On Poetry

Our difficulties with poetry

“Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.”

Dylan Thomas,from “In my Craft or Sullen Art”
Deaths and Entrances, 1946

Analysing poetry always seems to be what students rather prefer to avoid. Poems seem difficult to understand because of the use of language they make, and it is even more complicated to speak or write about them. Although if you think more closely about it, even our every day culture (which really is the meaning of pop) is full of poems though mostly they come in the way of songs to us. While poems are written to be read out aloud, it would seem quite unusual to speak a poem in public, it wouldn’t seem quite as awkward to sing a song when your friends are around. (Provided your voice is somewhat nicer than that of some people turning up at casting shows…)

Reading poetry can be quite rewarding – just as singing songs – because often they speak to us on a more emotional level than other texts, thus giving us the opportunity to express our own feelings. This is probably also a reason for the difficulties of talking about poems in the classroom, because there seems to be something with which one is content enough especially when it it not analysed.

Then again our wish to avoid analysing is often misplaced. Think about watching a football match: you might enjoy it even without any knowledge of the game. But isn’t it a lot more fun if you know terms like “pass combination”, “long-range shot”, “penalty”, or the difference between a “square pass” and a “diagonal pass” ? The example also helps to argue against the standard view that you cannot apreciate a poem any longer if you learn all these stylistic and rhetorical expressions. It is just with a football play: knowing a lot about football doesn’t make you think about football terms all the time, but you definitely have more fun watching the game.

But I found this also true quite often:  one does like a text (of a poem or a song) and one even enjoys the use of language without really understanding it. Somehow it doesn’t always seem necessary. The words speak to us on a level which we are not aware of, they have a power of their own. Do not deny yourself this kind of pleasure! And here is a famous and funny example for that kind of poetry. One the one hand the words allmost all seem to be nonsense, and then again they seem to convey a meaning, don’t they:

Lewis Carroll
(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Analysing poetry

Having said this I would like to provide you here with some help and material for analysing poetry.

When you have to analyse a poem your first step should alway be:

– read the poem once or twice

– look up words which you don’t understand but seem to be important for your understanding

– try to get the gist of the poem

Getting a general understanding of your poem:

Before your start a detailed analysis always make sure that you understood what the poem is about in general:

– Does it tell a story?

– Does it  observe a scene, e.g. something happening in a street, a conversation in a cafe?

– Does the poem describe a certain landscape (nature or city or even an industrialised area)?

– Is it about the impression of  a certain moment in time like the atmosphere in the early morning, the night etc.?

– Does it show the emotional state of the lyrical I or persons mentioned in the poem?

– Is the poem perhaps a rather rational thought process or a quiet meditation about a certain topic? Can you say what this topic is?


Useful links for analysing poetry

If you are looking for a complete coverage of terms, forms, rhythm etc take a look at the site of the poetry foundation.

Useful definitions and explanations are also to be found on the poetry archive site. Additionally this site offers a huge number of poems, which you can also listen to instead of reading them, and nice background information about the poets. Please have a look…

Information on the topic of Shakespeare’s sonnets can be found on this sub-page of  the ‘Shakespeare Online’ site.


to be continued … … …