human beings or farther away. It can also intensify experience and give significance to moments we might otherwise never even notice. In these and in other ways literature can make our understandings of ourselves, others, and the world we live in deeper, more resonant, sometimes more complex, but often also clearer and more emotionally rich at the same time.
I hope that learning to explore that kind of experience sounds sensible and worth doing. But the very complexity of literary reading creates a new set of difficulties. Where does one start?! What does one of these deeper awarenesses look like? How can one begin to bridge the gap between a first reading of a literary text and a more sophisticated and informed reading?
In my experience the best way to answer the that question is to frame it in terms of a story or poem's over-all function, or of what we think it sets out to accomplish. “What does this poem (novel, story, drama) do?” we need to ask, “what project does it seem to have?” This is what could be called a functional, or action-based, theory of interpretation. From its point of view, art works are actions, the results of human will, and as such can be analyzed like other actions we human beings take.
One advantage of this approach is that all of us are actually already skilled at this sort of analysis. Indeed, for most of the actions we see ourselves or other people taking we can do such analysis more or less automatically. I go to the refrigerator, get out a beer, pop the top and take it back to the ballgame, and nobody needs to think very much to understand my action. It's obvious to anyone watching what my goal is: I’m thirsty, I want a beer, I get a beer.
But we can approach the question of motive from other levels as well: I may also, for example, have had unconscious motives for getting that beer. Indeed, if you understand more of the psychological context in which I did what I did, you might see that I was getting the beer in order to get back at my irritating older brother, who’s on a diet and can’t drink and may therefore envy my sitting there with beer in hand. Or, in a different context, maybe I am responding to an ad I’ve just seen—an ad that effectively suggested that I could meet my unconscious need for social success by drinking a particular brand of beer. As such an example shows, the more you know about context, in life as in art, the more you can say about the significances of the actions people take within it.
So, to restate in slightly different terms: if we want to make a claim about the significance a given work of art has, it helps to think of that work as something that does something, sets up for itself, as it were, a project. What, for example, is the project of Blake's poem "The Tyger" or of Robert Francis’ “Catch”? At one level, at least, Blake’s poem has the project of enabling us to think about divinity and creation and the question of whether that creation is morally right or morally indifferent to human notions of what is “good.” And Francis’ poem has at least in view the project of defining what poetry is, and how at least some poets write them.
Those things said, how does a reader come up with a sense of the things a given work might be doing? One way is to think of them in terms of a set of functions that human actions in general and poetry in particular often have. Each of these can be seen as a kind of work to do—a function to perform—like one or more of the following:
The Personal Function. One thing literature can do is enact a range of psychological functions, creating effects that people locate with words like beauty, amusement, “entertainment,” or escape. We take a certain sort of pleasure from each of these effects, or fulfill some kind of very deep need. Sometimes it’s simply a need to feel a sense of completeness in the world, sometimes it is to intuit powerful patterns that are in some sense bigger and deeper than anything we ourselves can create. Or maybe it feels like a need to divert ourselves from the reality we struggle with each day and to spend time in a parallel universe that can with its conflicts and successes re-inspire us when we return to the real world we left as we entered the poem, novel or play we are interpreting. Each of these effects seem to be in some sense quite simple, though each can also be further investigated. Why, for example, does the display of order so please us? Or, what is it about the way we navigate our existence that makes moments of beauty so pleasurable? Not every literary work asks us to think about these issues; indeed many (like the musical Mamma Mia, for example) seem to urge us not to think much at all! But whether we are thinking consciously about it or not, our minds are busy nevertheless, even if at a level far removed from our conscious thought.
The Teaching Function. This function accounts for the way literature can attempt to inform us about life’s various experiences or issues. A novel or a play may offer insight into a particular sort of character, for example, suggesting what a person of such and such a type would do under this or that set of circumstances. Or it may attempt to unveil what it believes are truths about the way we live, or the way the world is structured, that we may or may not already understand. Maybe it will make an argument about social or political power and how it is distributed.
Or maybe it wants to teach us about how the world might be, or how it should be. In The Apology for Poetry Sir Philip Sidney talks about the “Golden World” that art creates: that which has never before been seen or thought of, something to aim for, to model ourselves upon and work towards. Other writers, by contrast, may give you an anti-world, or “dystopia,” a kind of model of what we fear or shun, or seek blindly to our own detriment.
In any of these cases, however, the function of such art is to inform us, warn us, move us, always to teach us something, and it is our job in such circumstances to evaluate the work literature does—to ask into its motives. Do we really learn something of value here? If so, what? Or are this work’s “truths” mere sentimentality or (worse) propaganda? Should we in fact take the actions that this work either implicitly or explicitly asks us to? Or should we reject such actions or even react against them?
The Forum Function. In this mode literature creates space for conversation and argument about issues that writers or their audiences feel to matter. The Forum Function is related to the Teaching function, but with an important difference. For here the job is not so much to inform or teach you about the world as to raise a question in a provocative way, to invite or tease or incite in us a will to argue or reflect. David Mamet’s play Oleanna, of a few years back, was such a work. It represented a teacher-student relationship that veered suddenly before our very eyes from an intense educational interchange into a charge of sexual harassment. Who was right? Did the teacher really do what the student said he did? Did the student really do what the teacher said she did?! In a big way, Oleanna’s success depended precisely upon its ability to engage its audience in reflection and conversation about the ethical issues of the problematic situation it staged. If people didn’t leave the theatre talking and arguing, the performance had failed.
In cases like this the fact that art often gives us stories about people who don’t actually exist, and therefore is rarely directly about real people's lives offers a great advantage over more direct modes of argument. For there are many things that many of us are not comfortable talking about publicly. We have fears—even taboos—about discussing matters related to such topics as sex, class, gender, race, politics, or religion. When we try to talk about these things directly we may lose our tempers, or feel embarrassed, so we often avoid discussing them at all.
But when we put the same issue into story we can talk, as it were, “at a distance.” By discussing the way Hamlet abuses Ophelia, or how he seems sexually attracted to his mother, we can approach these important but quasi-taboo subjects much more easily than if we were to talk about our own gender or our own mothers. Similarly, we can discuss issues of race much more easily when they are represented in a novel like Ellison’s Invisible Man than we can discuss race in terms of our own thoughts and actions.
Of course, there is also a price to be paid for the conversational liberty that literary discourse gives us: because that freedom is only indirectly related to real life, literary conversation is a relatively weak form of action. We who can agree that Shakespeare's King Lear treats his children badly may not see how that applies to the ways that we treat our own children. Still, this weak linkage doesn’t make literary conversation useless, since it may very often be the ONLY form of action available to us. But it does significantly reduce its capacity to bring change to the ways we actually go about living our lives.
The Community Function. Here the role of literature is to define, invoke, celebrate, or rehearse the common wisdom or vision or history of a culture. When doing this kind of work a literary text may not say anything either new or different, but instead works to affirm or celebrate what already is. In this mode literature helps to build or shape a culture, to produce coherence, even solidarity. Its capacity for this is not always positive—one reason art can be used as propaganda is precisely its capacity to bring minds together in a particularly powerful but potentially destructive way. But rightly used it can contribute to the sense of well being any community needs if it is to grow and prosper.
Obviously, these four functions are not mutually exclusive. Literature can very easily please us as it teaches (probably better had, in fact!), or establish community as it preaches, or offer escape in such a way as to lead us to think new thoughts about how things might or should be. But you can rest assured that any literary work must be doing SOMETHING if it’s going to be even trivially successful, and as a sophisticated reader it’s your task to figure out and understand something (at least!) about what that “something” is.