top of page
Search

HOW TO READ A POEM

ENGLISH LITERATURE | POETRY |



Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table



So begins T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, an exploration of time, social anxiety and mortality. It’s one of my favourite poems; not only does it contain instantly quotable phrases (“I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”), but it’s also one of those poems that gently carries the reader along in a flow of lyrical, near-musical words until they’re suddenly at the poem’s end, washed up with the mermaids.


In reading poetry, it is important to remember that a poem is meant to be spoken. The best reading of a poem ‘involves a simultaneous engagement of eye and ear’* — that is, to consider how a poem looks on the page and sounds when we read it aloud. In this blog post, I’ll explore both of these key features of analysing a poem, as well as some other ideas to bear in mind when reading a poem.


First things first! Before diving into any analysis, read through the poem once or twice. Note down any immediate responses you have, but just allow some time to familiarise yourself with the poem.




Language and Sound

How a poem sounds is, perhaps somewhat obviously, linked to the language used. Reading through a poem, think about what you hear: are the vowels long or short? Are there any sounds which you find particularly pleasant, or discordant? Is there a strong rhyme scheme? Are there extra words in each line that rhyme together, as in John Masefield’s Sea Fever?



…the call of the running tide Is a wild call…



Note the rhyme scheme next to the lines as you read, so that you can see it emerging as the poem progresses. From this initial reading, go further in-depth: identify what techniques the poet has used to create the poem’s aural effects, such as onomatopoeia, alliteration and repetition. Ask yourself what the poet’s intention may have been and how it relates to the poem’s theme. Did they want to create a harmonious, almost musical piece to write about love, or did they deliberately choose harsh, jarring sounds in an examination of a more negative emotion or experience? In A Poison Tree, William Blake uses the dissonance of long and short vowels to examine the subject of jealousy and growing anger, while in Wind, Ted Hughes assembles a cacophony of words to represent the chaos of a storm:



I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.


…Once I looked up -


Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes


The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope



Think, too, about what literary devices the poet has used to create imagery — similes, metaphors, personification and interesting vocabulary choices all contribute to a strong impression in your imagination of the poem’s content and meaning. In her poem Caged Bird, Maya Angelou uses the extended metaphor of two birds to confront racism and discrimination, and the emotions around this. The two birds are described very differently: while the free bird, representing white people, ‘leaps’, ‘floats’ and ‘dips’, the caged bird, representing African Americans, ‘stands on the grave of dreams’ with tied feet and clipped wings. The contrasting imagery highlights the issues of inequality and privilege examined within the poem and provokes a strong emotional response within the reader.




Structure

Once you feel you’ve made a good headway into understanding the sounds and rhyme of the poem, you should turn your attention to the poem’s structure. Start with the absolute foundations: how many stanzas are there? How many lines per stanza? Does the latter remain the same, or does it change throughout the poem? Meter, the number of beats per line, is also important: does the poem use a regular meter throughout, or is it erratic and irregular? Is it somewhere in-between, using a regular pattern of meter per stanza?


Once you’ve worked out the poem’s basic structure, you can move on to more complex analysis. Does the structure match up in any way to the rhyme scheme? Is it a recognisable form of poetry, such as a sonnet, or is it free verse? Does the focus change, or stay the same? You can think of focus as being like a camera: consider what the poem is making you imagine, and how this changes. A change in focus can also be tonal, or emotional — using a sonnet as a particular example, we see this in the ‘volta’, between the 8th and 9th lines. Shakespeare spends the first eight lines of his seventeenth sonnet describing how future readers won’t believe how beautiful the subject of the poem was, and in line 9 concludes, despondently, that this will indeed be the case:


The age to come would say ‘This poet lies;


Such heavenly touches ne'er touched earthly faces.' 8


So should my papers, yellowed with their age, 9


Be scorned, like old men of less truth than tongue


However, the poem takes a happier turn at the end, with the focus of the final rhyming couplet on the possibility of the subject’s beauty continuing in their child.

Focus can also include the poem’s speaker; while we’re used to most poetry having one voice, poetry is a beautifully variable form, well-suited to experimentation. The two voices of U.A. Fanthorpe’s First Flight seem to do battle, one innocent and whimsical, one bored and patronising:


A sudden swiftness, earth slithers


Off at an angle. The experienced solidly


This is rather a short hop for me


Read Guardians, discuss secretaries,


Business lunches.




Take a step back

It’s hard to separate structure and language completely when analysing any piece of writing: poetry makes this all the more difficult because, to state the obvious, there are (usually) fewer words in a poem than in a piece of prose, and therefore your attention will naturally focus on getting all you can out of those words. However, it’s important to take a step back — literally. It can be incredibly helpful to just look at the shape of the poem, to observe the physical length of the lines and stanza(s) themselves, and to see if, again, this matches up in any interesting way to the poem’s content. Thomas Hardy’s The Convergence of the Twain is a great example of this: written in response to the sinking of the Titanic, the poem’s stanzas are written to take on the form of a ship, adding a subtle extra layer to the poem.



In a solitude of the sea


Deep from human vanity,


And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she.



At this point, it’s worth noting that your emotional response as a reader is important — how positive or negative do you feel towards the narrator or the subject? In First Flight, opinion can be divided between finding the whimsy of the first speaker endearing or annoying, the practicality of the second rude or straightforward (being a lover of flying myself, I tend to side with the first speaker!). Most readers find the additional shape element of Hardy’s poem to be poignant and a strong reminder of what the poem is about. Your response as a reader is important: consider your initial reactions and why you’ve had them.




Further Analysis and Deeper Meaning

Language and structure, as I’ve noted, often influence each other in poetry. Structural techniques such as enjambment and caesura both influence the flow and pace of the poem’s reading. Enjambment, the lack of punctuation at the end of a line of poetry, can speed a poem up. It’s often used to represent the flow of water, wind, other movement or time, as in A.A. Milne’s King John’s Christmas:



King John was not a good man —


He had his little ways.


And sometimes no one spoke to him


For days and days and days.



On what we might consider the opposite side of the same poetic coin, caesura is created with the use of a piece of punctuation in the middle of a line of poetry. It effectively creates a slowing down or even stoppage of the poem’s flow, usually to emphasise or call the reader’s attention to something. The caesurae in Carol Ann Duffy’s Pilate’s Wife ensure that the moment the narrator and Pilate first set eyes on each other isn’t missed:



He looked at me. I mean he looked at me. My God.



Once you’ve recognised and understood the various language techniques and structure of the poem, you can turn your attention to how these apply to what the poem is about. You’ll have probably started doing this already as you read the poem; like poetry itself, analysing and reading poetry should be fluid and holistic. Some poems’ meanings are more obvious or understandable than others, but if you’re not quite sure of the poem’s meaning on first reading, your analytical re-reading should help you to understand it. If you’re really stuck, try taking the poem two or three lines at a time — this is especially useful for pre-20th century poetry, which will often contain archaic language, or words which have changed meaning over time.


Most literature can be described as having at least two ‘meanings’: the surface meaning and the deeper meaning, or theme. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem about the fall of Satan and the temptation of Adam and Eve; the themes within the poem are of loss, innocence, love and disobedience, to name just a few! At first glance, Duffy’s Valentine just focuses on an onion, but it contains far deeper themes of love, passion and commitment within the onion’s symbolism.


As you read a poem, ask yourself what the deeper meaning is behind the poem, and, again, how the structure, language and other features of the poem tie into it. WH Auden’s Funeral Blues is a tightly-structured poem of four four-line stanzas, written in rhyming couplets and using end-stopped lines at the end of each stanza. At first glance, the poem might seem quite dry, even emotionless; however, we can dig deeper and consider that the rigid structure demonstrates how tight a grip the narrator has to keep on himself and his emotions. The final stanza shows us the true devastation that the narrator feels; with the death of his lover, the world has ended and there’s no point in carrying on:


Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;


For nothing now can ever come to any good.


For a masterclass in the poem’s depth of emotion, look no further than John Hannah’s reading in Four Weddings and a Funeral.



Wider thoughts on reading poetry

Reading and studying poetry can sometimes feel like something of a chore: in school or college, you’ll have assessment objectives that you need to hit, and studying poetry can feel dry or uninspiring. One of the common complaints I’ve encountered is that poetry doesn’t always feel that relevant, or as if it’s stuck in the amber of its time. It’s “boring” or “snobby”. Consider this:


Artistic and creative work, be it prose, poetry, drama or another form, never exists in a bubble. Pop culture references; social anxieties and tensions; responses to other, previous works: we see all of these crop up time and time again in literature. Milton expressed his disappointment over the failure of the new republic in Paradise Lost; a swathe of Gothic literature was preoccupied with the questions raised by Darwin’s The Origin of Species; horror films of the late 1990s included themes of genetic engineering and fears generated by media reports of the ‘Millennium Bug’. Writers and artists cannot help but respond to the times in which they’re working and living, and it’s worth remembering this as you read any poem. Of course you’re not expected to have absorbed the entire history of human civilisation, but I would encourage you to keep your mind open to poetry as a living, breathing form of artistic expression and part of cultural history.


In addition, poetry can be fun. Like all other literature, poetry often builds on previous works. From Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock to Dan Simpson’s callbacks to Modernist poetry in his collection Applied Mathematics, we can see its potential for mixing reverence for what came before with playfulness, especially if we continue to remember that poetry is written to be performed. Poetry is one of the best forms in which individual voices can be heard (Tony Harrison’s Them and Uz and John Agard’s Checking Out Me History immediately spring to mind). Seek out performances of poems by the poets themselves; listen to how they intended the poems to be heard, the inflections and shifts in tone they create. Read as widely as possible; read more from the poets you study, read poets you don’t study. Read even more widely: song lyrics, advertising jingles, even nursery rhymes — think about why they’re so popular. Seek out poetry from around the world, find and read older poetry — try challenging yourself to go as many centuries back as you can!


If all this sounds a bit daunting, just remember that any reading is better than none. If you’re not sure of the meaning of everything you read, don’t worry; as Roald Dahl wrote, “sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea


By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown


Till human voices wake us, and we drown.






Bibliography and references:
  • T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

  • John Masefield, Sea Fever

  • William Blake, A Poison Tree

  • Ted Hughes, Wind

  • William Shakespeare, Sonnet 17

  • Maya Angelou, Caged Bird

  • U.A. Fanthorpe, First Flight

  • Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain

  • A.A. Milne, King John’s Christmas

  • Carol Ann Duffy, Pilate’s Wife

  • W.H. Auden, Funeral Blues

  • Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy [editors], 1996, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition

  • Interesting literature, Five Fascinating Facts About T.S. Eliot, https://interestingliterature.com/2014/03/five-fascinating-facts-about-t-s-eliot/





Written by Vanessa Thompsett





Vanessa is a highly experienced, full-time private English tutor, having taught students from ages six to eighteen. She holds a degree in English Language & Literature from UCL and has presented academic talks at various conventions on both literature and film to audiences of over 200. She is also a poet, having performed her poetry at several events.




Recent Posts

See All

The Most Popular Alternative Education Philosophies

Every child is different, and often a mainstream education philosophy isn’t always suited as a ‘one size fits all’. There are many different alternative education philosophies, with varying degrees of

Commentaires


bottom of page