For all those who begin the class in poetry, you must have been taught the fundamentals by the rector and other lecturers who have spent time here to bring us all to speed.
Knowing that poetry uses compact language, expressing complex feelings, it is important to understand that a poem has multiple meanings — Akpoviri Don Veta Akpoveta
Poets must therefore examine words and phrasing from the perspectives of rhythm, sound, images, obvious meaning, and implied meaning while readers then need to organize responses to the verse into a logical, point-by-point explanation.
A good beginning involves asking questions that apply to most poetry.
CONTEXT OF THE POEM: Clear answers to the following questions can help establish the context of a poem and form the foundation of understanding:
- Who wrote the poem?
- Does the poet’s life suggest any special point of view, such as a political affiliation, religious sect, career interest, musical talent, family or personal problems, travel, or handicap — for example, H. D.’s feminism, Amiri Baraka’s radicalism, T. S. Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, William Carlos Williams’ career as a physician, A. R. Ammons’ training in chemistry, Amy Lowell’s aristocratic background, John Berryman’s alcoholism, or Hart Crane’s homosexuality?
- When was the poem written and in what country? Knowing something about the poet’s life, times, and culture helps readers understand what’s in a poem and why.
- Does the poem appear in the original language? If not, readers should consider that translation can alter the language and meaning of a poem.
- Is the poem part of a special collection or series? Examples of such series and collections include Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, or Rita Dove’s triad, “Adolescence — I, II, and III.”
- Does the poem belong to a particular period or literary movement? For example, does the poem relate to imagism, confessional verse, the Beat movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights era, the American Indian renaissance, or feminism?
STYLE OF THE POEM: Into what category does the poem fit — for example, Carl Sandburg’s imagism in “Fog” or Gwendolyn Brooks’ epic “The Anniad”? Readers should apply definitions of the many categories to determine which describes the poem’s length and style:
- Is it an epic, a long poem about a great person or national hero?
- Is it a lyric, a short, musical verse?
- Is it a narrative, a poem that tells a story?
- Is it a haiku, an intense, lyrical three-line verse of seventeen syllables?
- Is it confessional? For example, does it examine personal memories and experiences?
TITLE OF THE POEM: Is the title’s meaning obvious?
- Does it mention a single setting and action, such as W. S. Merwin’s “The Drunk in the Furnace” or James A. Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”?
- Does it imply multiple possibilities? For example, Jean Toomer’s “Georgia Dusk,” which refers to a time of day as well as to dark-skinned people.
- Does it strike a balance, as in Rita Dove’s “Beulah and Thomas”?
- Is there an obvious antithesis, as with Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”?
- Is there historical significance to the title? For example, Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”
REPETITION IN THE POEM: Readers should read through a poem several times, at least once aloud. If it is a long poem, such as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl or Hart Crane’s The Bridge, readers should concentrate on key passages and look for repetition of specific words, phrases, or verses in the poem.
- Why is there a repeated reference to the sea in Robinson Jeffers’s poetry?
Why does the pronoun “we” recur in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool”?
Why does Edgar Lee Masters reprise epitaphs for Spoon River Anthology?
If readers note repetition in the poem, they should decide why certain information seems to deserve the repetition.
OPENING AND CLOSING LINES OF THE POEM: Does the poet place significant information or emotion in these places?
- Did the poet leave some clues in the opening lines? For example, when reading Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” readers may question the negative stance in the opening lines.
- Does the poet intend to leave a lasting impression by closing with a particular thought? For example, why does Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” lead to the word “explode”?
PASSAGE OF THE IN THE POEM: Can readers pin down a time frame? What details specify time?
Does the poet name a particular month or season, as with Amy Lowell’s “Patterns”?
Is there a clear passage of time, as with the decline of the deceased woman in Denise Levertov’s “Death in Mexico”?
How long is the period of time? Are there gaps?
SPEAKER OF THE POEM: Who is the speaker? Is the person male or female?
- Does the voice speak in first person (I, me, my, mine), for example, John Berryman’s “Huffy Henry”?
- Does the speaker talk directly to a second person, as with Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”?
- is the voice meant to be universal — for example, applicable to either sex at any time or place?
I am a member of the WRR editorial team.