Reading Poems

The act of reading a poem is not just about finding the meaning or message that the writer hid in the poem. Poems are not in the game of simply giving information–they do much more than that: they create networks of meaning by layering various poetic effects with sound, image, allusion. These effects aren’t unique to poems–artful prose has nearly as much at its disposal–but they are most concentrated and activated in poems.

Rather than trying to quickly determine what a poem means, we must instead ask how it makes meaning. It is often our appreciation of this how that impacts readers most. In order do this, try to think with and alongside the poem as it creates a range of often inter-related textual effects. Many of these effects work in concert (or at odds with) with one another to create a broader tendency or tension,  or to underscore the thematic base of the poem. The task when engaging any of these effects is to not merely identify it, but try to ask how it functions in the poem and to what end. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Diction or word choice: is the language formal or informal? Erudite or everyday? Does the poet rely on complex, multisyllabic words, or more simple and direct language?
  • Verbal textures and sound patterning: when read aloud, do the sounds seem soft or hard? Does the poet employ assonance and consonance, internal and terminal or near/slant-rhymes, to create echoes and patterns, weaving a distinctive (and at times disjunctive) sound structure?
  • Mood, tone, and register: what “feels,” to use a more contemporary term, does the poem give, and does it offer conflicting moods, or a range of moods that all strike a certain register? Does the poem evince shame, joy, depression, despair, boredom, nonchalance, discontent, effervescence, precision, order, breathlessness, wonder, curiosity, concern, lethargy, anger, absurdity, or malice? How do the moods progress or move? Note that you might have no idea what a poem means, but you will likely have at least some idea of how it feels.
  • Personal vs. impersonal: Does the poem seem to speak above and beyond any given listener, offering grand statements and suggesting some transcendent objective, or does the poem seem more direct and personal–not in command of the transcendent and the spiritual, but merely subject to it if it’s there at all.
  • Truth and Knowledge: Does the poem seem to be moving towards a clear truth or greater clarity–or at least hold the hope that such truth (with a capital “T”) and clarity exists, or does the poem seem to be drowning (or playfully splashing around in) multiple competing truths, none of which hold out for very long?
  • Tempo and Pacing: when read aloud, does the poem propel you forward, or stop you in your tracks? Is the movement careful and deliberate, or rushed and frenzied? Or does it alternate? Why does the poem want to slow you down? Why does it make you speed up?
  • Rhythm and meter: rhythm and intonation is inherent in spoken language, and poetry makes much of these effects. At times, it does so formally, by following, more or less, pre-determined metrical patterns. Sonnets, for example, are written in iambic pentameter, which consists of a 10 syllable line with alternating unstressed and stressed beats (duh-DUM duh-DUM duh-DUM duh-DUM duh-DUM du DUM). Much of the poetry we will read this semester, however, is not written in a strict meter, which is association with often centuries-old poetic traditions. But just because a poem abandons regular meter doesn’t mean it lacks rhythm. Such rhythms are simply more “organic” and less pre-determined, more free and less fixed. Hip hop captures this sense of rhythm precisely: it is irregular, perhaps, and even unpredictable–but its rhythms are essential.
  • Negotiation of space on the page: some poems arrive in neat stanzas of roughly equal size and are tucked along the left margin. Other poems seems to sprawl all over the page, or fall down the page in a single undifferentiated strand.
  • Punctuation: does the poet use punctuation as one would in “correct” prose?
  • Syntax: how does the poem organize its grammatical units? Is its phrasing simple and direct, or convoluted and difficult to parse? Is it conventional or idiosyncratic?
  • Imagery, metaphors, and symbols: images are more than just pretty pictures; some poets view images as being more honest and true the descriptive language, more direct, more elemental. How do the images in a poem relate to one another? How do metaphors work to connect disparate entities? In many instances, a poem says as much through its images and figures than through more direct propositional language. Sometimes a poem might not have any images, but will still present some symbolic resonance for what certain literally described objects in the poem might stand for on a broader thematic level. Remember that the subject of the poem might be a thing in the world, by it could also be a psychological state.
  • Line: do the lines contain utterances in neat grammatical units, or in predictably metrical line units, or do the lines force sentences to break in unexpected places to parcel out meaning? If the break in the middle of a sentence, does that create extra layers of meaning? One is invited, in such cases, to read a line as a poetic unit of thought, even if it is not yet a complete grammatical unit of thought, and there can be interesting tensions between those two ways of reading.

Beyond these textual and poetic effects, try to articulate what you think the rhetorical situation might be. Who is being addressed? A single other person? A group? A state of mind? Or does the poem seem to be spoken in solitude? Can you identify what is motivating the utterance–some problem or concern, whether private or public? A lyric poem is typically voiced by a single entity, but there might also be multiple speakers.

And beyond these formal matters, we should also consider matters of context: how a poem fits into its world. Here, matters of nationality, geographic location, class, ideology (religion, politics, etc.), and identity come into play. Just remember that in order to discern how a poem acts upon, or exists within, the world, it is necessary to go through the kinds of formal considerations I noted above.

Finally, it is useful to note that for some poems, the goal is quite simply not to make sense at all, but to create a patchwork of poetic effects that leaves the reader disoriented and, one hopes, intrigued. We don’t “get” a poem; we experience a poem.

In this class, we won’t just read poems: we will re-read them, often many times, deepening our sense of those layered textual, poetic, contextual, and rhetorical effects and how they inter-relate with each passing.


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