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SOME GUIDELINES TO HELP YOU READ A POEM





At the risk of stating the obvious, a poem requires a different approach and
different reading strategies from those you use when tackling prose. This statement could
be re-phrased as a question: what makes poetry different from prose? How do we know
we are reading poetry and not prose (or drama, for that matter)? The answer has to do
with form in its most basic sense: we know what we are reading from the way a text
appears on the page, the typographical distribution of words, lines, groups of lines. Poetry
looks different from prose, it has a different form. You will probably notice something else
about a poem: not only does it have a distinctive appearance on the page, the language
also draws attention to itself as being different from that of prose or everyday speech. The
language of a poem will have a certain metre or rhythm; it will probably create patterns of
sound through the use of rhyme, alliteration, assonance and which will link together
different groups of lines. Also, you may notice an unusual or complex organization of
words that disturb familiar syntax and which demand attentive reading. A poem will thus,
generally speaking, make its structure (visual and linguistic) rather more explicit than
prose and this structure, or form, will be more obviously connected to meaning than in
other genres. In other words, the structure - the "how" of a work - will be very closely
connected to what a poem "is about", its possible meaning or meanings.
Firstly, some practical suggestions to guide your reading and interpretation of a
poem:

1. Read through the text at least once to get an overall sense of what it is about;
long, or particularly complex poems will require more than one initial reading.

2. As with prose, beginnings (including titles) are important. They can be expository,
introductory, imagistically or linguistically striking. They will always be related to
the poem as a whole, whether thematically, structurally or linguistically.

3. Look for 'pairs' or structures of doubleness. These can be suggestive of tension,
conflict, opposition OR they can be mutually reinforcing, complementary.
Frequently, a pair will be both as in light/dark, life/death, innocence/experience.
For William Blake such pairs co-existed in irresolvable, and necessary, tension.

4. Look for words, or arrangements of language that seem significant or unusual.
These will often be in the form of unfamiliar syntax, or repetitions, or equivalences,
or placed in a prominent position such as at the end of a line or beginning of a
stanza. Obvious things to look for are individual words or clusters of words, sound
or metrical patterns.

5. Once your reading has led you to identify what seem to be the poem's key
features, try to
relate these details to possible larger issues or themes. How do these features
contribute
to your understanding of the poems subject matter?

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6. Remember: you are reading and analysing a poem. Focus on the text itself and
theeffects produced by the features you have identified. Always support an
interpretation with direct reference to the text. (Adapted from PECK, J ohn &
COYLE, Martin. Practical Criticism. How to Write a Critical
Appreciation.Macmillan Study Guides. London: Macmillan, 1995).


* The Norton Anthology includes at the end of each iof its volumes an
extenssive glossary on Poetic Forms and Literary Terminology. The more
familiar and conversant you become witht hese terms, the more you will enrich
your response to literary texts.