to Read Poetry When Your Teacher Assigns It for Homework
page is not about analyzing poetry. It's about reading it. In most
literature classes, when people discuss poetry, they analyze it.
Since that's all most people have done with poetry, when they try
to read it on their own -- when they're reading it for homework,
for example -- they jump straight to analysis. But analyzing a poem
without reading it is like analyzing a movie without just watching
it once. As movie watchers, you know that in order to understand
a movie, you have to experience it. And that means watching it,
enjoying, and getting lost in the film's world. Once you've done
that, then you can step back and analyze it, if you so choose. The
same it true for poetry. But while most people in 21st century America
are experts at watching movies, few have much experience with reading
poetry. The goal of this page is to help make reading poetry easier.
It's about what I expect students to do with poems when I ask them
to read them for homework.
What is poetry?
does poetry do?
"Deep hidden meaning" myth.
is poetry entertaining?
do you read poetry? (11 basic steps to reading a poem)
you can analyze it, if you want.
1. What is poetry? This can
be a tricky question. Every poet seems to have his or her own definition
of poetry. Usually, though, the poet is just describing his or her
poetry. So let's keep it simple: Poetry is language organized by
rhythm. This definition may not cover every single poem, but it
covers the vast majority of poems and all the best poems. Notice
what this definition talks about. Language and rhythm. It doesn't
talk about emotions or feelings.
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does poetry do? It does just about anything that prose can
Poems can entertain
been used to celebrate (many hymns start out as poems, as did the
"Star Spangled Banner").
help people learn and remember things. In preschool, my son learned
not to squirt glue all over the paper by memorizing this short poem:
"A drop, a drop, a drop will do
Any more is too much glue."
Then in kindergarten
he learned to write numbers by memorizing this poem:
"A straight line down makes a one
Writing numbers can be fun!"
can sell things -- ideas or products -- make arguments, and teach
values. Poetry isn't just the emotional expression of the author.
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"deep hidden meaning" myth.
Most people think poems are written with some "deep
hidden meaning." They're not. Some poems may be riddles, but
that's not the same as a deep hidden meaning.
hidden meaning" people get from poems comes from literary analysis.
And we can subject any piece of writing to that. We can analyze
a political speech, an advertisement, history book, or a letter
from your girlfriend or boyfriend. Literary poetry, though, is condensed.
Good poetry is rich and suggestive. So ideally, a line of poetry
says a lot more than the same amount of prose, and analyzing a poem
should give you a lot more than analyzing an
advertisement. But that doesn't mean the poet hid the meaning in
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read poetry? Entertainment. Poems can make you laugh, cry,
smile, think, brood -- the same kinds of things movies, songs, or
paintings can do. But poetry is an art form that we're not familiar
with today. So we have to learn to appreciate it, just the way that
Anne Bradstreet, were she suddenly transported to our world, would
have to learn how to watch a movie. And just as some movies are
more difficult than others, some poems are easy to read and follow,
while others require more attention. (Most films are pretty easy
to figure out, but some films, such as Barton Fink, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's
Last Action Hero, or Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction take a little
more thought to follow. In the same way, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's
poetry tends to be easy to read, but T. S. Eliot's poetry is more
difficult. Note: though many critics act as if complexity is always
a good thing, complexity and quality are not the same thing.)
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is poetry entertainment? Poetry
is the ultimate art for people who like language. In poems, poets
try to express ideas or feelings, convey experiences, or describe
things in language that follows some kind of form (e.g. rhyming
couplets). As we read a poem, sometimes we enjoy the sound of the
language itself. Here's an example of a poem that is pure sound:
is a told tray sure
A lean on the shoes this means slips, slips hers. -- Gertrude Stein
though, we read a poem for what it says: the content. In the best
poetry, both the language and the content are fresh and original.
In literature classes, however, the focus
is almost exclusively on the content. But as you read the poem before
class, read it out loud; hear it.
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do you read poetry? Poetry is written to be heard.
In the 1800s, it was common for people to get together and read
poetry to each other.
The poem wasn't
simply a piece of language that conveyed data; it was meant to be
heard the way a song was meant to be sung.
In order to read poetry well, though, you need to know a little
about prosody. Prosody is the theory of rhyme and meter.
Knowing prosody is to poetry what reading sheet music is to music.
Poems can be
broken down into 3 parts.
- The Stanza:
a group of lines set off from the other lines in a poem. The poetic
equivalent of a paragraph.
In traditional poems, the stanza usually contains a unit of thought,
much like a paragraph.
- The line:
a single line of poetry.
- The foot:
a syllable or a group of 2 or 3 syllables. Typically a foot will
contain a stressed and an unstressed syllable.
To scan a line
of poetry (that means to hear the rhythm) you count the number of
feet in a line.
For a beginner, the easiest thing to do is to count the number of
stresses. This doesn't always work (some feet contain 2 stresses),
but it will work often enough to give you the feel of the poem,
which is all that we're after at this point.
In verse (traditional,
formal poetry), there will be a regular pattern to the rhythm. Often,
all the lines in a poem will contain the same number of feet.
For example, in a sonnet, all the lines will have 5 feet. In many
cases, though, a poet might alternate between lines with 4 feet
and lines with 3 feet.
And in other cases, the patterns will be more complex. But unless
you are reading free verse, there will be a pattern and you need
to identify it.
For a more
thorough discussion of prosody, check out Tina
Blue's web page "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part 1."
Steele's "Introduction to Meter and Form"
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11 basic steps to reading a poem
through the poem to get a sense of it.
2: Identify the sentences and independent clauses
(circle the periods, exclamation points, question marks, and semicolons).
For some reason, people always forget that poetry is made up of
3: Read a few lines to figure out the meter (figure
out how many stresses there are in a typical line).
4: Note the rhyme scheme (look for a pattern).
5: Read the poem out loud. Try to follow the rhythm.
If you do this you'll hear where the poet plays with the rhythm.
And you'll hear the rhyme scheme.
6: Look up any words you don't understand.
7: Re-read the poem out loud.
8: Mark off any sections in the poem. These sections
may be speeches given by a character, discussions of a particular
topic, changes in mood, or a new stage of an argument.
9: Re-read the poem.
10: Figure out the tone -- the emotion -- of the
11: Re-read the poem.
So far you
haven't done any analysis. But you've got a rich understanding of
the poem. You know how it works as verse, and you've probably read
the poem the way the poet meant it to be read.
Now you can
start on the analysis -- if you like. If you do choose to analyze
the poem (or if you are forced into it by your power-mad professor)
you will do a better job because you are alert to what the poem
says, and where it changes meaning, tone, sound, or rhythm. This
will help you zero in on the important moments in the poem.
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