So you’ve been faced with a poem. Perhaps it’s your first time taking a creative writing class and your teacher decided to start a poetry unit. Maybe your friend shared a link with you online to some Robert Frost and you found yourself either frustrated and upset or wanting to learn more. To help anyone looking for some good tips for beginning to analyze poetry, I’m going to try and break down some good strategies for handling frequent challenges that any reader may face while reading a given poem for the first time. Hopefully by the end we’ll have explored some great ways to overcome these obstacles and have you feeling much more confident in annotating any poetic work. Let’s get started!
Reviewing the Basics: Metaphors and Symbols
Poetry is often centered around these two devices, and the main thing to understand is that they are figurative. [If you feel like you already understand these two rhetorical devices, you may want to skip down to the section labeled More Challenging: Dense Poems]. Figurative language basically just means the writer is saying one thing literally, but with a different meaning. The simplest way many people learn this in grammar school is by phrases like “It is an oven in here” to imply its hot, or “I’m an animal” in a sports game, or similar metaphors. There are many comparisons any writer can make using these, the combinations being more or less infinite, and so this is one of the most important things to look for in a poem.
A very common way of using figurative language is the extended metaphor, which means the writer uses a comparison throughout the entire piece to impart meaning. For example, I could write a poem in which I liken mankind’s existence to a zoo. In this type of piece, throughout I would be writing about the different animals inside–the giraffes, apes, the zookeepers–and their relation to each other. In doing so, the explicit meaning of what I’m saying would just be the relation of animals in a zoo, but the implicit meaning would be how it relates to mankind. And the great thing about poetry is that the reader can usually interpret implicit meanings however he or she likes. So in the poem about the zoo, one reader could say it’s about mankind, one could say it’s about jail, and still another could say it’s about the patriots winning the 1979 Super Bowl.
Figurative language is a staple of most poetry, so it’s always a good idea to ask yourself in spite of what the poet is actually saying, what he or she is really saying . Sometimes these explicit and implicit meanings will be the same, but often the implied meanings will be substantially different, making them crucial to understanding the main ideas expressed in the poem. Although metaphors and symbols are relatively basic parts of poetry, make sure to keep them in mind when reviewing the next section of this post because they are just as important!
More Challenging: The Dense Poem
Now, this can be a troubling encounter for both beginning readers of poetry and experienced ones alike, depending on the individual difficulty of the piece. A dense poem will possess at least one of the following:
- A Hard-to-Understand Meaning: The writer has veiled the meaning of either many lines or the entire poem to the reader, often to the extent that it’s hard to even guess at their intended meaning.
- Verbose Wording: The writer is using very complex or outdated language, and thus the poem is hard to get through.
- Obscure References: There are many inaccessible references–allusions to obscure events, people, places, etc.–which skew the reader’s understanding of the poem.
All of these can seem incredibly daunting at first, but they are easy to overcome by using specific strategies for each. However, keep in mind that if you are not very drawn to a given poem that’s dense and you aren’t required to read it for a class, feel free to either put it down and pick it up later or just never return. There’s a lot of good poetry out there, so there’s no need to waste your time with a challenging piece that doesn’t interest you.
Let’s cover some strategies for conquering dense meanings, because this category is one of the easier ones to overcome. A good place to start is to allow yourself to both guess incorrectly at the meaning of the poem and also to be okay with not understanding the answer. Some pieces of poetry don’t actually have a distinct, concrete meaning, so don’t feel bad if you cannot understand something entirely. Next, read through the poem to see if you can find any footholds or places where you feel like there is some significant meaning, and underline them or make notes of them in the margin. Often these can be words or phrases that seem more concrete or understandable than the rest of the poem, as a lot of dense poetry can be very heady and abstract.
Once you’ve gone through and highlighted these, see if you can guess at some of the intended meanings of the author. Are they making a claim about the effects of gender neutrality in modern America? Or perhaps a subtle allusion to World War II? There’s no single right answer for your interpretation, regardless of the poet’s intended meaning, so feel free to let your mind run wild on possible solutions. And if you can’t find any explanation, feel free to let the piece settle in your mind a little bit. If you’re really interested in reading poetry a lot, then tolerating ambiguity will likely be something you learn to get used to over time, as much of modern poetry revolves around some guesswork in ascertaining meaning.
This can be one of the most frustrating items on this list upon first reading, but luckily it’s also arguably the easiest to remedy in most cases. Let’s take a line from a made-up poem and see if we can locate where most of the difficulty is:
“Our souls stand juxtaposed, intermingling
Lecherous upon the breath of apparitions”
Now this can be a lot to take in if you don’t immediately understand all of the words, as it’s hard to guess at the meanings if there are a lot of them used within just a short space. But one way I try to pick apart language like this is by substituting meanings. So find a synonym or similar phrase you can replace any of the harder words with. I’ve looked up the closest possible synonyms I can find for the more challenging words in those two lines and listed them here for coding:
- Juxtaposed=side by side
- Intermingling=merging together
So now if we just substitute these new meanings in, it should look more approachable:
“Our souls stand side by side, merging together
Lustful upon the breath of ghosts”
Now we can get a slightly better sense of what the poet is talking about. See if you can take a couple moments and try to identify a meaning before moving on to the next paragraph, just to test out how the coding works. And feel free to enter in different words as you feel necessary.
It seems to me that there are two souls standing together, possibly lovers as a nod to the phrase soulmates, and the narrator feels as though their spirits are slowly meshing with one another. The second line is a bit harder to decipher, but since lecherous means possessing a strong sexual attraction and has a dirty/offensive component to it as well, the writer could be referring to their souls being offensive to ghosts or the souls of people who have died. The writer may be referring to a love between himself and a woman that could be upsetting a dead boyfriend or father of the woman or one of his previous girlfriends who would not approve of their newfound love. Regardless of the interpretation you yourself arrive at, the rest of the poem can now be taken in context to try and better gauge meaning and find more understanding of the work as a whole.
This difficulty can be extremely frustrating if the meaning of the poem hinges upon its references, and those references in question are very obscure. Personally, I tend to avoid these poems as they can require a good amount of research. But one great resource for quickly understanding these references, especially for a well-known piece of poetry, is the site Genius.com. This website is most popularly known for being a user-run composite of song lyrics that are dissected line-by-line for references from the author or potential meanings of the song’s lines. But in addition to music, there is also a section dedicated completely to poetry, so it can be a great site to look at in a pinch.
If Genius doesn’t have a page for the poem you’re looking at, though, it’s likely the case that you will just have to go through and do some research of your own (using my favorite choice, Google, or otherwise actually researching these references in a library). This can be tedious but is absolutely necessary for analyzing some poems, and I highly recommend sticking it out if the piece that you are working on is either intriguing to you or is a required assignment for a class. If all else fails, don’t be afraid to guess! Your own interpretation can be just as valid as anyone else’s when dealing with a tough poem.
This concludes today’s post–I hope that you now have a couple more tools to work with in your poetry analysis arsenal and are ready and willing to tackle your next piece with gusto. Good luck!