19 September 2009

The Secret of Interpreting a Poem Correctly

When most people are asked to give an opinion about poetry they shrivel up like time lapsed apples. The first response out of a person’s puckered mouth usually goes, “Oh, I don’t know anything about that,” or “I am not much of a poetry person.”

When did we become so fearful of poetry? How did poetry become the intellectual property of stern educators and academics locked away in their dim-lit offices? Usually, we were told how to interpret a poem and graded on it. We weren’t allowed to voice what we felt and thought. We were told that these kind of “subjective” answers were wrong. The truth? Every response to a poem is valid.

If you’re fortunate you’ve encountered poems you love. You might never admit it in public, or push a book of poems under the TV Guide when someone enters the living room, but you might like a bit of verse now and then. Admit it; you know one off-color limerick.

Even if you are not a “poetry person”, you have a good idea of what you like and dislike. Lima Beans? Heavy Metal? That orangey color of the new car next to you in traffic? We have preferences and this applies to literature as well. The only way we are going to know if we like poems are by reading them, even if we do so in secrecy.

Ask yourself the following questions after you read a poem. There are no right or wrong answers. Really. Toss them out entirely—I don’t care as long as you start thinking about poetry. These are only suggestions to help you start forming your own opinions.

There are only two rules to remember: (I lied about there being no musts.)

  • Go with your gut feeling about something.
  • Think about why you feel the way you do. See if you can figure out why you like a thing or not. Can you find just where in the poem you were confused or elated?

Here are three questions to help you take a closer look at poems:

1. What do you like, if anything, about the poem? What stays with you after you read it? Are there images, lines or sounds that really stick?

2. What don’t you like about the poem? Is there a description, a line or an awkward place in the poem? Take a few moments and see if you can answer how or why it rubs you the wrong way. It may be nothing more than the way two words sound together.

3. At what point does your mind begin to wander? Do you get distracted or bored with any area of the poem? Is there a line, portion stanza your eye and brain want to skip over?


This is the secret to interpreting poetry. In the “professional world” there are all sorts of terms and technical language that go with poems. You don’t need to know them in order to give very insightful and useful feedback. Many people who write poetry tear their hair out trying to get straight answers out of people who are looking at their poems. Friends or workshop participants can get vague, worry about hurt feelings or get hung up in technical language. I think the narrative arc of the poem gets lost before the dĂ©nouement. That isn’t of much use to the writer. A clearer way to look at a poem and give feedback might go like this:

“Near the bottom of the poem, the line that starts with ‘and give her back the toast…’ I don’t think that this is a good place to tell us about why he stole the toast from her. A moment ago, the guy who stole the toast was being chased around the table…now you sort of drift off into explanations. Why not stick to more description about the toast chase. I want to know what he is doing with the toast. Is he holding it over the garbage disposal? The toast you were describing has disappeared…”

This is valid feedback. It's your honest opinion. You have identified what you didn’t like about the poem. It got awkward and you've located exactly where it happened in the poem. You can even ask the poet what he or she was trying to do. Perhaps the poet wanted the toast to vanish. More likely, he or she was so carried up in writing about the toast that their attention wavered and they didn’t make things clear. Don’t be afraid to point things out and to ask questions when reviewing a poem; it may save breakfast!

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