How Should We Read Poems?
(the most basic rules of the game)
- In early literature, at least, poems are composed of
sentences. Do not let the line breaks distract you from your first
duty, to read the sentences and to understand what the poet is saying.
However, that's usually not easy for several reasons.
- Poets often invert normal English Subject-Verb-Object word
order. Straighten out the sentence's syntax if you can't
understand it. Then look at the inversion--does it contain additional
meaning or was it just necessary for metrical or rhyming effects?
- Does the poem presume a dramatic situation in which
there is a speaking persona and an implied audience, someone
(not you!) spoken to? If so, figure out that situation and decide what
we are to think about the speaker's message to the poem's implied audience.
- Poets use figurative language, especially metaphors and
similes, to populate the sentences with comparisons between many things
and the subject of the sentence, or the verb, or its object. Unpack
those comparisons and decide what the poet means in a literal sense.
Then look at the kinds of things used in the comparisons and decide if they
convey some additional, parallel meaning.
- After you have ignored the poem's line construction to
understand its sentences' literal sense and its figurative sense, take
another look at those lines to see how their construction affects the rhythm of the poem.
What is their meter
of what kinds of "feet"
[metrical units] is that meter composed? In Elizabethan poetry,
tetrameter (four-foot) lines often are used in songs, sometimes to lend an
ironic or comic quickness to the line, whereas pentameter and hexameter (and
etc.) longer lines often seem more grave and thoughtful. Do the lines
have end-stops indicating they contain complete clauses (ending in .
or ; or :)? Or are some lines enjambed, running over the
line break into the next line or even into the line after that? What is
being said in the enjambed lines? Does it involve some kind of
"overflow" or "excess"?
- Do the poem's lines break into
intentional groups of
lines, and if so, what is their pattern? Does the dramatic situation
(above) have a turning point in the stanza structure, heading for some kind of
climax, or is the poem's overall structure circular or repeating? In
Italian, the line containing a sonnet's dramatic turning point is called the
volta ("turn"). Not all sonnets have turning points, but most
do. Lack of a volta might be due to the poet's lack of skill,
but if you are dealing with a skillful poet who refuses the volta,
knowing you are expecting it, s/he has "punk'd" you wicked bad. What
does the lack of the turn mean?
- Having scanned the lines for their formal contribution to
meaning, look at the poem's rhyme, both internal (within the lines) and
at line ends. What is the rhyme scheme (unless it is "blank verse,"
unrhymed iambic pentameter)? Does the rhyme scheme coincide with any of
the figurative language or literal sense of the poem's meaning which you
discovered in your sentence-level reading? How does the rhyme contribute
to the poem's meaning? You also may see some words that nearly rhyme
(making allowances for Early Modern English's vowels!), and that is called
- Rhymes depend on vowel sounds, but an equally important
part of the poem's formal "music" is its use of consonants. Look at the lines'
initial consonants. If initial consonants are the same for two or
more words in a line, you are looking at "alliteration," the formal tactic
used instead of rhyme by poets in Old English, and by some Middle English
poets. What do the alliterating words emphasize and how does that
contribute to the poem's meaning?
- Now that you have read and re-read the poem analytically,
you are prepared to say something about how it works and what the poet meant
to create. Discuss your evidence with others, read the poem aloud to
each other, and thank the poet for her/his labors in the only way you now can.
These poets all are dead, but their works live on in your performances of