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How to Interpret Poems


You've tried all these years to avoid it. You stayed away from those cats haunting the coffee shops--the ones who dress in black and smoke American Spirits. Or maybe you're actually into this stuff. It's perfectly legal. More likely, though, it's the one required literature course you just couldn't avoid. The time has come to read a poem, figure out what the poet is talking about and ask yourself why he couldn't just send a telegram. There is help: You can learn how to interpret a poem with flair. As to whether poetry will really help you "woo women," the jury's still out on that one.

Know a Poem When You See One: Identifying Features

Before you interpret a poem, there's a little detail you have to make sure of: that what you're reading is, in fact, a poem. Concentrate on these five things to determine whether what you have is a poem: the line, the sound, the density, the associations and the irony. Not every poem will exhibit all of these features, but they're a good starting point anyway.

Attention to the line as a basic element, not the sentence

The line is a poem's most basic unit. The length of each line of a poem is part of its composition. Compare this to normal prose, in which it doesn't really matter where on the page the sentence ends, just as long as it ends. The length of the lines in a poem will affect the meaning of the words within those lines, as well as the sound and rhythm as the poem is read.

Line breaks can essentially be used to add another form of punctuation. Often, a sentence or clause in a poem ends at the end of a line, and this is called an "end-stop." But poets also commonly allow a sentence or clause to leak over into the next line--a process called enjambment--and this has interesting effects on how a phrase is read and how people react to it. The choice of words that come before and after a line break may also be used to alter a poem's meaning. Here's an example of enjambment:

Whenever I think of a pretty
Girl, I grow old.

Greater focus on the sound of words

The most obvious way poems make unique use of sound is through rhyme. Full rhyme--or rhyming the last word of each line--has become less frequent in the past century, as modern poets find the technique too simple and predictable. However, looser types of half-rhyme--matching some of the sounds between words at various places throughout a poem--are still a fundamental component of most modern poetry. Be conscious of when a modern poet uses rhyme, and ask yourself: What is his purpose in using it? For example, does it comment on tradition? Does it more closely associate two images?

Rhythm (the flow and beat of a poem) is another important aspect of a poem's sound, and a metered poem has a carefully prescribed rhythmic structure.

Density

Density refers to a poem's richness in texture; that is, the level of mental effort required to draw out its multiple levels of meaning and emotion. People read poetry more slowly and carefully than other prose because of these subsurface meanings that arise from what the words imply (their connotations), in addition to what they mean literally (their denotations). Density is what can often make a poem such a pain to read.

Much of poetry's density comes from its focus on simile, metaphor and symbolic language. While a simile compares two dissimilar things directly, using the words "like" or "as" ("You're as happy as a dog in heat"), a metaphor implies that one thing actually is another thing ("You are a dog in heat"). A symbol is a concrete thing that stands in for another thing, usually an idea or quality. You probably learned about these three things in eighth grade.

Associations

By associating concrete images in unexpected ways, poetry is able to get closer to abstract concepts like Life and Love and Death, engaging emotions rather than intellect. Poetry can thus do more than just signify, using the limited number of words in the language. Instead, it uses language to paint a picture. For example, in Emily Dickinson's "The Chariot (Because I Could Not Stop for Death)," the image of death coming for the narrator is conveyed by the image of a thoughtful coachman, rather than a literal description of her death, and the poem is more haunting and effective as a result.

Irony

Often, a poem introduces distance between what happens or is said and what people expect to happen or to perceive, causing them to feel the tension between the two conflicting ideas. This uneasy (and sometimes amusing) distance, or disassociation, is called irony. It's easier to illustrate than explain. Emily Dickinson uses irony in much of her poetry, as when in "There's a certain slant of light" she refers to light as a thing with weight, thus playing on the fact that light literally has no weight, and also that the word "light" literally signifies the absence of weight.

Despite--and in part because of--these contradictions, people know what she means. Irony does not mean simply "things that suck." For example, if it were to rain on your wedding day, that would suck, but it would not be ironic. A better example of irony would be to write a song with irony as its topic, and then to list a bunch of events that aren't at all ironic. Don't ya think?

Learn Some of the Elements of Poetry

You now know how to recognize a poem, but to effectively interpret one and know what's going on, you need to learn a little about the language of poetry--such as the elements of meter, form and diction, for example.

Meter

Meter is the regular rhythmic pattern of a poem. Remember, paying attention to the rhythm of words is part of what makes a poem a poem. In English, the units of rhythm are rather simple: Speech may be broken down into patterns of stressed and unstressed beats (that is, stressed and unstressed syllables). The basic unit of rhythm in a poem is the foot, consisting of either two or three of these beats. Don't worry too much about the foot. It's just cool to know.

Now, iambic pentameter is one of the most common types of meter, or metrical schemes. The word pentameter is used because the line is broken up into five feet. An iamb is a poetic foot consisting of one unstressed beat followed by a stressed one, and is often given the notation "|u x|," where u is the unstressed beat and x the stressed one (for example, "to-DAY"). An example of how iambic pentameter is read would be:

| i WANT| to GO | to REST | au RANT | this EVE |

Other common types of feet are the trochee, a stressed beat followed by an unstressed one "|x u|" ("SWEET-ner"); and the spondee, two stressed beats in succession "|x x|" ("LET'S GO").

Earlier poets were far more concerned with mete than contemporary ones. Many poets wrote almost their entire body of work in a very limited number of metrical schemes. Shakespeare, for example, wrote his sonnets and the poetic language of his plays in iambic pentameter. So when he wrote, in his ironic "anti-sonnet" (praising his beloved for everything she is not),

"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,"

he was using iambic pentameter.

To demonstrate the concept of iambic pentameter, you can break this line into five feet, each with an iamb, one unstressed followed by a stressed syllable, like so (Read the line aloud and compare the stressed and unstressed syllables with the chart above them):

|u x |u x |u x |u x |u x| My mis- tress' eyes are noth ing like the sun,

Iambic pentameter is one of the most common metrical schemes in English, because

|u x |u x |u x |u x |u x| it sounds the most like or- di- nar- y speech.

However, much of 20th-century poetry has been written in a style without a carefully observed meter, called free verse. If you like, call it slacker poetry. Rules, shmules.

Form

The form of a poem, like the meter, is a prescribed pattern, but in fact is even stricter, often involving the meter, structure, rhyme scheme and tone of a poem. The basic unit of form is the stanza — the series of lines that follow the form before it starts over again. So think of a stanza in poetry as being like each new verse or chorus of a song. Often, a new stanza is preceded by a blank line. Even if you're not familiar with the form of the poem you're reading, a pattern will still most likely become evident as you read along.

Certain forms of poetry have become associated with particular subject matter; so while an earlier poet like Shakespeare might use the sonnet in its conventional role as a love poem, a modern poet like W.B. Yeats could use the same form ironically, to describe the rape of Leda by Zeus, in his poem "Leda and the Swan." Poets are deep.

Modern free-verse poetry (without regular meter) is also written in open form, meaning that the form may vary throughout the poem. You may have begun to notice that modern poets don't much like to follow a lot of rules. (Remember, however, that they do follow some rules. The stuff you scribble in your diary may have some value to you, but without some kind of discipline, it most likely really is just scribbling.)

Common forms

Blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter, is one of the simplest forms, in that each line is essentially a new stanza. Shakespeare used blank verse for the poetry in his plays (although not for his sonnets, which were rhymed).

A chart below shows some of the longer forms. Note that this chart is in no way complete: There are plenty of less-common forms you may run into, and a lot more information is available about these forms elsewhere. A poet may even create her own form.

Name: Couplet Lines per stanza: Two Description: Each stanza is a rhyming pair of lines.

Name: Triplet, tercets Lines per stanza: Three Description: Triplets have three rhymed lines, while tercets have only two.

Name: Quatrain Lines per stanza: Four Description: The commonest form in poetry, often thought of as A-B-A-B structure.

Name: Sestet, sestina Lines per stanza: Six Description: Sestets may form part of a longer sonnet or sestina.

Name: Rhyme royal Lines per stanza: Seven Description: Named for James I of Scotland, who composed in that form (and got to name it, because he was the King).

Name: Ottava rima Lines per stanza: Eight Description: Now usually reserved for comic poetry.

Name: Spenserian stanza Lines per stanza: Nine Description: Named for the author of "The Faerie Queen."

Name: Sonnet Lines per stanza: Fourteen Description: Commonly used in love poetry.

Name: Villanelle Lines per stanza: Nineteen Description: A particularly tricky form, with a complex rhyme scheme.

Diction or poetic language

Diction refers to the language of a poem and how each word is chosen to convey a precise meaning. Poets are very deliberate in choosing each word for its particular effect, so it's important to know the origins and connotations of the words in a poem, not to mention their literal meaning, too.

You're now asking yourself, "How am I supposed to know the history and connotation of all these obscure words?"

No problem. Fortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary is available online. The OED is an indispensable resource for anyone who really wants to "get" a poem. If you're a student, your university library will probably have a subscription. (If you're not a student, use the tattered Pocket Webster's you've got holding up one leg of the coffee table.)

The OED offers many definitions for each word and provides the time of their usage, so when you're reading earlier poets, you can find the meaning of a word at the time the poem was written, and avoid interpretations only a modern reader would make. The dictionary also offers a sampling of uses of the word in prominent works of literature; so where a poet is using a word to allude to a previous author's work--a common technique in poetry--you will have access to this added layer of meaning, as the previous work may help illuminate the later one.

If you don't have access to the online version of the OED, you may wish to just purchase the latest edition of the multivolume print version to carry around with you. It should fit comfortably in the back of a mid-sized Ryder truck.

Apply Some Tools of Analysis

You're probably wondering why anyone would want to analyze a poem in the first place. You're not alone: As far back as the late 18th century, William Wordsworth could lament that, in the drive to understand all of nature and art, people "murder to dissect."

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as a poet's craft, and that a knowledge of the basics is the key to being able to understand that craft, and even to fully appreciate a sophisticated poem.

A focus now shifts to what is sometimes called practical criticism. Its main function is to do a "close reading" of a poem, examining carefully the features of the text itself (such as those discussed) to ferret out levels of meaning.

Look at "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning (see Resources). If you're not familiar with the poem, check it out now, and maybe even print it out, so you'll know what the heck the rest of this article is talking about.

Scanning the lines

Scanning (or scansion) is when you map out a line of poetry to figure out the meter (as in the example earlier). With "My Last Duchess," the meter is easy. It's almost all in iambic pentameter. (The first line of a poem can often trick you, since the poet may vary the meter a bit just to get out of the gate, as Browning does here.) What can you say about this that's interesting (or, rephrased: What will interest your English professor)? Well, take the little that's been said about iambic pentameter and run with it. It's conversational, and the words of this poem are all supposed to come from a single speaker, the Duke, so that's one reason why the poet may have chosen this meter. Another reason may be because Shakespeare and other dramatists had used this meter in their dramatic works (as blank verse)--Browning's goal is to illustrate a scene, and he has written many poems like this, in which a single character speaks. These have come to be called his dramatic monologues.

Identifying the form

When examining a poem to identify its form, you'll want to be aware of some of the common forms of poetry and the types of content with which they have become associated. The Poetry Handbook is an excellent resource for this type of stuff.

You may recognize the form here as a series of couplets, each stanza a set of two rhyming lines. With a little research, you would learn that couplets written in iambic pentameter are called heroic couplets. The heroic couplet was used by many great poets for their epic works--up until the 19th century, when it fell from favor. So Browning's use of the form in the mid-19th century goes against the trend of his time. As you read the poem, you may notice that the "dramatic irony" of a narrator believing he is showing off his attractive qualities, when he is really revealing to his listener that he is vain and evil, is paralleled by the irony of using an epic form of poetry for a sordid monologue. This "interpreting poetry" stuff isn't so tough, so long as you know how to look for the cool things.

Examining the diction

The diction of the poem is perhaps most interesting in the way it demonstrates the narrator's imperiousness--the way he gives orders, with phrases such as, "I gave commands," from line 45 (you know the commands weren't nice, whatever they were). Elsewhere, the poet makes interesting use of lineation for the same effect. When line 2 ends in the words "I call," they become a command. In line 15, the line again ends in an enjambment, with the phrase "called that spot," instead of the full phrase "called that spot/of joy into the Duchess' cheek." The Duke makes an involuntary act--the Duchess blushing--into a voluntary act of "calling" on his part. Ironically, this is the one aspect of her character that he cannot control.

General observations

The central irony of the "My Last Duchess" is of course that the Duke wanted so much to bring the Duchess' beauty within his own control that he was willing to destroy her (along with her beauty) to do it. A little bit like trying too hard to analyze a poem, no?

There's been a lot of debate among scholars as to how much history, social context, psychology and gender concerns should be overlaid onto an analysis. In any case, some knowledge of the poem's subject matter can help in your reading--you'll want to at least understand what the poet is literally talking about. Scholarly editions, such as those published by Norton and Oxford, offer useful footnotes that provide context and define obscure or obsolete phrases.

Far more could be said about this poem, though not here. The discussion at least gives you a sense of the importance of understanding these basic elements of poetry and their effects.

Enjoy Yourself

Is it possible to read too much into a poem? Yeah, it probably is. Whether each reader will accept another reader's interpretation as the final truth is part of what makes poetry rewarding. Despite what a professor may tell you, there is no "correct" reading of a poem. The more complex a poem is, the more open it is to multiple meanings. But this does not mean that you should be a lazy reader and just sit back and stare at a poem to see how it "feels." If you're going to spend your time doing something like reading poetry, you'll want to put a little effort into it anyway.

Having said that, if it's still possible for you to enjoy poetry for its own sake--to be carried away by the language and rhythm of a poet's work--then you are getting something out of it. In fact, you're getting the thing that makes it worthwhile in the first place.

To check out some more great poetry (if you've not had your fill for, say, the next 15 years or so), check out Representative Poetry Online, maintained by the University of Toronto English Department (see Resources). It has hundreds of poets and poems available online. To wrap up, here is one special final poem:

        Roses are red
        Violets are blue
        That's our advice
        (In "Verdana" font too!)

About the Author

Steve Schneider is an award-winning critic, columnist and humorist with two decades of experience in print and online journalism. He holds a Master's degree in media, culture and communication from New York University.