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How to Read and Understand Poetry

Poetry or poem is the voice of the rain. Pitter patter does it fall on one’s ears and drenches the mind and soul with divine words arranged in rhythmical and metrical order connecting the reader or listener to an infinite valley where the song overflows and haunts the listener long after it has stopped. It is a blissful, fulfilling orchestra playing the chords of one’s heart. It is a beautiful necklace where carefully chosen, well crafted words are stringed to the perfection of prosody. This is that form of communication which has been unanimously chosen to connect to the God in the form of prayer around the globe.

The origin of the word ‘poem’ is traced back to Greek word ‘poiema’ meaning something made or fashioned (in words) – the poet being the maker or designer. In short it is an art – very much alive and flourishing. It can be read aloud to the audiences, friends, and families and also silently in the privacy of our rooms. Set to music and sung aloud it is a powerful medium of reaching out to others and touching their heart and soul deeply.
Since this is such a powerful tool it has to be handled very carefully, thoughtfully and sympathetically. The more effort one puts into understanding the poem the greater will be its reward. Since the creator of the poem is not known to us nor are we in direct touch with the subject, we will have to feel the pulse of the language, ideas, attitudes, and frames of reference that has enlivened the poem.

An interaction between the reader and the poet is a preliminary requirement. A poem is written economically and compressed in terms of words demanding careful attention to each part which has its own impact and meaning .The reader is not expected to sit back and let the poem or the poet knock at your door to make the poem explicable. The reader is supposed to delve deep and look for the nuances of language, imagery, rhythm, ideas, and other contributory factors.

Reading a poetry is no less an art than writing it. A great poem brings about a new and deeper meaning every time one reads it. It is necessary to keep in mind the following objectives while reading a poem to understand the full import of every word.

Allow the first reading to be straight and general in order to understand what the poem is about. A careful reading would lead you to the basic meaning and organization of the poem..
The title of the poem is a guiding factor. Also careful observation is required to recognize who the speaker is. The speaker can be the insider directly involved in the action or an outsider sitting on the fence watching events taking their turn.
While reading the poem the reader has to identify with the speaker and walk on a roller coaster along with the protagonist.
Understanding setting and circumstances in terms of when and where will provide to the reader a firm footing to hold on to while taking a ride through the poem along with the poet. Enjoy a walk with William Wordsworth on the highland to be haunted by the song of the ‘solitary lass’ or experience the atrocities of war in After Blenheim with Robert Southey.

Scanning the subject or theme properly will drive home the real passion of the poet. The subject is the general or specific topic and the theme being the idea or ideas that the poem explores.
It is imperative to interpret the tone of the poem. Does the poet want to share amusement, romance, bereavement, valor, delight, pity, lament or some other emotion with the reader?
Since words are the building blocks of every composition it would be required to look up a dictionary or encyclopedia to finally grasp the content. Get all the words, try to understand dramatic situations, follow the emotional clues. As long as you follow the poem with firmly based observations your reading of poetry will be an experience that is both exciting and rewarding.

Words are slippery by nature and tend to be ambiguous.
There comes the importance of understanding the difference between denotation and connotation. The former is a dictionary meaning establishing conventional correspondence between a sign and an idea while the latter brings out the emotional, psychological, or social overtones. However don’t be tempted to uncover unusual far fetched ideas or elements. It can mar all the fun of reading a poem.

The words may be symbolic. Symbolism is a mental shift from a word to a thing. It opens up a window for the reader to get a glimpse of the outside world.

To understand a poem will also require understanding the form in which the poem has been developed. A poem may be narrative, personal statement, speech, sonnet, couplet, or some other form. It may have different stanzas unified by a common idea. The reader has to take into consideration the poet’s limitation in terms of form.

A reader would appreciate a poem better if he learns to understand the poetic devices in such a way that they come to him spontaneously without much effort or pain. Without figurative language a poem will lose its glamour and grandiose. Rhetorical tools make literary work persuasive and forceful. Some of these device are:metaphor,simile,paradox,apostrophe,personification,synodoche,metonymy,synthesia, pun, hyperbole ,overstatement or understatement.

To be able to enjoy the spontaneity of the poem the reader pays careful attention to the punctuation. A poem is to be read sentence by sentence rather than reading line by line. The lines are sometimes en-jambed. Enjambment is the running over of the sense and grammatical structure from one verse line or couplet to the next without a punctuated pause. In an en-jambed or a ‘run on line’ a phrase, clause, or sentence is completed in the next line. Take the following lines from Keats’ ‘A Thing Of Beauty……..’
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
In the above example the second line continues to pause after ‘nothingness’ in the third line while the third line culminates into the fifth and the final line. It may be difficult for a beginner to understand the meaning in such a form of a poem. Just remember the subject – verb – object formula to ease the meaning out of the poem.
Sometimes an unusual word or word order may leave a reader baffled. Rephrasing the word order in your mind will do the trick. These anomalies appear in the poem to fulfill the poet’s need of limiting the verse in a particular meter or syllables.
Poets select words not only for content but also for sound. They arrange words in order to coincide sound with important ideas. They try to create measured sounds and give it a rhythm. Prosody is the word which brings to the fore the sound and rhythm. A reader needs to have a hang of metrics, versification or mechanics of verse to read the poem aloud and to sound it pleasing to the ears. How to voice poetry in terms of meter, feet, syllable, rhyme and rhythm calls for a separate detailed study.
A poem travels on the airy surge of The Wind and flows through a poet’s lips to awaken the sleeping earth and to en-kindle the dead thoughts of human being as Shelley meant in his ‘Ode to West Wind’. So read on.

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