The Best Short Guide for Understanding Poetry


One of the most difficult tasks facing many students in high school and university English courses is coming to grips with difficult poetry. Unlike novels and short stories, poetry is not tied to the clear communication of a plot and it can be totally devoid of characters. As a result, many students find themselves at a loss for how to read and understand poetry at all, and some just give up completely. However, there are some useful tips for approaching poetry that will allow you to make sense of what often seems like senselessness.

The first and most important step in understanding poetry is to figure out what is happening in the poem, or at least what is being presented. Even though there may be no story or characters, there are things, and these things will interact with each other in various ways. Even in a poem about trees which presents a landscape, there will be verbs describing actions showing how one thing affects or is affected by another. In your own words, write down the basic facts of the poem, its things and actions. This is known as a paraphrase, and while it does not itself explain the "meaning" of the poem, it is an important first step. If you don't know what is present on the surface, you can't figure out anything deeper.

From here, it is possible to apply an indispensable principle for understanding poetry, which so many students don't know or choose to ignore: the rule of significance. This basically states that poetry is never just about the things it contains, which you have written down in your paraphrase. The deeper meaning resides in the relation of the poem to some aspect of human life, which is the poem's "deeper meaning." Whenever you read a poem, pay attention to the surface facts, but also constantly consider how it could be a comment on human life. Some of the most common themes are life and death, love, the range of emotions, and opposing abstract concepts like war and peace. Poets often use figurative language to make these themes come through, and they frequently employ common symbols and familiar human actions to make the message clearer. For example, if you see a dove flying through a poem, this immediately indicates something about peace, whereas a gun would indicate its opposite, and a gun shooting a dove would be an even more extreme symbol for war. If a pile of leaves is described as dancing, we immediately feel cheered, and it is safe to assume the poem is saying something uplifting and positive, whereas if the leaves are dead and rotting, it is making a negative comment about some aspect of life.

After you have looked at the surface details and then examined them with the rule of significance to see how they relate to human life, you will come up with some different basic ideas and themes. Now it is time to compare the various pieces of the poem as you have paraphrased them, and see whether the same themes appear throughout the poem. Whenever you find repetition of themes, odds are that you have found one that is central to the poem. Then, consider how the various ideas and themes you have discovered could be related to each other. For example, if you have found the themes of death and also of love, how are these related in the poem? Does love lead to death? Does love last beyond death? Once you are able to find the relation between the various themes you have discovered, you have found what is known as a "reading" of the poem. This reading shows you have understood the poem on both the surface and deeper levels. While poems do allow for many readings, by following these basic principles you will find ones that fit the evidence presented in the poem, and show that you have understood it.

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