37 Introduction to Poetry
Dr. Karen Palmer
Why Write About Poetry?
There are many reasons an instructor might ask you to write about literature in a composition classroom. For one, learning to write about literature is an engaging way to learn to make a text-based argument. Secondly, writing about literature can help you better understand what you are reading. Learning to read literature critically requires the same steps as learning to read academic texts, like looking up words you don’t understand, researching context, asking questions, and taking notes. Last, but certainly not least, writing about literature can help you to enjoy it more!
Generally, English teachers begin introducing this process to students with the genre of poetry. Poetry tends to be shorter than other genres, like short fiction and drama. Because of this, it can be easier to digest and analyze.
Steps to Writing About Poetry
Step 1: Choose a Poem
The first step to writing about poetry might seem fairly obvious–you must choose a poem to write about. It’s important to choose a poem that interests you. If you must spend a few weeks writing about a poem, at least choose one that you enjoy. It could be that you personally relate to the poem, or you might just like the rhythm of it.
For the purposes of illustration, I am going to share an example that I used for a class demonstration. Here is William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66”:
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Step 2: Read and Respond
The second step in writing about poetry is reading and responding to the poem. While many students might be apprehensive about reading poetry, reading poetry should be an enjoyable experience. Watch this short video of Billy Collins’ poem, “Introduction to Poetry”:
Poetry is written from the heart, and it speaks to the heart. Poetry allows us to hear another person’s voice in a beautiful way that can illuminate our own experiences, as well as create empathy for the different experiences of others.
Muriel Rukeyser says in The Life of Poetry that in order to successfully read a poem, we must give a poem “a total response.” This means giving it all of our attention, taking it in slowly, reading it several times. It means listening to the poem openly, without judgment, and without projecting our own assumed meanings onto it.
To come to emotional meanings at every moment means to adjust and react to the way a poem takes shape with every word, every line, every sentence, every stanza. Each poem creates its own universe as it moves from line to line.
Reading is one of the most intimate forms of connection we can have with someone. We take their words—their breath—into ourselves. We shape the words with our own bodies and, too, give them life with our own breath. Reading poetry, we breathe in what a poet breathes out. We share breath. The words and their meanings become part of our body as they move through our mind, triggering sensations in our bodies that lead to thoughts. And through this process, we have experiences that are new and that change us as much as any other experience can.
Poetry is a condensed art form that produces an experience in a reader through words. And though words may appear visually as symbols on the page, the experience that poems produce in us is much more physical and direct. This is why we must read poems with full concentration and focus more than once. It is why we must read them out loud. It is why we must be attentive to every aspect of the poem on both ends: as a writer, and as a reader.
Readers come to the page with different backgrounds and a range of different experiences with poetry, but it is how we read a poem that determines our experience of it. By “read” I do not mean understand or analyze, but rather, the actual process of coming to the poem, ingesting its lines, and responding emotionally.
How to Read Poetry
Many a well-meaning English teacher has ruined poetry for students by making reading poetry a drawn out and difficult search for a hidden meaning. While some poetry does have some interesting hidden meaning, poets usually write a poem to express a feeling to an audience.
Be a Good Listener
The first step in reading poetry is simply to listen. Being a good listener requires many of the same traits as being a good reader. When we listen to someone speak, we listen to their emotions and ideas through meaning and tone, body gestures, and emphasized words. We do not judge. We do not interrupt. We may touch the speaker’s arm to express care. We certainly use facial expressions and gestures to let the speaker know we are listening and understanding, that we are advancing emotionally alongside them with each turn of the story. Before offering advice, condolences, or other reactions, we as listeners try to see their perspective and its complexities from their side. We take our identities out of the equation and place their concerns in the middle of our attention.
Every poem has a speaker that seeks connection with a listener. A poet seeks to create an emotional experience in the reader through the poem’s process, just as if a friend—or stranger—were telling an intense story. Unlike a person speaking, who can use the entire body to gesture, poetry has only a voice to rely on to speak. Yet the poem seeks to speak to a reader as if it had a body. The poem uses rhythm, pauses, stresses, inflections, and different speeds to engage the listener’s body. As readers, it is our role to listen to the speaker of the poem and to embody the words the speaker speaks with our own self as if we are the ones who’ve spoken. We as readers identify with the speaker, with the voice of the poem.
Note the Title
Reading a poem, we start at the beginning—the title, which we allow to set up an expectation for the poem in us. A title can set a mood or tone, or ground us in a setting, persona, or time. It is the doorway into the poem. It prepares us for what follows.
The First Reading
Read the poem out loud. Listen for the general, larger qualities of the poem like tone, mood, and style. Look up any words you cannot define. Circle any phrases that you don’t understand and mark any that stand out to you. Some questions we may ask ourselves include:
- What is my first emotional reaction to the poem?
- Is this poem telling a story? Sharing thoughts? Playing with language experimentally? Is it exploring one’s feelings or perceptions? Is it describing something?
- Is the tone serious? Funny? Meditative? Inquisitive? Confessional?
These initial questions will emotionally prepare you to be a good listener. Remember, when you read a poem the first time, don’t try to dissect it. Instead, enjoy it first. Think about how you enjoy music, for example. Listen to the song, the music of poetry first, and then take some time to figure out the meaning. You can use the elements of poetry to help you with this in your second read of the poem.
The Second Read: Elements of Poetry
The elements of poetry permit a poet to control many aspects of language—tone, pace, rhythm, sound—as well as language’s effects: images, ideas, sensations. These elements give power to the poet to shape a reader’s physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experience of the poem. Because form and function are so closely intertwined, it is impossible to paraphrase a poem.
When reading poetry, it’s important to keep in mind that every word counts. More so than in any other type of writing, it’s important to pay attention to the author’s use of words. Here are some general things to pay attention to when reading poetry.
Speaker vs Poet
Like individuals, each poem’s speaker speaks from a place of perspective, a place which can be physical and/or psychological. As we as readers move word to word, line to line, we must allow the universe of the poem to take root in our imaginations as if it is the only universe that exists. When we are open to the words’ music and meaning, the poem has the potential to envelop our entire being and body.
Remember that the speaker in the poem is not necessarily the author. The speaker is the voice of the poem. For example, a poet might write a poem about a historical figure speaking–the speaker in the poem is not the author, but the historical figure who is speaking. Pay attention to clues in the text that tell you who is speaking in the poem.
Diction and Tone
Tone is created by the word choices the author makes, which is called the author’s diction. One example of how an author uses diction to create tone is denotative and connotative language. For example, the words “belly button,” “navel,” and “umbilicus” all refer to the same thing, but they all have different connotations that reflect the speaker’s attitude toward it. You might also look for unusual words/phrases. Think about how the meaning of a word may have changed over time–especially important when reading poetry from before your lifetime. Finally, consider how the words are meant to sound. Do they sound playful? Angry? Confidential? Ironic?
Figurative language is an author’s creative use of language, often to create a memorable image for the reader. Here are four common types of figurative language:
Simile –uses like, as, than, appears, or seems to compare two different things (She sings like a bird.)
Metaphor—compares two unrelated things without the use of like or as (She’s a train wreck!)
Personification—gives human characteristics to an inanimate object (Umbrellas clothe the beach.)
- Allusion–References to other works, historical events and figures, etc. (You’re such a Scrooge!)
Symbolism can be an important aspect of poetry. Symbols are images that are loaded with significance. In order for something to be symbolic in a piece, it must mean something else in addition to its literal meaning. For example, an author might place a sad scene in the midst of a gloomy day. In this case, the day is actually gloomy, but it also represents the overall tone of gloom in the story/poem.
Some images are almost universal symbols. For example, a rose can symbolize love. A skeleton symbolizes death. Darkness and light and colors often have symbolic meaning, as well.
While symbolism is often present in poetry, it’s important to remember that just because something could be symbolic of something else, that doesn’t mean it actually is! Remember, poets aren’t typically trying to hide their meaning from their readers. They are simply using language in creative ways to share their feelings.
Music of Poetry
Finally, it’s important to pay attention to the structure and the patterns of sound in a poem. Note that each line of a poem is not necessarily a complete thought. The ways in which an author breaks the lines of a poem likely have a purpose. Likewise, stanzas, the “paragraphs” of a poem, often have strategic arrangements that can give the reader clues about the meaning of a poem. The way an author puts together each word, line, and stanza creates the rhythm of a poem.
In addition to the structure of the poem, look at the patterns of sound. Reading a poem aloud is a good way to highlight for yourself the music of poetry. Keep an eye (or ear!) out for the following:
- rhyme–when the ends of words sounds the same (sand, band, hand)
- alliteration–when words begin with the same sounds (“Bring me my bow of burning gold”)
- assonance–when words have the same internal vowel sounds, but they don’t actually rhyme (tide and mine)
- consonance–when words begin and end with the same consonant sounds (fail & feel, rough & roof)
- onomatopoeia–when a word sounds like what it is (hiss, buzz)
Need a little more help? This interactive lesson can help you learn more about the elements of poetry.
Making Connections with the Poem
After moving through the poem and noting images, their effects, and the tone or places where tone changes, the next question that is helpful to ask is: What does x remind me of? Or, what associations am I making? Usually the connections I would suggest making would be within the poem itself and the patterns it creates—between lines, images, repetitive words or themes, and diction.
Making connections and asking questions about those connections can lead to insight into the poem’s experience, as well as insight into the experience of being human. The idea is to come to an understanding of what the message of the poem is and how the author creates that message by using the elements of poetry.
I think you’ll enjoy this fun video by Isabella Wallace. Aside from the crazy strand of hair in her eyes, she makes some great points about the correlation between songs and poetry that I think will help take some of the scariness out of analyzing poetry. Plus, her accent is pretty fun to listen to.
Choose a poem from the Poetry Anthology in the next chapter. Read it several times, keeping in mind what you’ve learned from the reading in this chapter. You might want to read the poem out loud, as well. Think about what the poem means to you, and what you think the author was trying to convey. Write a short 1-2 page response to the poem.
Here are some pointers for getting started:
1. Read full sentences (if they exist in the poem) without stopping at the end of the line.
2. Look up words you do not know and write their definitions on the page.
3. Note recurring ideas or images—color code these with highlighters for visual recognition as you look at the poem on the page.
4. Determine formal patterns. Is there a regular rhythm? How would you describe it? Can it be characterized by the number of syllables in each line? If not, do you note a certain number of beats (moments where your voice emphasizes the sound) in the line? Are there rhyming sounds? Where do they occur?
5. What is the overarching effect of all these elements taken together? What do you think is the message conveyed by the poem?
- Content written by Dr. Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Content adapted from “Reading Poetry” licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Assignment questions from “Experiencing the Power of Poetry” by Tanya Long Bennet in Writing and Literature, licensed CC BY SA.
- Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66” in the Public Domain.