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.
Take time to Experience the Poem
If you started with Unlocking Poems Step 1 and Step 2 (links at the bottom of this post), you have already considered the title and learned a small amount about the author. Robert Frost was writing in the first half of the twentieth century; this particular poem was published in 1913. Many of his poems were set in the picturesque countryside of American New England, drawing on his experience as a farmer in New Hampshire. This poem’s title is poses no problems in interpretation; the setting is next to a wood on a snowy winter evening. All of this background helps us know where we are, or are likely to be, in this poem. Now we are ready to walk in and revel.
Give yourself time to experience the imagery in the poem. First, read through the poem. Then take a moment to jot down some words that describe what you see, hear, and feel. No doubt you see a wooded area, a frozen-over lake, a small horse. We probably get a picture of a farmhouse and a village, even while realizing those things are mentioned but not directly present in the scene being depicted. However, hold on to those images because they will provide an important contrast to the isolated scene near the woods that the speaker is describing. As for physical feelings, you probably experience coldness and darkness. Hearing? The poem says specifically in the third stanza that there are only two sounds to be heard: the harness bells of the horse and “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” All else is silence. Pause and immerse yourself here.
Double-Check Your First Impressions
Now I also need to pause during our exercise here with one warning: as you re-create the imagery in your mind, also check your mental picture carefully alongside the words of the poem. Do your ideas and images fit what the text directly specifies? For instance, in this poem, many people picture the speaker on horseback. Did you? If so, you will need to revise that mental picture because (as those who know about horses have told me!) the horse is wearing a harness, which means that the speaker must be in a cart or a sleigh, not on horseback. Did you imagine the house from line 2 as being near the woods? If so, you must revise your picture to fit the information in line 3 that the man who lives in that house and who owns the woods is away in the village because he will not be able to see the speaker stopping by his woods.
We have just examined and experienced all the CONCRETE IMAGERY in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The next step will be to consider the more abstract language of the poem, and to make some surmises about the emotions, thoughts, and dilemmas of the speaker who finds himself in the situation. We’ll do that in Step 4. But if we do nothing else today in this particular reading of this poem, that is fine. Because as the speaker says in the fourth stanza, isn’t it lovely, and yet lonely–the woods, the cold, the quiet, the snow, the bells, the little impatient horse, and the darkness. Don’t miss any of it.
More Poems With Vivid Imagery
If you want more practice experiencing poetic imagery, here are some poems that have a lot of imagery for readers to enjoy. They are all from different eras and written in different styles; but all contain much concrete language that readers can re-create and enjoy experiencing in their imaginations. Some of the poems feature complex ideas, but we can take those on later. For now, just enjoy the experience.
Links to Understanding Poetry Series
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Robert Frost. By Walter Albertin, World Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.