2 How to Read a Poem (& Maybe Fall in Love with Poetry)

Alan Lindsay and Candace Bergstrom

Alice B. Fogel, former New Hampshire state Poet Laureate, reads Pablo Neruda’s “On Poetry.”


“The reader of poetry is a kind of pilgrim setting out, setting forth. . . .  Reading poetry is an adventure in renewal, a creative act, a perpetual beginning, a rebirth of wonder.”                                                                                                                    —Edward Hirsch.

Are Poems “Open to Interpretation”?

That depends on what you mean by “open for interpretation.”

Picture this: A politician says, “I won’t support this bill because it will hurt the middle class.” You hear that and maybe you think, “Yeah, right. You won’t support the bill because if you do the bozos who elected you won’t vote for you next time, and you’ll lose your cushy job.”

Or this: You ask a professor a simple question about quadratic equations and she spends half an hour tracing the origin of mathematics through the middle ages all the way back to ancient Greece. So you think (but are too polite to say), “This is about math, not about you. Stop showing off.”

What do these incidents have in common? In each case, someone interpreted what someone said to mean something other than or more than what it seemed to mean.

We could multiply examples of this all day. You may have come into this class thinking that poetry (or literature) is unusual in using language to mean more than they seem to say. But in fact language itself can always mean more than what it seems to mean. We are all interpreters of language. Hearing what is not said is something we learn to do from a young age, and it’s a skill we use every day.

To the extent that poems are made of sentences, and all sentences, even this one, are to some degree “open for interpretation,” so are poem. And yet…

  • Many students enter this course with a profound misunderstanding of the issue of interpretation with regards to art in general and poetry in particular. Somewhere along the way, you may have picked up on the idea that poems are “completely open to interpretation.”  But what would be the point of that?
  • What do we mean when we say a poem is “open for interpretation”?
  • Two things:
    • First, all language, even this paragraph, is by its very nature open to different understandings. (We’ll explore this further in the next lecture.)
    • Second, poets (who are artists) often exploit the inherent ambiguities, playfulness, and multiple meanings of language in order to create their art. They do this on purpose, with specific intentions, in order to create multiple meanings and to enrich their art.
  • So, yes, understood correctly, poems are “open for interpretation. But
  • Not all interpretations are equal. And
  • While no interpretation is complete
  • Some interpretations are defensible (which is a better word than “right”), and
  • Some are not.

We can be more specific: Here are a few problems poems bring to inexperienced readers and ways to overcome them.

  •  The poem conveys a difficult idea.

Difficulty if this type in poetry is not essentially different than difficulty in prose. Even experienced readers of philosophy sometimes read the prose of a profound philosopher and feel their brains oozing toward their ear canals. Sophisticated, subtle or specialized language is often difficult. This is not, however, the most common problem in poetry. Solution: Don’t try to figure it out on your own. Ask questions.

  • The language is old or arcane.

The words may be unfamiliar or seem familiar because they’re unusual or  have specialized meanings. Solution: All you need to do if you don’t know a word or if you think you know a word but don’t understand how it’s being used is look in a dictionary.  Readers use dictionaries.

  • A poem’s syntax (word order) is unconventional or a sentence is unusually complex.
  • In some poems, perhaps in order to get the rhyming words in the right position, poets, at certain times in history, felt an urgent need to rearrange sentences (in imitation of Latin), a big problem in English poems of the Eighteenth-Century.
    • o The line “What dire offense from amorous causes springs,” puts the verb, oddly, at the end. In ordinary everyday English (even in the 18th century, when the line was written) it would read: “What dire offense springs from amorous causes.”
  • In other poems, sentences are rearranged in order to surprise the reader, something that poetry often seeks to do. In other words, poets seek to create possibilities of meaning not available otherwise. And poets use syntax (as well as line ending) to play with readers’ expectations and stretch the many meaningful possibilities of language.
  • Some sentences are particularly complicated. You may get lost.
  • Solution: ignore the ends of lines. Read the poem as though it were prose and put the words back in their normal order. Look for the subject or verb; you may need to separate a main clause from a subordinate clause. (Warning: This may destroy all the “poetry” in the poem, so make sure to put it back together and read it again when you’re done.) And always ask for help when you need to.
  • 4) The sounds (or music) in a poem are a distraction.
  • They can be. Poetry tends toward concentrated and lyrical or musical language. Therefore, you’ll need to enhance your powers of concentration. This takes practice. Just keep reading.
  • Solution: Practice.

Of course, there are other reasons why poems sometimes seem difficult. However, the difficulty of poems is usually less than it seems. Poetry is a specialized use of language. It’s the art of language. Some artists use sticks or metal to make sculpture; some use pigments to make paintings or sounds to make music; poetry uses words to make art. It’s therefore a highly self-conscious use of language. And it’s in constant search for new subjects and new materials: words. Learning poetry is something like learning an always-changing dialect of your own language. A guide can help. But persistence helps more.

Try not to forget as you go through this material that the most important thing that could happen in this class would be for you to learn to enjoy poetry (and dare we say fall in love with it?).

But, since the enjoyment of poetry is one of those things that cannot be tested, we’ll have to lower our sights a bit and try to help you get a better understanding of poetry. If at the end of this unit, you can reply to the doubters in defense of poetry, we’ll have accomplished something. We will console ourselves in the knowledge that a better understanding of poetry may lead to an actual enjoyment of it.

Some things you need to know:

The study of poetry is work. It involves

    • Careful reading
    • Analysis
    • Testing

What we’ve said so far is sound general advice for getting the meaning (in the ordinary sense) out of poems. But let’s put you in this very concrete situation: You’re sitting down in front of a poem you’ve been asked to write about for this class. What do you do?

Learning to read a new poem is like learning to play a new song on a guitar. So try this: Decide before you begin that you are going to read every poem at least three times. It’s important no matter how long the poem is.

Reading poems out loud is best. Read the poem the first time straight through, pronouncing each word. You’re not looking for meaning or sounds. You’re just familiarizing yourself with the words, allowing them to bend back the grass in your brain so that they’ll be easier to walk through the next time.

Read the second time for sound. Concentrate on how the sounds fall. Hit the rhymes, pick up on the rhythms, notice (but don’t dwell on) any interesting use of sounds in the poem.

Read slowly and smoothly. If you stumble through the poem the second time, read it again and again until you get to the point where you no longer stumble over sound.

Read the poem the third time for meaning. When you are reading for meaning, keep in mind two things.

  • First (we say it again), the vast majority of poems are written in grammatically correct sentences. It will help you a lot if you know how to recognize a verb, a noun, and how to find them. And, if you know how to distinguish a subject from an object, you’re well on your way. If you go through the sentence from beginning to end and don’t understand it, look for the verb, find its subject and its object. Don’t confuse line ends with sentence ends or even with natural pauses. You’ll be tempted to pause at line endings. Realize that the pause may not come where it would come if the same sentence were presented as prose. Often the sense keeps going past the end of lines. It’s good practice to try to paraphrase the sentences of the poem one at a time.
  • Second, it’s nearly always possible to see the poem as a story. So look for it. Even poems not generally considered to be narrative poems tell or suggest a story. Most poems have at least some of the basic elements of a story: characters, dramatic situation, setting, action. Ask yourself what story the poem seems to tell. As with most stories, a poem is likely to come to us in two distinct voices: the voice of the poet and the voice of the speaker of the poem (when we are talking about fiction, we use the terms “author” and “narrator”). Most students do not realize that the speaker of the poem is not the same as the author of the poem. And sometimes it’s true that this distinction does not matter. But in most cases, a poem is spoken by an unnamed “voice” created by the author for the particular purpose of the poem. The easiest way to show this is with an example.

Look at these stanzas from a poem about discovering a snake in the grass:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon

Have passed, I thought, a whiplash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.

I’ve never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.[1]

 

This poem, by Emily Dickinson, relays the experience of a boy who was scared when he stooped down to pick up what he thought was the lash of a whip only to see it slither away. Dickinson was never a boy and may never have had the experience she writes about. Why she decided to narrate the poem from a boy’s point of view is something we can discuss. When we discuss the poem, we typically refer to the poet or voice(s) as the speaker or narrator in the poem.

However, what she does shows us is that we should not automatically assume that a poem or the facts it contains are autobiographical. If there is more than one speaker or voice in a poem then it’s important to hear all the voices.

  • If you think the poem is a story and recognize the speaker (or narrator), and if you can paraphrase each of the sentences, you’ll have a very good handle on the verbal meaning of a poem.
  • Don’t panic if this doesn’t work. Perhaps you’ve missed something—like an obscure meaning of a word, and the issue may not be yours at all. It may be that the poem resists this approach. This is when you need a guide.
  • Poems were originally intended as communal, not individual, objects. And they are still best read in a community. In this class, as soon as you are stuck, it’s time to post. Get on the appropriate discussion and write about what happened when you read the poem.

Remember, while meaning (in the ordinary sense) is hardly ever the primary element in strong poetry, it’s always there. Any poem that simply puts the music at the service of the meaning is likely to be inferior for that reason. Language in which meaning is primary is plentiful enough. It’s simply not the case with poetry. In poetry the music itself is inseparable from the meaning.

Verbal meaning is important, and often is necessary for a reader to be able to paraphrase a poem. But verbal meaning is never the whole. In good poems, musical meaning is not secondary. And poems exist that cannot be paraphrased. So when we think about what a poem is doing, we need to think about the music in addition to (or as part of) the meaning of a poem.

This really is not a strange concept. If I scream “I love you” through gritted teeth, the words won’t mean the same thing they mean if I say them softly on my knees handing you flowers. The meaning is not in the words alone.

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How to Read a Poem (& Maybe Fall in Love with Poetry) by Alan Lindsay and Candace Bergstrom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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