How to Read a Poem:
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 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 the language we use as special or different: what we could call “Language-Plus.”
But because the Language-Plus of poetry is special, even unusual, its readers often need to get some practice before they can read it easily. They thus need to learn some of the ways writers of Language-Plus add special effects or make unusual choices in the way they use words.
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 “making” special meanings—some comic, some tragic, some hard, some easy.
As examples, here are two short poems:
As you can see in these two 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, forcing our minds to think new thoughts just to figure out what are the subjects and what are the verbs—and how in the world they can all be understood in a single “sentence”).
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 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. 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: Each word a poet uses represents a choice, since she/he always could have made a different choice. Good readers learn to notice choices that a poet has made. So your first job is to become aware of What choices your poet has made. Some of the choices poets make include:
The Special Word: 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?
Who is speaking? 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?
Setting or Plot: What, exactly, is being described or enacted? What, if anything, is happening? If it describes an action, who is doing what? To whom?
Patterns of Sound: Do you "hear"any sound effects in the poem you are reading? Alliteration, assonance, consonance and rhyme create sound effects and often cluster significant words.
Step 2: Now: Once you have located special words you think may be special choises, for each of the choices you notice, Why do you think the poet make the choice 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 3 : Finally, now that you have noticed a lot of choices and tried to understand why the poem makes them, ask the question: So What? Is the poem supposed to please? To amuse? To 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?
Each of these three steps take practice, and when you first try them you may feel you'll never learn how. But you actually will. Step 3 will get easier with practice, and that’s why we will keep working with the short poems (and some poetic prose, too) all quarter long.