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How to Really Read a Poem

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A great poem takes someone’s personal experience or perceptions and makes them real for the rest of the world. When we read one of these great poems, we begin to understand the world outside of ourselves. That’s why poetry is so important to those of us striving to be better women and wives—through poetry, we enter into the world’s cultural heritage and make ourselves a part of it.


What Does It Mean to Really Read a Poem?


Most of us had our first encounters with reading poetry in middle or high school English classes. The teacher forced us to read poems that seemed obscure and remote from what we could understand. Then she posed boring questions about the things in the poem that she found interesting and important.

As adult women, it’s time to revisit poetry—to find our own interest in it and open ourselves to what poetry has to offer. That means learning not just to read the words on the page, but to understand the relationship between those words and the poem’s deeper meaning.

The broadest definition of a poem is a literary production, written or spoken, in which the words themselves are at least as important as the meaning they convey. To really read a poem, we have to identify what it’s about, how it’s put together, how the poet uses sounds, and what the metaphorical language within the poem means.

When I discuss poetry with my high school students, we talk about these feature of poetry as the 4S’s: story, structure, sound, and symbols. This simple mnemonic device takes you through how to read a poem critically for a better understanding.


Story

When you read a poem, first determine what the poem is about. What story is it telling you? By identifying the story of the poem, you gain your first clue about its meaning.

Some poems have simple, narrative stories:

A trick that everyone abhors

In little girls is slamming doors.

A wealthy banker’s little daughter

Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater

(By name Rebecca Offendort),

Was given to this furious sport.

In Hilare Belloc’s Rebecca (who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably), the narrator tells us clearly that we are going to hear a story about a young girl with an annoying habit. It’s a funny, farcical moral tale with a straight-forward meaning.

Other poems don’t have a clear narrative:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

In the first stanza of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot puts us directly into the Prufrock’s head. The poem never has a clear narrative, but the audience feels Prufrock’s regret and frustration right along with him.

When you look for a poem’s story, look for what message the words are trying to get across.


Structure

How does the form of the poem affect its meaning? The form or structure of poetry is what  separates poetry from prose. By following—or deviating from—specific patterns of meter and rhyme, a poet can manipulate our feelings and understanding.


Meter

Meter is the basic rhythmic structure of a line of verse. Although there are many different metrical patterns in English, iambic pentameter is the best-known. In fact, the natural rhythms of spoken English fall into iambic pentameter.

An iamb is a foot, or basic unit of meter, of two syllables. The first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. Words like begin, declare, and unrest are all natural iambs. (Interesting fact: The word iamb itself is not an iamb!) In iambic pentameter, a single line of poetry has five iambs.

Iambic pentameter dominates Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,

But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,

Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out

Against the wreckful siege of battering days,

When rocks impregnable are not so stout,

Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,

Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?

Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Meter gets really interesting when a poet uses variation to draw your attention to specific words of phrases:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

In Holy Sonnet XIV, John Donne uses variation to add interest and emphasis to the poem. For example, the word batter isn’t iambic—the emphasis falls on the first syllable, so the word sticks out as impressive and important. Later, Donne uses spondees, or feet where both syllables are emphasized. Knock, breathe, and shine are all emphasized, as are break, blow, and burn. By repeating the unusual metrical pattern in these two lines, Donne contrasts the gentle ways God is already trying to make him better to the violent help Donne asks God for.

Iambic pentameter is just the beginning of learning about poetic meter. To find out more about meter, read Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse by Mary Oliver.


Rhyme scheme.

Rhyme is the repetition of vowel sounds. Sad and dad, red and bed, wife and life, are all rhyming pairs. Poems can follow many different rhyming patterns—and even different rhyming patterns gives a poem a different feel.

Some poems, like Jane Taylor’s The Star, are written in rhyming couplets, two lines in a row which rhyme with each other:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,

How I wonder what you are.

Up above the world so high,

Like a diamond in the sky.

The simple pattern of couplets often makes them feel light and sing-songy.

Other poems, like Sonnet 65, are highly-structured according to rigid rules. Poets display their artistry by telling a creative and moving story through specific guidelines about which lines have to rhyme.

Many poets set the rhyming patterns for their poems themselves. In these poems, the rhyming pattern often tells us more about the meaning of a poem, or about the feelings behind it. Take the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Lines 1 and 3 rhyme, as do 2 and 4. But the 5 and 6 are an unexpected couplet. It is easy to imagine a light breeze passing through a field of flowers that suddenly gusts up and makes the flowers dance. (You might also have noticed the way fluttering adds an extra syllable to the meter so the word seems to flutter off the page.)

Not all poems rhyme. Even though it doesn’t rhyme at all, Carl Sandberg’s The Fog is one of the most-loved and best-known American poems:

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.


Sounds

Sounds stands for the poetic devices poets use to play with language in their poetry. There are dozens such poetic devices, but two of my favorites are alliteration and onomatopoeia.


Alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds. Most tongue twisters are great examples of alliteration, like, “She sells seashells by the seashore.” Actually, alliteration is one of the oldest features of poetry in English. Caedmon’s Hymn, the first English poem, begins Nu we sculon herigean heofonrices weard or Now we must praise the lord of heaven. Poets often use alliteration to call attention to special words in a line of poetry. In Caedmon’s Hymn, herigean or praise and heofonrices or of heaven.

Edgar Allen Poe is the great master of alliteration. In the first stanza of The Raven, Poe uses alliteration to add an other-worldly quality to an eerie story of loss and memory:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –

Only this, and nothing more.”


Onomatopoeia

An onomatopoeia imitates or suggests the source of the sound it describes. An onomatopoeia can be a simple word crash or tick-tock, but it can also be a phrase that evokes a specific sound. For example, these two lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess: Come Down, O Maid sound like the quiet insects they describe:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

The most famous examples of onomatopoeia in English poetry are from Lewis Carrol’s The Jabberwocky:

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

Even though most of the words in this stanza are nonsense words, they so perfectly mimic the sound of whatever they are naming that their meaning is perfectly clear. Snicker-snack describes the sound of a magical sword slicing through the neck of a terrible monster.


Symbols

Symbols stands for the figures of speech in a poem. Poets can use dozens of different figures of speech within a poem, but most of them rely on metaphorical language. A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike objects. It should tell you more about the objects being compared. If I tell you my sister climbs like a monkey, you know I mean she climbs as though she were born to do it. Or if I tell you my brother is a pig, you know I mean he eats too much or that he is slovenly.

Metaphorical language makes a poem more emotionally charged by forcing you to think about the subject of the poem in a new or unique way:

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Walt Whitman’s poem, O Captain! my Captain! gives the reader the strong feelings of camaraderie and loyalty of an officer to his beloved captain—but the poem is actually about Abraham Lincoln. The United States is the ship and the prize is Union victory in the Civil war. By using metaphorical language to compare Lincoln to a captain, he helps the reader feel his sorrow and dismay.


Really Read a Poem!

Christina Rossetti’s De Profundis

Now that you know the four 4S’s of poetry, you can see how the story, structure, sounds, and symbols contribute to the meaning of a poem.

Oh why is heaven built so far,

Oh why is earth set so remote?

I cannot reach the nearest star

That hangs afloat.

I would not care to reach the moon,

One round monotonous of change;

Yet even she repeats her tune

Beyond my range.

I never watch the scatter’d fire

Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,

But all my heart is one desire,

And all in vain:

For I am bound with fleshly bands,

Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;

I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,

And catch at hope.

De Profundis is the story of a woman who wants to reach the heights of heaven. Instead, she is trapped in an earthly body that cannot even grasp the lowest levels of heaven.

You may recognize the iambic structure of the poem. In most of the lines, the emphasis in each foot falls on the second syllable. Most of the lines have four feet—a metrical pattern called iambic tetrameter.

Oh why is heaven built so far,
Oh why is earth set so remote?
I cannot reach the nearest star
That hangs afloat.

The last line, that hangs afloat, breaks the pattern. It has half as many syllables as you’d expect. It’s as though we’ve been promised something we cannot obtain. By abruptly breaking off the line, Rossetti gives the readers the same feelings of frustration she feels.

The second stanza uses a symbols device called allusion. An allusion is a reference to a person, place, event, idea, literary work, or myth in an unexpected context.

I would not care to reach the moon,

One round monotonous of change;

Yet even she repeats her tune

Beyond my range.

When Rossetti refers to the moon as one round monotonous of change, she’s referring the idea of celestial spheres held by many ancient philosophers. According to men like Plato and Ptolemy, everything below the moon changes. Planets higher than the moon do not change, so they aren’t subject to the will of fate. The narrator wants to reach the perfection of the unchanging planets, but she cannot even reach the changeable moon.

The third stanza of the poem uses the sound of alliteration.

I never watch the scatter’d fire

Of stars, or sun’s far-trailing train,

But all my heart is one desire,

And all in vain:

Repeating the s sound (scatter’d, stars, sun’s) Rossetti draws our attention to these words. Here, the fire of stars and suns is another thing out of her reach—no matter how much she wants them, she cannot reach them.

By the end of the poem, Rossetti has used the story, structure, sounds, and symbols of her poem to get the audience emotionally invested in her feeling of unanswerable yearning:

For I am bound with fleshly bands,

Joy, beauty, lie beyond my scope;

I strain my heart, I stretch my hands,

And catch at hope.

We feel moved by the narrator’s experience and begin to sense a longer of our own for something too great for us to grasp.


So what does really reading a poem get you?

De Profundis speaks to an unvoiced desire we all have to reach for something bigger than ourselves—and the frustration we feel when we cannot attain it. By reading it carefully, we have not only spent several minutes meditating on one of life’s great truths, but we have also shared that experience with generations of other women who have known and loved this poem.

That’s what reading great poetry does. It reminds us of the part we share in the greater human community. It reminds us what we owe to those who came before us, who weren’t really all that different than ourselves. It reminds us that there are other people out that who feel as deeply as we do. And it reminds us of the legacy we’ll leave behind when we’re gone.


Other Ideas for Reading Poems

There are many other ways to learn to appreciate poetry even more deeply:

Looking for a place to start? Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keilor, is an unpretentious collection of classic and modern poetry you’re sure to enjoy.

One response »

  1. Adriana @ Classical Quest

    What a thorough post and such a fascinating approach! A good mnemonic always helps too. Thank you!

    Just recently, I mentioned to my husband that I need to learn how to appreciate poetry more fully. I’m looking forward to the titles that I’ll be covering on the WEM poetry list in the future. I hope that coming to them with some life experience will add depth of meaning for me.

    I’ve bookmarked this page!

    Reply

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