Enjoying Poetry: literary analysis
What is a poem?
Poems come in all shapes and sizes, since people have been making poems for thousands of years all over the world. But can we agree about what a poem is? Everyone agrees that a poem is a spoken or written text of a special sort – it is this “of a special sort” that can give rise to disagreements. For example, can we call this advertising slogan a poem?
Guinness is good for you.
Probably not, but why not? After all. it has several features that are typical of poetry:
· it has a sense of rhythm, emphasised by the regular dum-di-di dum-di-di beat;
· it has alliteration in the repetition of /g/;
· it has near rhymes in “good” and “you”;
· it conveys a mood: a mood of optimism;
· it has a sense of irony, because beer obviously is not good for you.
All in all, this is not bad for five words! Even so, few people would go so far as to call this text a poem. It lacks something.
What about this?
I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me.
Oh! what sweet company.
(from “The Schoolboy” by William Blake)
This is also short (in fact, it is the first stanza of a six stanza poem) and simple. It has a strong sense of rhythm, resting on its regular rhyming scheme and a fairly regular “beat”. It expresses the mood of a summer morning in the countryside, and is full of nature and countryside imagery (“birds”, “tree”, “skylark” and the “huntsman” who “winds” – ie blows – his horn). Most people would say without hesitation that this is poetry, probably because the poet uses language in a “special” way to intensify its impact on us. It is this intensification that poetry is all about. The American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry.” Well, your response may not be as extraordinary as hers, but try to let a poem have an impact on you. Let it move you. Let it surprise you.
You might find a surprise in this short text.
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This is complete, with its title, and is considered a poem. Do you agree? Think of the points we raised in connection with our two first texts: content, length, simplicity of language, rhythm, and aspects of style like rhyme and alliteration. How many of these features can you find in Pound’s short text?
“In a Station of the Metro” has something the first two texts do not have, of course. It makes a comparison between one thing, or one “world”, (the passengers’ faces in the Metro) and another thing, another “world” (wet petals). These are two worlds that are not normally put together. When the poet creates a direct association like this between two things or two worlds that are normally not associated, we call it a metaphor. How you respond to Pound’s text depends on how you respond to this metaphor. If it strikes you as effective, then you will probably enjoy the poem; if it strikes you as silly or pointless, then you probably won’t. This reminds us of something important: enjoying poetry is personal. It is your personal response that is important.
Perhaps we are getting closer to what poetry is. Consider these two texts:
Remember that the Houses of Parliament were almost blown up on 5th November. We do not think we should ever forget it.
Please to remember
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
We know no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
(Traditional English nursery rhyme)
Text 4 is clearly prose and text 5 is clearly poetry (perhaps not great poetry, and some people would prefer to call it “verse”, but it is poetry nonetheless). These two texts are obviously similar in some ways, but also very different. Can we pinpoint how they are different? It is in their style and their use of language. Look at the way text 5 uses language to make an impact that is stronger than the impact made by text 4.
By looking at these texts we have sorted out a few ideas about what a poem is and seen some of the ways in which a poem can use language to achieve a special impact. We now suggest a strategy for enjoying a poem.
What is the poem about?
Look, first, at what a poem is about; search for what it is saying. Text 2 tells us that mornings are fun. Text 5 tells us that Guy Fawkes night (the fifth of November) should never be forgotten. In text 3 Pound says that the faces of the passengers make him think of petals on a branch. This is clearly a powerful idea for him (and a surprising idea for us, since petals – we say to ourselves – have no humanity). When you read a poem, then, try first of all to focus on what it is about. This will lead you to the theme of the poem – the central idea the poet is trying to make.
Consider the second stanza of Blake’s poem “The Schoolboy”:
But to go to school in a summer morn,
Oh! It drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.
The poem’s subject-matter is clear here, making a contrast with the first stanza (text 2). So the theme of the poem is beginning to unfold: that humdrum schooling can deprive a child of important things in life. Returning to Pound’s short poem, we could say that its theme is a comment on modern transportation: that, with thousands of commuters arriving in the Metro every morning and evening, it tends to make us less human. Maybe you will want to interpret the poem differently, and find another theme. You are absolutely within your rights to do so, but you must be able to support your interpretation (or your “reading” as it is sometimes called) by pointing to something in the poem that makes you think the way you do.
The meanings of some poems are, of course, sometimes difficult to grasp. When a poet uses language to maximum effect – “at full stretch” as a critic once put it – the results can be tricky. You may well find many poems that have a few lines you cannot properly understand. Go for the bits you do understand first, then try to tease out the meaning of the difficult lines – but do not worry if you feel part of the poem’s meaning has escaped you. For you, the meaning is what you get out of it.
A poem can seem particularly difficult to understand if it refers to something you know nothing about. It could be a name that means nothing to you. Or it could be some aspect of the poet’s life. In the next poem the full meaning of “shadows” and of the last two lines is difficult to grasp if you do not know that the Severn is a river in west England near the poet’s home, and that he was a soldier in France in the First World War.
Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite
O Severn meadows.
Even if you lack biographical knowledge of the poet, the theme of Gurney’s delicate poem is probably clear to you: you appreciate something most dearly when it is far away.
Having found the theme of a poem, you might want to discuss it. Is the poet making a valid point? Is it an original point? Have you ever felt the same? And so on. Part of your response to a poem, and your enjoyment of it, lies in the doors it can open into new areas your mind can explore.
Remember, too, that most poems also try to convey a mood to the reader. If you write a poem about a river in summer, you may not really have a theme – you may simply want to write a beautiful description of a river, and to create a mood: a drowsy, sleepy, hot, grass-smelling summery mood perhaps. In text 2 the poet creates a bright morning mood, but then he chooses to go on to contrast this in the next stanza with the gloomy mood of the dull school, thus developing a theme.
The use of style and language
Having thought about what the poem is saying and about its theme, and maybe about the mood it conveys, you can start responding to the way the poet puts across these things – that is, to how a poem’s language underlines what the poet is saying, to how the style of the poem intensifies and deepens its meaning.
Not everything that calls itself a poem is necessarily written in a style that brings these rewards. Suppose some hack writer tried to chop up a line of prose into short lines and call it poetry. Consider the following:
that the Houses of Parliament
were almost blown up
on 5th November.
We do not think
we should ever forget it.
Line length and line breaks are certainly among the devices a poet can use to intensify language, but is this “poem” more special or powerful than the prose version in text 4? Most readers would say “No”. What a dull, lifeless thing this text is, they would say. Maybe it looks a little like a poem, but it has none of the qualities we want in poetry: no rhythm, for a start. No beauty. No neatness of expression. No striking metaphor. The language is not at full stretch – it is as limp as a fish. The impact of the message is not intensified in any way by the style. It is what it is: a prose text chopped up and served as fast food.
What, then, should we look for in a poet’s language and style? The answer is simple: look for the elements that make an impact on you. In the sections that follow, you can read about the different ways in which a poet can use language in a poem. We often call them “stylistic devices”. They are tools a poet can employ to make the poem effective, so it has an impact on the reader. These devices, or tools, have names, and we have met several of them already in this article (“metaphor” and “rhythm” for example).
However, a word of warning: when you are asked to talk about or write about your response to a poem, it is not a good idea to rush into giving details about its “rhyming scheme” or its use of “repetition” or its “metaphors”. Instead, go for the big picture. Go for your total response to the poet’s “voice” and the poem’s “life”. Say what impact it has on you, and what you understand its content to be about and what its theme is. Then discuss the style and language.
An image is a picture or other sense impression expressed in words. In text 2 we see Blake describing the sounds of morning by using images from nature: what we call nature imagery. The poet actually hears the skylark, and when he uses the word “skylark” in his poem, he means the bird of that name. He is writing about exactly what he experiences. He uses the word “skylark” in its literal meaning. Similarly, in the sentence “The thin detective looked tired” the words “thin” and “tired” are being used in their literal meaning. The speaker experiences the detective as a thin person, and as being short of sleep.
Pound, on the other hand, in the second line of his short poem (text 3), uses nature imagery not because it is something he actually experiences, but as something he imagines, something that is associated in his mind with what he actually sees. We call this connotation. The sentence “The thin detective was a snake” gives another example of connotation. It tells us not that he slithered around his office on his stomach, but that he behaved in the sort of way we fancy a snake might behave (cruelly, deceitfully etc). The word “snake” is not being used in its literal meaning denoting a long limbless reptile. It is connotative, in this sentence.
We call such non-literal use of language figurative. There are several common ways of using figurative language, which we call figures of speech. Imagery can be used to create various figures of speech which can be very powerful in expressing thoughts. There are two main figures of speech that use connotation: metaphors and similes. The figure of speech we have just used, “The detective was a snake” is a metaphor. A metaphor identifies an image (“snake”) with a person or thing (“detective”) in order to express something about the person or thing through association – the detective had some of the qualities we traditionally think snakes have. Another figure of speech, very like a metaphor, is a simile, where the comparison is made using “like” or “as”. For example, “the detective behaved like a snake” and “the detective was as slippery as a snake” are similes.
As we suggested when we looked at text 3, figures of speech using connotation give a poet (or any writer) a wonderful chance to use language at full stretch, and to say something that has an impact deeper than the actual meaning of the isolated words. We do this all the time, in fact, when we speak. We say things like “He’s as dumb as a door-post” or “She buried herself in her work” or “His girlfriend’s a peach”. Poetry simply raises the intensity of these figures of speech, makes “new” and exciting associations. It focuses them to express forcefully the poet’s thoughts and enliven the reader’s or listener’s experience.
If you clench your fist and shake it in someone’s face, you are not being friendly. A clenched fist has a fixed meaning in our culture: it implies a threat. As with gestures, so with words. In any culture, some words serve as a fixed token for something else; they are, you might say, highly developed metaphors and “stand for” something else. The word “snake”, for example, often stands for evil. We call such words symbols. Symbols are usually material objects standing for something abstract, like a dove standing for peace. A symbol is not used just once, then forgotten; it must run through either a whole culture or a whole book or play, or, sometimes, a whole poem. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, weeds and disease stand for corruption and rottenness (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” says Hamlet, and the whole play proves that he is right). A symbol resonates, like a powerful echo in a deep cave.
When deciding whether a word is being used as a symbol or as a metaphor, the key question is whether its “extra” meaning is fixed (as in a symbol), or whether it is a poet’s private association (as in a metaphor).
So far, we have concentrated on the subject-matter and meaning of a poem, and on the language the poet chooses. Now we turn to another aspect of style: form.
The form of a poem
The form of a poem centres around its rhythm. A poem must have a sense of rhythm – not necessarily a regular tripping rhythm, but some sort of rhythmic bedrock. Several elements can make up this rhythm:
Metre (spelt “meter” in American English): this is the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry. Sometimes this pattern is regular, as in a sonnet. Here is the first line of a sonnet by Keats:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Its metric pattern is a succession of five iambic feet: an iambic foot contains two syllables, the first unstressed (“When”) and the second stressed (“I”). Since there are five feet in each line, we say it is an iambic pentameter. If we wish to scan this line, we would write it like this:
u / u / u / u / u /
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Of course, the poet can break the basic rhythm to achieve a special effect. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of great art is the effective use of freedom within constraints. Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” begins with this line:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
It is absurd to read this as strict iambic pentameter. That would kill the line. The basic meter is iambic, but Shakespeare pushes it a bit one way and pulls it a bit the other way to produce a looser rhythm.You have to read a stress on both “comPARE” and “THEE”. (If you are interested in music you will know that this is a form of syncopation.) This emphasises “thee”, thus focusing the reader’s attention on the person the poet is addressing.
Other metric patterns can be less regular than the iambic pentameter; with, for example, just two or three stressed syllables somewhere in a line.
Repetition: Any element of repetition usually emphasises a sense of rhythm (the repetition of “treason” in text 5, or of “leaf” in text 9, for example).
Alliteration: This is the repetition of a sound or a letter, usually at the beginning of words, as in “Simple Sally was sifting seashells by the seashore.” Other examples are in line 2 of text 9 and the /g/ sounds in text 1. Delicate use of alliteration can enhance the musical nature of a poem, making it pleasing on the reader’s or listener’s ear. Exaggerated use can be tiresome, as in the “Simple Sally” example.
Rhyme: Rhyme is one of the most pronounced contributors to rhythm, and greatly enhances a poem’s musicality. Consider a limerick:
A rather small man from Bengal
Went to a fancy-dress ball;
Dressed as a biscuit
The silly fool missed it
For a dog ate him up in the hall.
The rhyming pattern is regular – lines 1, 2 and 5 rhyme and lines 3 and 4 rhyme. These rhymes give a limerick much of its swing, or punch. We call this scheme aabba. We note a rhyming scheme or pattern by using letters to imitate the rhyming sounds at the ends of lines: in text 2, to take another example, the pattern is ababb where the words “morn” and “horn” rhyme (and get the letter a), and “tree” “me” and “company” rhyme (and get the letter b).
Poetry does not have to have rhymes. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines of poetry are completely without rhyme – look, for example, at Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” on page 00. A poet may find full rhymes too obvious and heavy, just as many singers must find the rhymes in pop songs desperately dull – all those moons, swoons and Junes.
One alternative device is a near rhyme. Words which contain the same vowel sound but lack similar consonant sounds can create a pleasant effect when spoken: such as (in text 3) “crowd” and “bough”. This effect is called assonance. You can find several examples in text 9. Poets can use another type of near rhyme when they use words with similar consonant sounds in stressed syllables but different vowel sounds. There is a vivid example in Emily Dickinson’s poem no. 249 on p. 00 (the words “port” and “Chart”), and another in text 7 when Gurney achieves a delightful musical effect with the near rhymes “shadows” and “meadows”. This type of near rhyme is sometimes called slant rhyme or half rhyme.
Structure: this is the way a poem is organised into line-length and stanzas. Every poem has some sort of structure, and the structure is part of the framework on which the poem’s rhythm is built. Genres like the sonnet and the limerick have a set structure, and the poet must work within that strict form. However, as we saw above, a poet is free to “bend” the rules and find artistic freedom within the constraints of the chosen genre.
Or a poet can simply choose a freer form. He or she can choose not to use any of the devices we have listed on these pages. Such poetry is called “free verse”. Here is the beginning of Elizabeth Bishop’s celebrated poem “The Fish”:
I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in the corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
Free verse is not really free. It should have a rhythmic bedrock, and demands that the writer pay more than usual attention to the internal rhythm of the poem, and such features as line-breaks and spaces around words need to be chosen carefully. However, free verse usually has no obvious metric beat. Free verse can use all the other resources of language available to a poet, such as figures of speech and symbolism.
All these ways of constructing a poem are part of its form, and can be used to reflect and reinforce the poem’s theme and intensify its impact. You can see an example of this by returning to the final stanza of Dickinson’s poem no 249 on page 00. Many features here, such as the lines shortening so dramatically, contribute to the feeling of energy and excitement and nervousness.
It is our belief that a good way of enjoying poetry is to search, first, for a poem’s meaning and theme, and to let the poem convey its mood to you. Then, moving from this to aspects of style, you can enjoy the poet’s use of all the resources that language offers. Your total response is a combination of all these aspects of the poem working together.
A good poem has an impact on you every time you read it, and reading it should always involve an element of discovery. Robert Frost once said that a poem “can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” He is talking of the poet’s surprise. Let the poet’s “surprise” and excitement rub off on you, and trust your own response to the poem.