Poems can be intimidating. But the most important thing to remember before approaching a poem is not to feel intimidated. Poems are abstract and defy immediate “understanding”, and therefore reading a poem requires developing a new skill set.
Unlike typical forms of literature, poetry is not about understanding in a literal sense. Poets such as T S Eliot acknowledge that: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” .
T S Eliot is highlighting exactly what is spectacular about poetry, the fact that it is simply about getting a feel for the words and trying to extract who you can. It’s like being a literary archaeologist. Any archaeologist will need tools. Below you will find the necessary literary tools to understanding poetry better.
Top Tips: Always read poetry with a pencil in hand. Read the poem once SLOWLY. Then re read it underlying anything that strikes you.
Voice : Work out who is talking. Are they young? Are they old? Are they female? Are they male? Are they an animal? Do they represent a particular race?
World view and themes: Are they making an argument for/ against something. Are they representing a particular historical or political viewpoint. Is the poem about race, class, memory, gender, death? Top Tip: Look at the title for clues as to the subject matter. Also, look for clues in the language – are certain words repeated.
Tone: one of the most important things to grasp. Does the VOICE seem happy, anxious, sad, angry?
Setting/ Plot: Where is the poem taking place and is there a particular activity happening. Top Tip: poems are condensed, try paraphrasing what exactly is happening in the poem, this will help you unpick it.
Sensory language: Are there words that evoke particular sounds, smells, colours, textures or tastes. Acknowledge them!
Simile : When two things are compared using ‘like’ or ‘as’. I.e. ‘our new lamp shone like the sun’, ‘our new lamp was as bright as the sun’.
Metaphor : A metaphor is when something is compared to something else without using the word ‘like’. I.e. ‘Samuel is a pig when he eats”.
Personification: When something inanimate (i.e. a table, the sun) is described as having human emotions/ doing a human activity. For example, ‘the sun smiled’ or ‘the sea heaved a great sigh’.
Symbolism: This is when you use an object or a word to represent an abstract idea.
- Life is a roller-coaster: A famous line from a Ronan Keating song, this is symbolic because it indicates that there will be ups and downs in life.
- If a character is wearing a certain colour it could symbolise something.
Hyperbole: Is when you exaggerate for effect. For example, ‘the minutes of my exam crawled by like years’.
This can start to feel very abstract when you are a newcomer to poetry. But keep calm- even if you find the terminology confusing you should get used to looking out for the definitions. I.e. always check to see more than one word in a sentence that start with the same letter (AKA alliteration). Or checking how the poem SOUNDS- does that line sound harsh, is it hard to say? Or does the line sound softer, is it easy to say?
Top tip: point, evidence and explanation is still required. So scan the poem for these sound tips then explain their effect. I will give some examples of what the effect might be.
Constanance: Repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in ‘pitter patter’ or in ‘all mammals named Sam are clammy’.
Effect: Constanance can alter the rhythm of the poem. Making it a bit slower a bit heavier, in the above example you can argue the language itself has become a bit ‘clammy’.
Assonance: Resemblance of sound between syllables of nearby words, arising particularly from the rhyming of two or more stressed vowels, but not consonants (e.g. sonnet, porridge). The sound created by repeating vowel sounds can be very light and soft.
Dissonance: The use of harsh-sounding, unusual, or impolite words in poetry to create a disturbing effect or to catch the reader’s attention by interrupting a smooth flow of words.
Sibilance: Repeating the ‘s’ sound. For example,‘The sausages sizzled slowly’.
Onomatopoeia: A word that sounds like what it is. I. e. ‘POW’ and ‘BAM’.
Here are some poems for you to practice on:
A Donkey and The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth, Stealing by Carol Ann Duffy and The Follower by Seamus Heaney.