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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Dance of the Language: A Beginner's Guide to Reading Poetry

Paul Valery (Poetry and Abstract Thought, 1939 Lecture at Oxford)

The word ''Poetry '' comes from the Greek word ''Poetica'' which is derived from the verb ''poiein'' that means, ''to make''. Hence, ‘poetry’ is something that is ‘made’, ‘constructed’ and ‘artificial’. The poem is made from words and the ways in which a poem is made are called ‘poetic devices’.

Valery’s quote given above implies that prose, and discursive prose in particular, is largely about conveying message or information and hence is ‘goal directed’. It has to reach from the point A to B or D. It is ‘linear’ in direction. Poetry is not about giving information or conveying some message. It is not ‘goal’ directed like prose. It does not have a fixed location to reach. It may start from the point C and go E and come back to A, non-linearly like a dancer. The use of language which  have‘ twists’ and ‘turns’ are called ‘ tropes’ or ‘figures of speech’.

Let us discuss what is poetry ‘made of’ and how it ‘dances’.

slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

A poem is made up of a story. Though ‘narrative’ or a story is considered very different formally from poetry, poetry usually contains both fiction (imaginary worlds) and narrative (story and plot) and finding out the story the poem tells is important for understanding of the poem. Very often the speaker is one of the characters in the story which a poem tells. The speaker of the lines of the poem is commonly mistaken for the poet as the real person. In fact, the speaker in the poem can very often be a ‘mask’, a fictional character, or a voice. Hence it is a very good idea of not using, ‘the poet says.. .’ approach while discussing poetry or literature.

In the Wordsworth poem, the story is about a lover who believes he was ‘asleep’ when he thought his beloved was not mortal and hence ‘earthly’, but wakes up to find her dead and one with nature. The story of this spiritual awakening and the shock and the grief of this awakening is crucial for comprehension of the poem.

Prose is divided into paragraphs, a poem is divided into stanzas. The poem just mentioned is divided into two stanzas. Most of traditional poetry is written in ‘metre’ and ‘rhymes’. ‘Fears’, ‘Years’, ‘Sees’ and ‘Trees’ are called ‘rhymes’. The arrangement of rhymes is called the rhyme scheme.In this poem it is ‘abab cdcd’ , where ‘a’ indicates the first rhyme, ‘b’ indicates the second rhyme and so on.

The lines of the poem is ‘made of’ roughly fixed number of syllables or the part of a word that is spoken distinctly. The line ‘A-slum- ber-did my-spi- rit-seal’ has eight syllables out of which four are ‘stressed’ or pronunced with emphasis:  ‘slum’, ‘did’, ‘spi’, and ‘seal’ which are arranged alternatively. Rest of them are ‘unstressed’.
(A-slum) (ber-did) (my-spi) (rit-seal) (She-seemed) (a-thing)  (that-could) (not-feel)

A more or less fixed pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is called ‘metre. Here the lines are divided into four or five units of two syllables. These units are called ‘ feet’.The main foot here is ‘ unstressed- stressed’ foot or ‘Iambic’.

The use of rhyme and meter is often used to create music and the mood of the poem. It is a convention and a device that poets often use. The study of poetic meters is called ‘prosody’. The use of rhyme and meter is one of  many ways by which the language of poetry differs from the language of prose.

The poem is an ‘elegy’ or a literary form that conventionally mourns or laments the death of someone close to the speaker. There are many sub-forms or sub-genres of poetry like the epic, the sonnet, the ballad, the dramatic monologue and so on.

The ways in which poetry ‘dances’ or  the ways in which the language of poetry differs from ordinary language involve complex and extensive use of figurative language or figures of speech.  A figure of speech is a rhetorical device that achieves a special effect by using words in distinctive ways. Lets look at only some important figures of speech.

1.      Alliteration. In the first line of the poem, the sound ‘ s’ ( slumber, spirit, seal) is repeated and this repetition of a consonant sound is a figure of speech called ‘ alliteration’ . ‘ R’ sound in the line ‘Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course’ another example of alliteration.
2.      Metaphor and Simile. The comparison between two different contexts and things without the use of comparing words like ‘like’ or ‘as’ is called ‘metaphor’. The comparison which uses these words is called ‘simile’.  In the first line, there is a comparison between the speaker’s ignorance of his beloved’s mortal nature and ‘ sleep’ or ‘slumber’ which ‘sealed’ the speaker’s ‘spirit’. ‘The touch of earthly years’ is another metaphor in the poem. ‘Simile’ on the other hand, compares two different thing using the comparing words like ‘ as’ or ‘like’. Compare and contrast the impact of ‘ he was a lion in the batlefield’ with ‘ he was like a lion in the battlefield.’ Personification is a common kind of metaphor where the inanimate things or abstract ideas are treated as if they are animate or as if they are human.
3.      Image and Imagery.  An image is a  verbal representation of a sensory experience or of an object that can be known by one or more of the senses like sight, smell, touch and tastes.  Imagery is vivid descriptive language that appeals to one or more of the senses. The description of the speaker’s  dead beloved as being ,’ “Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course   With rocks, and stones, and trees” is an example of imagery.  The visual picture in our mind of earth revolving around the sun, and consequently the body and soul of the speaker’s beloved  revolving along with rocks, stones and trees suggests her as becoming one with Nature after her death.
4.      Irony. The speaker’s description of his beloved as  having ‘no motion or force’ and she is ‘revolving with the earth around the sun’ actually implies she is dead and the speaker cannot be one with her . This is also because the speaker, unlike his beloved, was always alienated from nature. This mismatch between what is said and what is meant is an example of irony. The speaker’s opinion that it was because of ‘the slumber’ which ‘sealed’ his spirit that he felt that his beloved was ‘ untouched’ by earthly things like mortality is ironic, because it is not really the slumber but his desire that his beloved should not be touched by death as he loves her deeply, that has made him blind to the fact.
5.      Symbol.  A symbol is an image which suggests or represents something other than itself. In poetry, a symbol represents both what it is, and additionally, a concept or an idea. The symbol of a white dove suggests "peace" and a cow in Indian culture symbolizes maternity, fertility, auspiciousness and divinity. ‘Slumber’, for instance, stands for the lack of knowing on the part of the speaker.
Now let’s look at another poem.

‘Eating Poetry by Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

The experience of reading and relishing poetry transforms the reader into something almost nonhuman like the dog into which the speaker is transformed by the end of the  poem. The irony of the poem emerges when the speaker says, ‘ I am a new man’ when actually he on his knees, licking the librarian’s knees, snarls and barks at the librarian. 

The contrast between the human being and the dog is symbolic one. Contrary to the humanist belief about literature as humanizing, the poet seems to indicate that its sorcerous power turns humans being into primitive non-human being. This ‘anti or non-humanist’ perception of art is characteristic of the postmodern literature.

How To Appreciate Poetry: Some Tips

Though there is no one fixed way of reading poetry, here are some tips for analysis , comprehension and appreciation of poetry. The best way to do it is by asking questions as we go along reading the poem. Better we get at asking questions about the poem, the better we get at reading , analyzing and enjoying poetry. The skills of asking questions to poetry come with a lot of practice and interest. Keep jotting down the questions and thoughts that come to your mind as you go along.

1)      Why is this title given to the poem? The Title of the poem often indicates the theme or the subject of the poem, e. g. ‘Eating Poetry’.  Often the first line of the poem is the title as in ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’. Very often titles are meant to arouse our curiosity rather than lead to the theme or the subject of the poem.

2)      Try to guess ‘the character’ of the speaker by reading for information about him or her. The speaker  in the first poem is the lover who has lost his beloved and the speaker in the second poem is the reader who relishes poetry.

3)      Read the poem carefully to find out the ‘story’ or ‘the plot’ of the poem by trying to guess ‘what happens’ to the speaker or some other characters.

4)       Ask yourself ‘what’ the speaker is saying and ‘how’ is he or she saying it.The speaker in the first poem is awakened by the grief due to the death of his beloved. The characters of both the speaker and his beloved are transformed. The lover realizes the mortality of his beloved and the beloved is transformed from a living human being into a spirit that is one with nature after death. The speaker in the second poem is transformed into a dog to the librarian’s horror.

5)      Ask yourself questions: is it divided into stanzas? Does it have rhymes ? If so what is its rhyme scheme? Does the poem have a fixed metrical patterning ? The first poem is written in iambic meter and has a fixed rhyme scheme. The second poem is written in ‘free verse’ and has no fixed metrical patterns.

6)       Ask yourself what is the ‘mood’ of the poem. The mood of the first poem is sad, serene and philosophical. The mood of the second poem is absurd, comical, dark and even sinister. Usually the poems use words for creating emotional impact instead of communicating any information or message.  Ask yourself how effective the poet has been in creating this impact upon you.

7)       How does the poet use the figures of speech and other devices in the poem? Look at the images, metaphors and symbols in the poem. How well does the poet use ‘irony’. Much of the impact of the poem on the reader depends on the freshness and preciseness of the images, metaphors and symbols.  Ask yourself if the poet’s use of the figurative language is effective and interesting.
8)       Very often tracing the abstract nouns can lead the reader to the theme or the subject of poetry. The use of abstract nouns like ‘spirit’, ‘earthly’ or ‘force’ in the Wordsworth poem and the abstract nouns like ‘ happiness’ , ‘ poetry’ and ‘ new man’ in the Strand poem indicate the theme of the poem. Consider the fact that both the poets use these words ironically, though in a different way.


1.      Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Understanding poetry, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976
2.      Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000
3.      Harold Bloom, The Art of Reading Poetry, Perennial, 2005
4.      Terry Eagleton, How to Read a Poem, Wiley-Blackwell, 2007