Reading Poetry

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  • Reading Poetry
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“Be completely open ─ innocent if you will ─ of the poem. Walk in, just like it’s water, and say, ‘What is this?’ And read it over and over again. … [Read] with that kind of ignorant joy, and [let] yourself be bewildered when you’re bewildered.”

  • “Be completely open ─ innocent if you will ─ of the poem. Walk in, just like it’s water, and say, ‘What is this?’ And read it over and over again. … [Read] with that kind of ignorant joy, and [let] yourself be bewildered when you’re bewildered.”
  • — Marie Howe

Approaching a Poem

  • Do not be intimidated by poetry! Just dive into the poem! You can start anywhere, skip around, and then read from the beginning.
  • Remember: poetry is built on the concrete world of experience, not abstract thought.
  • The inspiration for a poem can come from anywhere. A poem can develop from an emotional or personal crisis or a simple feeling of joy.
  • A poem can develop from a poet’s encounter or observation while running errands, or it could develop from a political concern inspired by television news.
  • The resulting poem will only hold up well if the writer has a firm grasp of craft. Craft is conscious artistry and refers to the process of creating or fashioning a poem out of the poet’s experience.
  • Poets work hard to craft a poem from their experiences. Too often readers assume, incorrectly, that poems result from a spontaneous burst of feeling with little revision from the poet. Poets frequently revise and struggle with their poems, sometimes over a long period of time.

Quotations on Poetry

  • “How do poems grow? They grow out of your life." – Robert Penn Warren
  • “Of course the information I’m talking about in a poem isn’t just data, and it’s not necessarily biographical information. It’s emotional information, spiritual information, erotic information, all that stuff packed into a poem.”
  • – Li-Young Lee
  • "Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat." – Robert Frost
  • “Reading good poetry helps a person feel less lonely. It’s the evidence that someone else has felt what we feel, knowing what we know.”
  • – Jane Hirshfield
  • “A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe, helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him.”
  • – Dylan Thomas

Reading a Poem

  • “I have written some poetry that I don’t understand myself.”
  • – Carl Sandburg
  • To achieve a basic understanding of a poem, focus on the
  • following four questions:
  • 1. Who is the speaker? Do not assume the poet is the speaker. Poets,
  • like writers of fiction, often create a fictional voice.
  • 2. What seems to have prompted the poem? An event in the speaker’s
  • life? An observation? A feeling? A dilemma? A memory?
  • 3. What seems to be the purpose of the poem? Poets, especially those from the
  • 20th century on, very rarely write to communicate a message or moral. You
  • might ask if the poem was written to express a feeling, to make an observation, or to
  • work out a personal issue.
  • 4. How does the poem achieve its purpose? This is usually the most difficult question
  • and involves the dynamics of the poem: its diction, rhyme, rhythm, sound, symbol,
  • imagery, tone, form, syntax, and other elements.

A Sample Approach

  • Let’s ask those four questions of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”:
  • Sundays too my father got up early And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he'd call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love's austere and lonely offices?
  • · The next slides offer sample responses to our four questions.

“Those Winter Sundays”

  • Who is the speaker?
  • We may not know his name, but if we read carefully and deliberately we come to know quite a bit about him. We know, for instance, that he grew up in a working-class family that was troubled and almost certainly church-going. Neither father nor son seemed to speak to each other much and probably very rarely, if ever, about their feelings. The speaker, now an adult, looks back at his father, selecting Sunday mornings as a time that defines his father. The speaker’s memory is filled with sadness, regret, and guilt.
  • What seems to have prompted the poem?
  • We cannot be as definitive as we were above. Is his father coming for a visit? Probably not. He wouldn’t be so sad, knowing that he can talk to his father when he sees him. Has the speaker become a father himself? Maybe, but the poem doesn’t seem right for such an occasion. More than likely, but not certainly, his father has recently died, which leads to feelings of sadness and regret. Through the course of the poem he seems to realize that he will never again have an opportunity to thank his father.
  • What seems to be the purpose of the poem?
  • The speaker seems anxious to express his affection and gratitude to his father, which is something he has never done and probably never felt comfortable doing while his father was alive. Through the poem, the speaker pays tribute to his father.

“Those Winter Sundays” continued…

  • How does the poem achieve its purpose?
  • How were we able to draw the conclusions on the previous slide? Let’s look at the key elements in the poem that led us to those conclusions:
  • Title – The title directs us to a particular memory. Why is the memory of Sunday mornings so poignant to the speaker? As we read, we realize that the father, most revealingly, demonstrated, his selflessness, devotion, and love for his family. He would rise early on probably his only day off, heat the house before waking the others, and polish his son’s shoes, probably for church.
  • Diction – Consider especially significant words, like “blueblack,” “cracked hands,” “chronic angers,” “austere and lonely offices,” among others.
  • Syntax – In line 1, note too, a key word strategically placed.
  • Rhythm – Consider the slow rhythm created through words, unrhymed end stops, and the dramatic use of caesura in line 5. Does Hayden select words that slow the pace of the poem? Consider blueblack, splintering, breaking, indifferently, among others. The slow rhythm helps to establish the tone. How does the lack of rhyme similarly affect the rhythm and tone? What emotion is conveyed through the repetition in the penultimate line? In “Those Winter Sundays,” the result of all these rhythmic strategies is a more somber reading experience.
  • Tone – Consider the speaker’s attitude toward his subject. He feels sadness, regret, and guilt. The poem is filled with a sense of loss, not only the loss of a father but also a loss at not being able to reveal his appreciation to him directly.

Reading Poetry

  • Of course, answering those four questions may not be as easy as the previous slides make it seem. Furthermore, there are often nuances within those four basic questions and other questions that we can ask of poems.
  • Below is further and more specific advice on reading poems:
  • Read the poem slowly and deliberately.
  • Reading poems is a recursive process. You don’t always have to reread from the beginning.
  • But read the poem several times. Note how the meaning will become clearer as you read.
  • Be an active and engaged reader. Be aggressive with your pen and record your ideas while reading. Write your thoughts in the margin. Test those ideas as you reread the poem. Underline or circle key words or phrases. Draw lines connecting similar images, words, and sounds.
  • Better to read one poem closely and actively than race through several. The more you focus on a poem the more enjoyable and meaningful that poem becomes.

Reading Poetry continued …

  • Read poetry aloud too. Develop an ear for its sounds and rhythms. Poetry developed out of an oral tradition and sound is very important to meaning.
  • In a passage from his poem An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope wrote, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” He illustrated with several examples:
  • Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
  • And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
  • But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
  • The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
  • When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
  • The line too labors, and the words move slow;
  • Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
  • Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
  • Note how meaning, sound, and rhythm merge in each of the couplets.

Reading Poetry continued …

  • Consider the title of the poem. What does it suggest? Does the title give you any expectations of he poem? Does the poem live up to those expectations? What, for instance, is the expectations for a poem that Sylvia Plath entitles “Daddy”?
  • As you reread the poem, continue to reconsider the speaker. Does his character become clearer? Is there any urgency in the voice? Why does the speaker need to talk now? Note how the portrait of the speaker in “Those Winter Sundays” deepens with each reading.
  • What is the situation of the poem? Is a story unfolding? What are its action and circumstances? Is the poem about a strong memory? An observation?
  • Paraphrase the poem. This will help give you a handle on the content. You may need to break down confusing syntax or find subjects for verbs. Consider, for instance, the line on the previous slide from Pope:
  • When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw …
  • Most of us would be more comfortable speaking, “When Ajax strives to throw some rock’s vast weight…” Reordering the syntax of a line can make us more comfortable with the poem.

Reading Poetry continued …

  • • On first reading, certain poems may seem especially intimidating. Perhaps the speaker seems remote and his language obscure and dense. Consider “God’s Grandeur” by Gerald Hopkins.
  • The world is charged with the grandeur of God.         It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;         It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;         And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
  • And for all this, nature is never spent;         There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went         Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — Because the Holy Ghost over the bent         World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

“God’s Grandeur” continued …

  • • Do you recognize the form of “God’s Grandeur”? If you recognize it as a sonnet (a 14-line poem), you might find it helpful to break it down into either quatrains and a couplet or an octave and sestet. Of course, Hopkins’s presentation and rhyme scheme make it easy for us to see that he has written an Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, i.e., a sonnet divided neatly into an octave and sestet.
  • • Try to paraphrase the poem. A standard dictionary as well as a dictionary of literary terms may be helpful.
  • • Even though a paraphrase of “God’s Grandeur” might be difficult, we note that the speaker begins by celebrating God and his presence in nature. But in line four we will see that he is obviously upset and has a complaint: people are polluting nature.
  • • In the sestet, the speaker finds hope. Despite humankind’s destructiveness, nature has the ability to regenerate itself because of God’s stewardship.
  • • But “God’s Grandeur” is not a great poem because of its theme. It is the expression of its theme that makes it great.

Reading Poetry continued …

  • Is there a pattern of imagery in the poem? In “The Raiment We Put On,” Kelly Cherry uses clothing imagery to try to suggest a pattern to a relationship. Note how Hopkins uses the imagery of electricity to suggest the vibrancy of nature.
  • Are there any similes, personifications, metaphors and other figures of speech in the poem? Take the time to try to figure out what those figures of speech convey or suggest. Note how John Donne personifies, with humorous effect, the sun in “The Sun Rising,” and consider the more serious effect of the Holy Spirit’s hugging the world at the end of “God’s Grandeur.”
  • Are any confusing lines paradoxical rather than merely confusing? How would you explain Bashō’s paradoxical haiku that states, “Even in Kyoto … I long for Kyoto.”
  • Consider too whether a poem makes use of hyperbole or intentional exaggeration. Why might, for instance, Marvell’s speaker in “To His Coy Mistress” use hyperbole in stanza one?

Reading Poetry continued …

  • What is the tone of the poem, or the attitude of the speaker toward his or her subject? Tones may vary widely and frequently shift within a poem. Note the tonal shifts in a poem like Stephen Dunn’s “After,” which begins very playfully with the Jack and Jill nursery rhyme and concludes pensively as he ponders “the fundamental business / Of making do with what’s been left us.” Does “God’s Grandeur” shift in tone? Is the speaker angry? Then hopeful?
  • Consider the rhythm and sound of the poem. Is there a metrical pattern? Does the poem rhyme? Does the poet use alliteration? Assonance? Onomatopoeia? Do these devices contribute to meaning?
  • In a poem like Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” the bouncing waltz time of the iambic trimeter lines and the abab rhyme scheme signal the speaker’s fondness and nostalgia as he looks back at what we understand to be a humorous memory from his childhood.
  • In “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins expresses anger through the repetition of “have trod” and the internal rhyming of “seared … bleared, smeared,” but note how he uses alliteration to reinforce the comfort in the closing line’s image of the Holy Spirit.

Reading Poetry continued …

  • Although good poems can be appreciated without knowing anything about the poet, sometimes biographical information can give us insight into the poem and bring us increased appreciation for the work. Does it affect your reaction to “Sestina” to know that it is based on Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood? Is it helpful to know that Gerald Hopkins was a Catholic priest?
  • Read a poem in the context of other poems by the same author. When we read several of Emily Dickinson’s poems about emotional and psychic suffering (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” “After great pain a formal feeling comes–,” and “One Need Not Be a Chamber – To Be Haunted,” for instance), we gain a deeper understanding of the poet’s vision, art, and perhaps life.
  • Read a poem in the context of other poems. Poets are generally very well aware of poetic tradition. Compare Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” with Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” or compare Julia Alvarez’s “Women’s Work” with Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.”
  • Consider too the historical context of the poem. What major events were shaping the culture at the time of the poem’s authorship? Does it increase your understanding of “The Second Coming” to know that at the time Yeats wrote this poem, his Ireland was in the midst of a brutal war with England, and the Western world had just experienced World War I?
  • Consider other influences on the poem, like the dog in Doty’s “Golden Retrievals” or pop music in Al Young’s “Doo-Wop: The Moves.”


  • After all your interpretation and analysis, try to put the poem back together.
  • What feelings, ideas, or view of the world does the poem seem to express? Poems may be very personal, like “Those Winter Sundays” and “Daddy,” or they can express a grand vision, like Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and “The Second Coming,” or they can fall somewhere in between, like Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”
  • With great economy, poems can appeal to our emotions, intellect, senses, and imagination. While reading “Those Winter Sundays,” we imagine the Sunday morning scene; we hear the “splintering, breaking” firewood; we sympathize with both father and son, and we perhaps consider our parental relationships.
  • On a final note, do not search for the definitive interpretation of a poem. Every reader brings his own experiences to the poem, which can lead to varying interpretations. However, this is not to say you should feel free to project any interpretation you want onto a poem. Be sure you have read the poem literally and you can support your interpretation with textual evidence.

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