How to Read a Poem

I gave the following one-page handout to my Intro to Poetry students on Monday. It of course contains all sorts of assumptions about the nature of poetic language that I don't spell out -- it it a set of instructions, not a theoretical statement.

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing. As you go through the steps below, write notes on the page the poem is printed on, or in your reading journal.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, including the definitions of any unfamiliar words, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem and do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables and if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? Does the poem allude to other works of literature?

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, your like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.) At this point it can be useful to write a brief summary of the poem in your reading journal.


lakeviewer said...

This may be useful to get someone started; but, it doesn't help a reader 'get' the poem, FEEL its soul, be a partner in constructing its meaning.

Carol Peters said...

Kudos to Cathy Smith Bowers for teaching us that meaning is not the first thing to look for.

Joseph Duemer said...
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Henry Gould said...

Side benefit of teaching, I guess (not having done it) : always new!

Joseph Duemer said...

Henry, after nearly 30 years, I am still, as Roethke (and a dozen Zen masters) put it, "a perpetual beginner."

As for the comments above that implicitly endorse E.E. Cummings' assertion that "feeling is first," I'd only comment that words have meanings and the world is -- or can be -- a real place.