How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Category: Reading Poetry (Page 1 of 2)

Posts about how to unfold the meaning of poems.

Give Reading Poetry Another Try with Guided Reading Questions

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Who says you can’t read poetry?  And why bother? Here’s why and how:

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Poetry just isn’t my thing!”

My response to that: Don’t be so sure! Could it be that you just haven’t met the right poem?

I can well believe that some particular poem, or poet, is not your thing. Many famous poems are quite old, therefore using language that seems unfamiliar to modern readers. Even some poetry written after 1900 may be hard to understand, given that many 20th century writers followed a modernist aesthetic calling for experimental, strange, or highly figurative language. That kind of poetry might seem puzzling at first reading. If you’re not accustomed to poetic language of these kinds, reading poetry might not seem worth the effort.

However, classic and much beloved poems are hardly all alike. Many lovely poems are not that hard to understand; reading them can add meaning and beauty to your mental life.

Besides, making poetry is natural to the human mind: poetry is playing with language, finding meaningful and powerful ways of expressing ideas, and reveling in beautiful and interesting sounds of words. From the very beginning of language, people have naturally sought memorable words to capture, enshrine, and encourage contemplation of human experience.

Besides offering meaning, so many poems are just pretty—their pictures, their sounds, the feel of the words upon the tongue. Experiencing poetry taps into something primal and pleasurable in the human mind.

Whether you are poetry skeptic or poetry-loving enthusiast, I invite you to join me now for a little poetry read-along. Just below, I quote three different poems. Below each one is a series of guided reading questions I hope will help you understand and enjoy the poems more.

Want to play?

To get the most out of the process, read each poem a couple of times through, then get a piece of notepaper to jot down your own responses to the questions. I hope the little time it takes to think through the questions will bring each poem to life for you.

If  You Like:

When you’ve interpreted each poem for yourself, you can click the link or scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some of my responses to each question. I expect we won’t have all the same answers to every question, and that’s OK! Every reader has a personal response to every poem.

It doesn’t follow, though, that a poetic text can mean just anything at all. Words, even poetic ones, do communicate specific ideas. As you develop your ideas of what each poem is saying, test those ideas to see if they truly fit with the words, phrases, and references in the poem itself, as the writer seems to have used them.
One object of reading poetry, just like reading any literature, is to lend an open mind and ear to exactly what that writer is communicating to us, whether the idea is familiar to us or completely strange or new.

Ready to go on this guided poetry-reading adventure? If doing a slow and deep analysis is the sort of thing that just makes you nuts, no problem! Just choose some great poems and read away. You can skip to this post for suggestions about how to “Just Fall In,” or skim on down this post, leaping over the reading questions to take today’s poems direct and straight.

However, if you do want to come along on this guided poetry reading journey, read on!

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Just Fall In: How to Read Poems Step 10, Step 1, and Every Step!

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Two skydivers falling through the air.

Just Fall In!

With this post, I draw to a close my series of How to Read Poems, Steps 1 – 10. In these posts, I tried to give you knowledge and perspective you need, along with a step-by-step method to follow, to help you unfold the meaning of classic poems and appreciate their beauty. I’ve seen this method work for many students who, by following and practicing these steps, understand and enjoy poetry for the first time. They are amazed by it. They often say they never realized there was so much to enjoy and appreciate in a poem. Having a methodical close reading technique for unfolding meaning in poems really helps. But here’s a secret: method isn’t everything!

Now I want to share with you a different joyous truth: understanding a poem doesn’t usually begin with any method at all. It begins with a shock, with a possession, with a fall. It doesn’t have to happen at the beginning, at the end, or at any particular point in the poem. Somewhere, anywhere, in that flow of words, the poem reaches out and grabs you, shocks you, puzzles you, or seduces you.

It could be a turn of phrase, a startling idea, a beautiful picture, an amazing sound, a tone of voice—anything. At first reading, you might not understand it at all. That’s OK—you don’t have to understand it yet. All you have to do is to fall in. Around this moment in the poem, that point that truly captivates your mind, the meaning will slowly crystallize.

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How to Read Poems Step by Step: an Index to Steps 1 – 10

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Learn how to unlock the meaning of poems and get more out of the poems you read! Here is a linked index to Read Great Literature’s ten posts that explain the process step-by-step.

Step 1: Notice a Poem’s Title

Step 2: Understanding the Author, Era, and Dramatic Situation of a Poem

Step 3: Experiencing Imagery in Poetry

Step 4: Emotional Tone and Concrete v. Abstract Language in Poetry

Step 5: Distinguishing Literal and Figurative Language in Poetry

Step 6: Understanding Metaphors and Figures of Speech in Poems

Step 7: Expect the “Mind Twist,” the Turn in Meaning in Poems

Step 8: Hear the Magnificent Sounds in Poetry

Step 9: Understanding Formal Rhythm and Meter in Poetry

Step 10 (and Step 1, 2, 3 . . !): Just Fall In!

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Rhythm and Meter in Traditional Poetry in English: How to Read Poems Part 9

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Two young women wearing headphones stand with their back to the ocean.

Tune your ear to the sounds of traditional poetry.

Trochees and Iambs and Dactyls and Meters and Lines? Oh My! What are all these strange terms, and what do they have to do with reading and enjoying traditional poetry written in English? Each of these terms describes a characteristic of traditional “accentual-syllabic” poetry—that is, the kind of poems that have standardized line lengths, patterns of rhythms that recur, and often, patterns of rhymes.

All of these structures, things like Iambs or Dactyls,  recurring line lengths, or rhyme patters give a poem particular kinds of sounds and rhythms. They also connect one poem to a long line of other poems that have been written in the same traditional  forms. Knowing a bit about rhythm, meter, and stanza forms can help alert us to the wonderful and complicated designs built into traditional poetry.

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Magnificent Sounds in Poetry: How to Read Poems Step 8

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Two little girls stand in a field reading poetry from and open book.

Poetry should be read aloud to appreciate its magnificent sounds.

Sound in Poetry: Meaningful Music

Great poetry is composed to be heard, not just seen. The luscious, the lyrical, the edgy, the melancholy, even the jarring–all these sounds can make beautiful music in the hands of a master poet. When we read aloud and listen to great poems, we not only enjoy their sounds, whether lovely or powerful. We also receive more of their emotional tone and message through direct visceral experience. We can enjoy, even luxuriate, in the beautiful sounds of a well-crafted poem even when we don’t yet understand what it means, letting the sounds themselves lead us toward a fuller meaning.

Let’s listen to some great poetry and talk about some of the devices poets use to make their meaningful music.

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Expect the Mind Twist, the Turn in Meaning: How to Read Poems Step 7

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Picture of small sun in a blue sky with clouds provides us with an image for a mind twist in two different poems, Sonnet 130 and "Apparently with No Surprise"

The Sun is not like her eyes and not sympathetic! Still the same sun after “the turn” in meaning in two different poems?

The Mind Twist: What is It?

In murder mysteries and thrillers, everyone likes a good plot twist. Great poetry provides something even better: The Mind Twist. Many great poems open by echoing ideas that most people already hold, so you think you know what they are going to say. But then, Boom! Suddenly comes the Mind Twist, where the poet offers a completely different, and unexpected, interpretation of the topic. Other poems assault common thinking right at their beginning, by presenting a topic in ways readers have seldom considered, right from line 1.  Still other poems play deadpan, repeating platitudes with a straight face while undercutting common or superficial ideas through irony, hyperbole, or understatement.

To understand, close read, and enjoy great poems, learn to expect the Mind Twist, so you won’t be blindsided when unforeseen ideas start flying at you. To find the Mind Twist, look for contrast and tension in the poem. Contrast and tension are the basic tools for creating complexity, interest, and depth of thought in most great literature, and indeed, in great art in general.

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Metaphor and More. How to Read Poems Step 6

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This close-up of a quizzical cow in a meadow brings to mind the old joke: "What's a metaphor? A place to keep cows in." NOT!

What’s a Metaphor? Hint: It’s not a place to keep cows in.

What is a Metaphor?

Did you hear this old joke about metaphors when you were a kid? “What’s a metaphor? A place to keep the cows in!” It probably seemed funnier back when kids actually knew what metaphors, AND meadows, were. Right now, I’m not going to talk about the fading of “meadow” from the modern American vocabulary, but I will ask this: Do you know what a metaphor is for? Knowing just a little about how metaphors and some other important figures of speech function can help you understand and enjoy a poem more deeply.

A metaphor is a comparison between two things that are apparently not much alike. For instance, if I say that Sue’s coffee tastes like Starbucks coffee, I am not making a metaphor; I am just making a literal comparison between two things that are already largely alike. But if I offer you “some of this molasses Sue calls coffee,” I am speaking figuratively, making a metaphor.  In sober reality, coffee and molasses are very dissimilar, but Sue’s coffee makes me think of molasses for some reason, maybe because it is thick and sludgy, or over-sweet. In this metaphor, the coffee is the “tenor,” or topic of the metaphor, the object or idea I want to make a point about. Molasses is the “vehicle,” the thing I am using to convey my rather insulting ideas about Sue’s coffee.

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“Is it Paris?” Literal and Figurative Language: How to Read Poetry Step 5

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Long view of Eiffel Tower on a sunny day, from the end of Trocadero Fountain takes in some of the city. A student thought Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" country might be here.

Where is Yeats’s “country” in “Sailing to Byzantium”? Is it Paris?

“Sailing to Byzantium”: Where, or What, is Yeats’s  Country?

Black and white profile photo of older man with a mustache, with his chin resting on his hands.

A man in the winter of life.

My freshman Literature and Composition class was discussing Yeats’s strange, beautiful, and very intellectual poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” (Click here to read it first.)  We were just starting on the first stanza, tackling these lines:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

There is a lot of life-filled imagery packed into these lines—lovers, waterfalls full of fish and trees full of birds—as well as a huge serving of abstract language (see Step 4) that covers absolutely everything alive: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But where are we? I asked my class, “What is the country that is not for old men? What does Yeats mean here?”

No one would speak for a few beats. Clearly they had no clue. Then suddenly a daring young woman in the back row looked up with a light in her eye: “I’m not sure—but is it Paris?”

There were some problems with her theory, but how could I explain? They do say that Paris is for lovers, so perhaps Paris might qualify as a place where Yeats would think that “old men” are not comfortable. But are there salmon? I have read that salmon are making a comeback in the Seine river, though I’m not sure whether they can be glimpsed swimming along the Left Bank.

But the mistake this student made in her interpretation was not simply choosing the wrong geographical location. She was failing to distinguish between literal and figurative language. To understand poetry, or indeed, any text, readers have to distinguish between words that mean exactly what the dictionary would say they mean, and language that means something very different from what it literally says. Continue reading

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Emotional Tone and Kinds of Language in “Snowy Evening”: Understanding Poetry Step 4

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Scene shows woman at right in red jacket admiring a blue lake down in a canyon.

Similar to the speaker in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” this lonely person pauses to admire a spectacular natural scene.

So far I’ve urged you to wade in to a poem slowly, taking time to imagine and experience the images and the situation described. When do we begin to understand and think about the meaning, the bigger ideas, in the poem?  Right now.

Emotional Tone

Let’s take a second look at Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” here.  While focusing on the poem’s imagery in Step 3, you have probably been sensing the speaker’s mood all along.  But now, let’s pause and get a fuller sense of the emotional tone of the poem, and how it uses both concrete and abstract language.  Think first about what the speaker seems to feel and also what the text seems designed to make readers feel.

This poem’s lovely but stark imagery conveys a sense of awe at the scene’s beauty, but also loneliness and un-humanness. It is the “darkest evening of the year.” The mentioned village seems to be far from this unpopulated spot. The speaker is very attracted to this lonely scene and wishes to linger (he is “stopping” after all); yet apparently this stop is untypical for him. He feels a sense of tension and trespass, since he mentions the owner who won’t be able to see him, and senses the horse’s confusion and impatience at this unusual stop.

Snowy forest with rough road passing into its depths, showing two tracks of vehicles. Reminiscent of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Frost’s speaker travels a lonely path next to a snowy forest.

Taking in the emotional tone, we can now notice points where the poem’s word choices shift from concrete to abstract language. The appearance of abstract language is an important signal for readers to start thinking about what the poem means, not just bask in the experience of sound and imagery.

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Experience Imagery: The Easiest Step in Understanding Poetry (Step 3)

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View of a snowy forest in the evening, tall ghostly trees, snow on the ground, no people in sight.

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

Don’t Jump Too Fast to “What the Poem Means”

Reading literature, especially poetry, is more than deciphering words; it is a mental experience. Therefore, don’t be too quick to sum up what any poem “means” or “what the poet is trying to say.” Jumping too fast to some theme or main idea of a poem is a sure way to miss much of the value of reading poetry, and possibly the meaning, too. Certainly we will come to analyzing ideas and meanings, but not just yet.

First, go on in to the poem; read it through a couple of times, and walk around in it for a little while. Where are you? What do you hear, see, taste, touch or feel, and smell? Language that depicts an experience of any of the five senses is called “imagery.” Dwell a bit on the imagery of the poem to create the poem’s setting in your mind, and to experience the situation or drama of the poem along with the poem’s speaker (the word we use for a narrator of a poem).

Let’s practice with one of my favorite poems, great for beginning readers of poetry, yet with plenty of big ideas for more experienced readers: “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. You can read it here.

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