We live in a culture now that is driven by prose and by video
communication. This can make reading poetry--especially that of another
time and another culture--difficult; and when something's difficult, the
best way to make it unpleasurable is to add the pressure of being
evaluated on it in a class. Ours is a mixed course: many students are
reading English poetry for the first time, while others are more
experienced readers. Given this wide range of experience, I think that we
should try to talk in the same language. So, I have included below a
relatively basic, traditional way of thinking about poetry. I've
accompanied this with some fundamental terminology, which I plan to use
consistently throughout the several weeks. Those of you who are already
comfortable with poetry and ways of thinking about it should feel
absolutely free to go beyond these terms and explore these poems according
to your interests.
2. METAPHORS and IMAGES: make a mental list of the images that the poet piles up in the poem. Sometimes, it's not what the poet says that is interesting so much as the images that they use to set up their way of looking at the world. There's a sonnet of Shakespeare's, for example, that talks about love, yet stacks image after image of business, banking, and accounting to do so. These images--in one reading of this sonnet--change what the sonnet means, because it almost forces us to ask why the poet has chosen the language of business to talk about love. In your poem, how would you describe the poet's use of images?
3. RHETORIC (The art of speaking in public eloquently and effectively): we don't take classes in rhetoric any more, and so it's not natural for us to look for it in writing. Poetry, however, is very rhetorical, in that the sentences often are very elaborate and artfully set up to attain maximum effect. In your poem, does the poet play with words and the structure of sentences much? What are they trying to accomplish by doing this? Does it in some way add to what the poem already means for you?
4. STRUCTURE: like essays, poems are made up of pieces. --Each line is a piece: are there places where the line breaks of the poem add to your experience of it? --Each stanza or couplet is piece: are there places where individual stanzas are interesting, wonderful, or meaningful in themselves? --If this is a longer poem, you should read it as made up of shorter poems put together. How has the poet structured the smaller parts of the poem? What do they add up to?
5. AMBIGUITIES: Are there any moments in the poem where key words can mean more than one thing? One fun way to deal with ambiguity is to think of the poem as a word-puzzle: how many solutions can you find? How many readings can you construct? Does the title help you to nail down which seems most correct?
6. TRADITION OR CONVENTION: Is there a tradition or set of conventions that the poem is writing within or against?