You couldn’t care less about poetry, but you’ve been assigned the task of dissecting Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” or some other piece of romantic drivel. If this sounds like you, fear not! Like any skill, learning to read poetry can be mastered with practice and a bit of patience. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when reading and analyzing a poem. They are applicable to poetry written in any genre, style or language.
1) Read the poem aloud
Poetry should be heard, not just seen. The sounds a poem makes contribute to its meaning. Poems arrange sounds using a number of devices, such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, and repetition. It is much easier to pick up on the these patterns when you read a poem aloud. Read slowly and deliberately, pausing at the end of a line and anywhere the punctuation indicates a pause, like a comma, colon or period.
2) Use a dictionary
Have a dictionary at hand to look up all the words you don’t recognize. Keep in mind that the meanings of words can change over time. If you see a word that looks familiar but doesn’t quite make sense in a certain context, it may be using an older definition. Make sure your dictionary (whether in print or online) provides historical and obsolete usages as well. It can be helpful to highlight any new words and create a gloss of definitions for easier reading in the future.
3) Use your imagination
This one might sound silly, but good poetry demands that we engage both our thinking and feeling functions. The logic of poetry is not the direct, linear logic of prose. As you read the poem, visualize the images or scenes it creates. Engaging your imaginative capacities is key to identifying the tone and mood, which convey important information about the poem’s overall significance. Ask yourself questions like, “What feelings or emotions does this poem evoke?” and, “What would the setting of this poem look like?”
4) Reread the poem
Good readers are re-readers. Poetry is an especially dense genre of writing. It’s meant to contain many associations and levels of meaning within a relatively small amount of text. It generally takes at least three readings to properly unpack a poem, depending on its complexity. Once you’ve read it aloud and looked up all the unfamiliar words, try reading it again silently a few times. You may find that you notice new details with subsequent readings.
When reading poetry, it is useful to identify three discrete levels of poetic meaning. The first level exists within the structures of poetic language itself – the specific grammatical and linguistic devices the poem employs. The second layer is that of themes and images. Here it is important to identify the feeling and setting of the poem. What questions or problems does the poem raise? How does the author go about answering them? The third and last level engages the poem’s contextual significance. What broader social, cultural, historical or political discourses are relevant to the poem? Does it belong to a particular literary movement or style of writing? Since you’ll want to read the poem multiple times, it can be helpful to begin the first reading with an eye (and ear) to the first, most micro level, and to work your way up to the more macro levels in later readings.
Cambridge Coaching was founded by doctoral candidates in English, and instruction in reading and writing is one of our particular strengths. Our tutors are published authors, as well as Ph.D candidates from the top English graduate programs in America, with most hailing from Harvard or the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop--or both.
We have a long history of helping high school, college, and graduate students become more astute critical readers and writers capable of producing their own polished academic essays. Many of our students come to us looking for help with basic composition or reading comprehension, but our expert tutors have coached our clients through everything from business English to doctoral dissertations. Whether you need to learn how to tell a participle from a pronoun, or need help making sense of Shakespeare, we can design a syllabus to suit your specific goal.
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