How to read a poem?


Graphics thanks to

With any good recipe, the key to an excellent result is the quality of the ingredients. The same is true of poetry! Yes, that’s right – the particular ingredients (or elements) of a poem generate its overall meaning and, in turn, create an impact on you, the reader. So, it’s important then, isn’t it, to understand what those special ingredients are and how they affect the finished result.So, here’s your “shopping list” of ingredients:

  1.  The ‘title’ – Interestingly, many people overlook the title of the poem when they are reading it, and yet, it can provide us with some very healthy clues as to what the poem is about, or the viewpoint of the speaker / poet. In Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “The Hero,” for example, the dead soldier, Jack, is everything but a hero in the eyes of his commanding officer. So, why is it entitled “The Hero”? Maybe it is to highlight the hypocrisy of war, so the title is ironic.
  2. Context – Very often the poems you study in class will carry great influence from the  background and personal experiences of the person who wrote them. Grace Nichols’ poetry, for example, is greatly influenced by her Caribbean cultural roots and so understanding the cultural background of her poetry is very helpful in understanding the meaning of her poems.
  3. The ‘narrative‘ – Look at the poem carefully and try to understand if the poem is telling a ‘story.’ Is it concerned with describing an experience or an event, or is it about something else? Some poems don’t even have a ‘story’ – they might be a personal rant, an angry outburst or an emotional reaction to a personal experience. John Agard’s poem ‘Half caste‘ is an excellent example of a poem that is so charged with emotion, anger and frustration rather than telling us about a specific experience or event. It is written in Agard’s native dialect to make a strong point about how ridiculous racism is. Whatever it is, however small or insignificant it may be, poems are about something – and it is that ‘something’ we need to discover.
  4. The ‘voice‘ or the perspective – In other words, who is speaking the poem? Is the speaker involved in the action, or narrative, of the poem, or are they more objective and neutral? Does the speaker address the audience directly? What views does the speaker have that might influence our interpretation of the poem?
  5. The main idea or ‘theme‘ – Many poems aim to engage the reader in some kind of thought process about the issues / ideas raised in the poem. Often, the theme of a poem covers a universal topic such as death, childhood experiences, love, and then it asks us to ponder the issues related to these topics. One thing we must consider closely, however, is the extent to which the speaker’s personal viewpoint colours our interpretation of the topic – are we influenced to think one way or another about it?
  6. Poetic techniques‘ and ‘diction‘ or use of language- The techniques which a poet uses depends on the image that he/she wishes to convey, so many poetic techniques concern themselves with the job of generating an image in the reader’s mind. These may be similes, metaphors, personification, alliteration etc. Regarding diction (or the use of specific words and phrases), we must pay attention to why the poet uses certain words and the effect that they are hoping to create by using them. We can look to the semantic field for this.
  7. The ‘structure’ of the poem – The first thing to look out for here is whether the poem is organised into stanzas. If it is, then each stanza is likely to have its own topic (like a paragraph in a story), and the ordering of these stanzas may also be important; for example, are they organised so as to build up to a climax? Are they chronologically ordered? Is there a turning point somewhere inside the poem (perhaps at the beginning of a stanza) which divides the ideas of the poem into two (this turning point is called a ‘volta‘)? Is there a repeated line throughout the poem which emphasises the main message (this is called a ‘refrain‘.)? Is there a rhyme scheme, a particular rhythm of beats on a line? Is there evidence of enjambment or caesura? Are some stanzas or lines within the stanzas longer than others?
  8. The beginning and the ending – often these two parts of a poem connect in some way. In Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Stealing‘, for example, the poem opens with a question; ‘The most unusual thing I ever stole?” and then the last line makes a reference back to the whole poem including the first line: ‘You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” So both the first and last line include a rhetorical question which draws the reader in and maintains the reader’s attention until the end – a very effective technique, but also a fantastically rounded structure. Sometimes, the ending or last line is designed to shock the reader and put everything into perspective. This is particularly the case in Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Midterm Break.’ Based on a real incident where his little brother was killed in a car accident, the poem ends with the line “A four foot box, a foot for every year,” which is the point at which we realise exactly how old (or young) his little brother was – just four years old! Clearly, this adds a very poignant ending to the whole poem. So look out for how the poet creates effects with those opening and ending lines!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s