HOW TO CATCH A POEM
Some poems are docile and easy to grasp on first reading; others can be slippery creatures. Here are some basic guidelines to help you get a handle on the poem you’re reading, and to help the poem come to life from the page.
When you’re reading a poem for the first time, it’s always a good idea to read it ALOUD (or listen to it read aloud) – preferably more than once.
Who is speaking? (part 1)
Is the poem spoken in the voice of a persona? And if so, is that character male or female? Young or old?
What is the speaker’s mood?
Is the speaker detached, angry, excited, wistful, despondent, cynical? Does the speaker’s mood change as the poem progresses?
Who is speaking? (part 2)
Does the poem’s speaker clearly belong to a particular group? If so, consider how their identity may be colouring what they say. For instance, is their nationality or religion an influence? Can what they say be trusted?
Diction and Tone
Does the poem use a specific register? If so, what is the style of language used? Is it formal, business speak, street talk, scientific jargon? What’s the effect?
As you’re reading a poem aloud for a second or third time, try focussing on the sound, rather than the sense. Does the poem, or do specific parts of the poem, contain repeated sounds that give a certain effect? For instance, an ‘s’ sound repeated several times in quick succession in various words may give either a whispery or a hissing effect – and thereby convey either (say) wistfulness or anger.
Again, while reading a poem aloud, listen to the rhythm and the way it affects the meaning of the poem. For instance, if the rhythm is very regular, it will probably lend the poem (and meaning of the poem) a feeling of stability. Or if the lines are particularly short, this may create an impression of breathlessness.
Take a look at the last word in each line. Note how often lines of poetry end with a strong noun or (less often perhaps) a verb.
Next time you’re reading a poem, pay attention to where the lines break – especially in non-rhyming poetry. A poem can create various – sometimes quite dramatic – effects by breaking a line in a certain place. Bear in mind that in a poem, each line has a provisional meaning of its own that might be strengthened, or else completely turned on its head as we read on to the following line. Consider these two examples:
[I’ve] let the cat out on that caperwith the married woman, how you took herdowntown on expenses in the motor.
(extract from ‘Kid’ by Simon Armitage, from his 1989 collection, Zoom)You live for truth and, by extension, loveall that is cold.
(extract from ‘Lamium’ by Louise Glück, from her 1996 collection, The Wild Iris)
In the first example, that “took her” has a very different meaning from the larger meaning of the sentence! The poem intends both meanings. When we read just the first line of the second example, we initially get the impression that the addressee is somebody warm-hearted who lives for love, but as we read on to the next line, that impression is turned on its head. In this case, the first meaning is suggested temporarily to provide a sharp contrast with the larger, final meaning or the sentence. In both cases, the meanings magically change as we read on to the next line. Only poetry can do this!
- Is there a definite pattern of rhymes at the ends of lines? If so, is the effect of the rhymes humorous? Monotonous? Childish like a nursery rhyme? (This can sometimes occur when, as well as the rhyme pattern, the rhythm is also very regular.) Or do the rhymes perhaps lend gravity and authority to the poem?
- If there are no end-of-line rhymes, are there internal rhymes (rhymes within the lines instead of at the ends)? You might hear internal rhymes better if you read (or hear) the poem aloud.
Poems use various devices to compare one thing with another (simile, metaphor and so on). Can you find examples? Are they effective? What effect do they have?
A poem is there for enjoying! Once you’ve considered it from various angles, make sure you read it through from the start again, armed with your new-found awareness. The more poems you read, the more easily you’ll be able to pick up on the individual features that contribute to a poem’s power. With practice, the process soon becomes automatic.
You can hear several poets talking about their process on the podcast pages of this site.