How Should We Read Poems?  (the most basic rules of the game)

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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 and 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"?
  6. Do the poem's lines break into stanzas or 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?
  7. 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 "assonance."
  8. 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?
  9. 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 them.