Some Hints to Help You Read Poetry with More Pleasure

(for those of us who find, or have found, it difficult)

By Michael Gamer, used with permission and adapted by Erik Simpson

Erik's note: I meant to revise this thoroughly for the purposes of our class, but the more I look at it, the more I like what Michael has done. Therefore, I have left his material intact and added my own comments after each of his sections.

We live in a culture now that is driven by prose and by video communication. This can make reading poetry--especially that of another time and another culture--difficult; and when something's difficult, the best way to make it unpleasurable is to add the pressure of being evaluated on it in a class. Our course is a lower-level one, which means that many students in the course are reading English poetry for the first time, but where several are more experienced readers. Given this wide range of experience, I think that we should try to talk in the same language. So, I have included below a relatively basic, traditional way of thinking about poetry. I've accompanied this with some fundamental terminology, which I plan to use consistently throughout the several weeks. Those of you who are already comfortable with poetry and ways of thinking about it should feel absolutely free to go beyond these terms and explore these poems according to your interests.

A Way of Thinking about Poetry with an Eye to Enjoying It

Prose in its most basic form makes its meaning directly, through the content of the words. It literally attempts to say what it means. Poetry also makes much of its meaning in that way. One of the ways, however, that people have defined poetry over the centuries is that poetry is writing that also makes its meaning less directly, through the sound of the language, through how the words are broken into lines, through metaphor (rather than explanation), and through the poet's ability to say what they do more concisely, eloquently, and rhetorically than what we expect from prose. Now, before you jump up and say that prose does this also, and that not all poetry does these things----I agree with you, especially for 20th century poetry, and in many cases even for the poetry we are studying together. The information below often will apply just as well to short and long prose pieces as it does to poetry. I am hoping, however, that the information below will help to de-mystify poetry and give us all a foundation that we can rely on when we are confronted with a poem that is less accessible than we would like.


Poetry often is meant to be performed, sometimes even with music. So, even if you are not in a private place, or if you feel funny about "performing" a poem by reading it aloud in an aptly dramatic manner, you can at least read it aloud and try to imagine what tones of voice you should use at various lines. So, read the poem through once, check to make sure you have a handle on what it's saying, and then read it two more times experimenting with various voices and poses. Are some lines ironic? sneering? passionate? How does the meaning of various lines change when you change the tone of your voice? Once you have nailed down how the poem should be read, then go one by one through the questions below and see if the poet has employed any of these devices in the poem to add to the poem's significance (in other words, what you can make it mean):

1. TONE or VOICE: how would you describe the poet's "voice" in the poem? Is the poet speaking in a character? In a sense, all writers speak in a character, so even if you feel that the voice in the poem is the poet's own voice, it is still worthwhile to see what the tone of the poem is. Is the poet speaking in a "public" way, or in a private and personal way? Does the poet assume that s/he is speaking for all people, or is the purpose of the poem to communicate a single, special way of seeing something?

Erik's note: when using this approach, it is particularly important to explain not only what the "tone or voice" is, but why the reader will benefit from thinking about specific ways that the tone or voice works is constructed to work in a certain way. Because every poem has tone or voice, you should make sure you explain why examining them in your particular poem produces revealing insight into the poem's workings.

2. METAPHORS and IMAGES: make a mental list of the images that the poet piles up in the poem. Sometimes, it's not what the poet says that is interesting so much as the images that they use to set up their way of looking at the world. There's a sonnet of Shakespeare's, for example, that talks about love, yet stacks image after image of business, banking, and accounting to do so. These images--in one reading of this sonnet--change what the sonnet means, because it almost forces us to ask why the poet has chosen the language of business to talk about love. In your poem, how would you describe the poet's use of images?

Erik's note: Michael's example provides an excellent model here; the economic images of that sonnet create a tension with the straightforward sentiments of a love poem. What you want to avoid is simply saying that the metaphors and images reinforce the obvious narrative of the poem; in other words, economic metaphors in "I Love Money, So Fork Over the Cash" (by E. Simpson, naturally) won't be interesting in the same way that they are in the Shakespeare sonnet.

3. RHETORIC (The art of speaking in public eloquently and effectively): we don't take classes in rhetoric any more, and so it's not natural for us to look for it in writing. Poetry, however, is very rhetorical, in that the sentences often are very elaborate and artfully set up to attain maximum effect. In your poem, does the poet play with words and the structure of sentences much? What are they trying to accomplish by doing this? Does it in some way add to what the poem already means for you?

Erik's note: I might rename this one "syntax" or "sentence structure"; I like the way Michael's explanation focuses on that part of the larger category of "rhetoric." One fruitful approach here might be to talk about the interplay between the prose conventions of sentence structure and the verse conventions of line breaks and such. In any case, as always, the point is to focus on how the poem's sentence structures make the poem say something that it wouldn't say if the same words were arranged differently.

4. STRUCTURE: like essays, poems are made up of pieces. Each line is a piece: are there places where the line breaks of the poem add to your experience of it? Each stanza or couplet is piece: are there places where individual stanzas are interesting, wonderful, or meaningful in themselves? If this is a longer poem, you can read it as made up of shorter poems put together. How has the poet structured the smaller parts of the poem? What do they add up to?

5. AMBIGUITIES: Are there any moments in the poem where key words can mean more than one thing? One fun way to deal with ambiguity is to think of the poem as a word-puzzle: how many solutions can you find? How many readings can you construct? Does the title help you to nail down which seems most correct?

Erik's note: I hope it's obvious already that the OED will be very, very helpful if you choose this approach.

6. TRADITION OR CONVENTION: Is there a tradition or set of conventions that the poem is writing within or against?

Erik's note: Beware of overstated generalizations here; it might be best to concentrate on specific poems we've read as the sources of your conventions rather than generalizing about, say, Shelley writing against the entirety of eighteenth-century verse in some grand way. It's plenty strong enough to contrast his work with, for instance, some specific poems by Pope.