How to Read a Poem*

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem & do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables & if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? How about connections to other literary texts, especially the bible or other mythological texts; also Shakespeare.

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, you like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.)
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*Notes prepared for my freshman Humanities students.

Adrienne Rich & Graphs of Experience

In her later work, Adrienne Rich has developed a poetic technique that presents the reader with a graph of experience. By experience, I mean the moment by moment tracings of conscious perception. There must of course be a a process of editing during composition, but the poem presents itself as a graph — the poet operating like one of those old-fashioned weather instruments in which a stylus scrapes a line upon a rotating drum covered in smoked paper. Here is an example:

Ever, Again

Mockingbird shouts Escape! Escape!
and would I could. I’d

fly, drive back to that house
up the long hill between queen

anne’s lace and common daisyface
shoulder open stuck door

run springwater from kitchen
tap drench tongue

palate and throat
throw window sashes up screens down

breathe in mown grass
pine-needle heat

manure, lilac unpack
brown sacks from the store:

ground meat, buns, tomatoes, one
big onion, milk and orange juice

iceberg lettuce, ranch dressing
potato chips, dill pickles

the Caledonian-Record
Portuguese rose in round-hipped flask

open the box of newspapers by the stove
reread: (Vietnam Vietnam)

Set again on the table
the Olivetti, the stack

of rough yellow typing paper
mark the crashed instant

of one summer’s mosquito
on a bedroom door

voices of boys outside
proclaiming twilight and hunger

Pour iced vodka into a shotglass
get food on the table

sitting with those wild heads
over hamburgers, fireflies, music

staying up late with the typewriter
falling asleep with the dead

Well, it’s a sly artlessness I see now while typing it out. First, the registered patch of experience is a memory & memories can be edited, consciously or unconsciously. (The way one edits memory, consciously or unconsciously, counts for everything, morally & aesthetically, which for me, increasingly, amount to pretty much the same thing.) The telegraphic registration of small details add up to a record of an experience that has been recovered and reexperienced, perhaps more intensely that it was the first time. (What is the positive term for nostalgia?) And as readers that recovered experience becomes our own through the graphing of details. Also, we all know that rich is a “political poet,” but I think that leafing through the newspapers “Vietnam Vietnam)” has the effect of placing the speaker’s recovered experience in the context of a particularly intense moment of history. It is also, of course, a poem about making poems inside both personal and national histories.

[The poem above is from Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 by Adrienne Rich, published by W.W. Norton.]

Resentful Dreams

Funny how dreams lag behind events. Folk wisdom says that dreams predict the future, but my experience is that they predict the past. Over the last couple of nights I have dreamed, just before waking, about crappy things my colleagues have done to me. The events in the dreams are fictional, but related to things that have actually happened to me. The dreams allowed me to be outraged — in one I punched a former dean in the nose. The best part was that I punched him in the nose after telling him I was going to punch him in the nose. In the other dream I was slighted by another administrator & I gave him a thorough (& public) tongue-lashing. Very satisfying. The weird thing is that I’ve been feeling fairly good about my teaching life lately, though a couple of months ago I went through a period of resentment. Each dream worked like a little poem: specific details carrying a strong emotion. Also, a process of encapsulation: giving the feeling a form results in an ability to control the emotion. There is another sort of dream (& another sort of poem) that break open new realms of feeling & those are much more dangerous & more beautiful.