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Thread: How To Analyse Poetry

  1. #1
    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    How To Analyse Poetry

    Recently there have been discussions as to how we analyse and interpret poetry (or should?) so I wanted to hear all your opinions on the subject as well as the methods you have been taught at school.
    ~
    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
    ~


  2. #2
    This was posted in another thread, I can't remember by who:

    Introduction to Poetry

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide
    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,
    or walk inside the poem's room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author's name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Billy Collins

  3. #3
    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    What a fitting way to respond, chmpman! A poem about how to study poetry!



    Love this part:
    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.
    ~
    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
    ~


  4. #4
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    How to analyze poetry? Jeepers creepers, I have no idea!
    Different poems by different poets can certainly range in difficulty of trying to understand what they intend on the purpose of the subject, progress, mood, and any moral of what they write. Just as writing poetry seems an undeniable art, reading poetry, attempting to understand it, and finding one's own meaning in it also seems an art. I say this only because a lot of poetry (and all art in general - paintings, sculptures, music, etc.) seems personalized by its readers, regaining a meaning that, perhaps, a poet did not intend, for better or worse; the fusion of art and the perceiving mind seem almost in unity when a reader feels the chills and goosebumps of a heart-staggering poem, inevitably smiles or the eyes well up with tears, gaining the greatest affinity and agreement with its perceived subject, even though the art appeared created by someone else.
    Somehow, I feel as though more poetry seems personalized than analyzed to find the original intention of the poet; suddenly, the reader identifies with the poet, thinking 'exactly my thoughts' or 'I could not have written that better myself.' In terms of analyzing, one can utilize a whole plethora of methods; nowadays, footnotes in books provide much help in referring to any allusions made in poetry, especially if the allusions refer to another art piece that the reader has not encountered.
    Sometimes, as odd as it sounds, while reading poetry, I will whisper it to myself to attempt noticing any rhythm or beat; with a rhythm or beat, a poet may write with certain words prominently noticed and with emphasis not as easily readable without hearing (such as in 'Kubla Khan' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or most poetry by Emily Dickinson).
    Just as a building may consist of several bricks, poems, of course, consist of many words - each word, frequently to the not-so-indolent poet, seems placed there for a specific reason, supporting the rest of the poem. Even if one word appears slightly out-of-place or awkward, except in cases for a desperate rhyme, I recommend questioning yourself of 'why use that word rather than this seemingly suitable synonym?' Perhaps the word has multiple other uses that refers to a subject in the poem, but also another something indirectly (almost always seen in poetry by Sylvia Plath).
    For finding the mood of a poem, try to notice any rhythm of syllables often noticed while reading aloud, and the overall use of adjectives and adverbs. In most poetry, sadness and humor seem the two most easy emotions and moods to detect, probably because they also seem the easiest to express. How can you notice this? Particularly by the word usage that will outline the subject; the specific word usage can even make a happy subject seem depressing, or a sad subject appear ironically joyful. Out of all of the poetry written, a lot of the first-generation and second-generation Romantics use a lot of easily-analyzed mood and emotion in their work.
    The moral, if any, seems the most difficult to find in a poem. Not considering myself a master, by any means, of reading poetry, and not wanting to sound too cliché, allow yourself to get involved with the poem; notice any characters, try to relate with them, think of what they think, and their physiognomy, just as in any common piece of literature, especially novels. Morals/ethics in poetry have always existed, particularly in a lot of ancient Greek poetry, but also in the Romantic and Realist eras, and it seems to have made a huge comeback, in my opinion - try reading Robert Frost, for example - full to the brim with morals and ethics.
    Again, this only outlines my frequent habit of reading poetry, and trying to analyze it. I just noticed how much I have typed, and I apologize in advance for its length, hoping I provided at least a little help for anyone seeking.

  5. #5
    still waiting to be found amanda_isabel's Avatar
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    how to analyze a poem????

    well, our english teacher last year said we had to read the entire poem, then go bac to the first stanza. in the first stanza read the first two lines and figure out a connection between them, then connect the two lines with the third and connect them and so on until you get to the end of the stanza. you already have an interpretation for the first stanza. do the same with the second and when you're through with the second stanza connect it with the first. repeat the process till you finish the entire poem.

    it makes sense but i don't really follow it step-by-step.
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    I've always analyzed poetry in this simple way:
    -mmm...the poem has a passive voice here...i wonder what it's function is?
    -look, the author has weird syntax here...i wonder how that changes the meaning?
    -mmm...look at this statement: 'and such as were made prayers in the name of Christs, that shall judge all men, for his soul's tranquility'...doesn't this translate into something?
    -look...it's 'mute Ghost'...and not mute Jews...isn't this odd? How does that relate to the rest of the poem? Why is this important?
    -Is this a literal light? mmm...

    And so on...

  7. #7
    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ktd222
    I've always analyzed poetry in this simple way:
    -mmm...the poem has a passive voice here...i wonder what it's function is?
    -look, the author has weird syntax here...i wonder how that changes the meaning?
    -mmm...look at this statement: 'and such as were made prayers in the name of Christs, that shall judge all men, for his soul's tranquility'...doesn't this translate into something?
    -look...it's 'mute Ghost'...and not mute Jews...isn't this odd? How does that relate to the rest of the poem? Why is this important?
    -Is this a literal light? mmm...

    And so on...
    Thank you very much, ktd. It is very nice of you to provide an example as well!

    Recently, I have realised that I usually read to get a general understanding of a poem and only after I achieve this, I can go back and concentrate on individual lines and references... but I have to admit, if I don't like the initial reading, I am very likely to cast the poem aside (unless it is part of my studies).

    Do you like reading the commentaries by critics on poems?
    ~
    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
    ~


  8. #8
    I read the poem. Then, I read the poem. Then, I read the poem again. Then I go do something else. Then I read the poem again. I repeat this sequence until I start to feel I understand the poem - then I DEFINITELY read the poem again.

    When I say 'read', I mean 'read aloud' - even if only in a whisper (declaiming on the bus can be embarrassing ) - poems are meant to be spoken, not just silently absorbed. Poetry has texture when it passes the tongue and lips - you can't get this from silent study. If you can, read it ALOUD, rather than merely aloud. You can't appreciate the rhythm of a poem without speaking it IMHO.

    After all of this, I (sometimes) read what other people say about it and often realise that I've missed huge chunks of meaning - but I also usually find I've come to know the poem intimately and have gleaned at least some of the 'accepted' interpretations, as well as a whole host of my own impressions, which may or may not be shared by others.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Xamonas Chegwe
    I read the poem. Then, I read the poem. Then, I read the poem again. Then I go do something else. Then I read the poem again. I repeat this sequence until I start to feel I understand the poem - then I DEFINITELY read the poem again.

    When I say 'read', I mean 'read aloud' - even if only in a whisper (declaiming on the bus can be embarrassing ) - poems are meant to be spoken, not just silently absorbed. Poetry has texture when it passes the tongue and lips - you can't get this from silent study. If you can, read it ALOUD, rather than merely aloud. You can't appreciate the rhythm of a poem without speaking it IMHO.

    After all of this, I (sometimes) read what other people say about it and often realise that I've missed huge chunks of meaning - but I also usually find I've come to know the poem intimately and have gleaned at least some of the 'accepted' interpretations, as well as a whole host of my own impressions, which may or may not be shared by others.
    Obviously I agree about reading some poems outloud as well.

  10. #10
    Springing Riesa's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Scheherazade
    Do you like reading the commentaries by critics on poems?
    Occasionally the commentary of certain 'poem of the week' critics can make me want to shoot myself or them.
    "Don't matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house, they are company and don't let me catch you remarking on their ways like you were so high and mighty."

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by ktd222
    Obviously I agree about reading some poems outloud as well.
    It's not at all obvious to a lot of people. Sad but true.

    Analysing a poem without reading it aloud is like analysing a symphony from the manuscript - you miss so much.

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    Well, I think chipman got it down pretty well: a poem is not about trying to find the "hidden message." If it were, it would be like a riddle, and it would lose all its value as soon as you discovered the answer, as happens with any riddle. But you can read a poem hundreds of times, analyze the hell out of it and still love it. An analysis of a poem shouldn't come down to "in this poem, Wordsworth laments the death of his dog when he was a child" because this essentially implies that if you don't know anything about Wordsworth or his dead dog the poem has no value whatsoever. Ultimately poetry is a form of art, and art is there to celebrate itself. In the words of Oscar Wilde, "all art is quite useless." It's not really the place of a poem to preach, as something like an essay is much better suited for that. Of course, many poems do have some sort of preaching message, like Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," but the central point of the poem is the language itself: the fascinating thing about it, and the thing that makes it a truly great poem, is that through the usage of nothing other than words, Owen brings forth an incredibly dark, depressing, stifling, and hopeless atmosphere, and therein lies the beauty.

    It's always good to be able to analyze poetry on a technical level as well. For example, to stick with "Dulce et Decorum Est," take a look at the syllables: I bet you'd never noticed before that this poem is in fact in iambic pentameter, and uses the typical system of poetic feet, which organizes the syllables into pairs in which the first syllable is unstressed, and the second stressed. Now, here come those little ingenious things that only those who really analyze it closely notice: take a look at the word "coughing" on the second line. Because by the iambic pentameter of pairs in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed, this forces you to put the accent on the second syllable of the word, so that you end up with "coughING," which, and here you get to see the subtle genius of Owen, creates a very realistic coughing effect. Owen uses the iambic pentameter again to his advantage: look at the second stanza, in particularly the words "fumbling" and "stumbling." With the iambic pentameter, both of these words result in lines with 11 syllables that end in unaccented syllables which force the reader to fumble and stumble when reading them. It's worth studying poetry to see these sort of things, as you gain an even deeper appreciation for what the poet is doing: it's sort of like, while you can enjoy the sound of music, you never understand the full extent of a musician's genius until you learn to play an instrument and you learn music theory. So with poetry it's always good to see all the technicalities.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Scheherazade
    Thank you very much, ktd. It is very nice of you to provide an example as well!

    Recently, I have realised that I usually read to get a general understanding of a poem and only after I achieve this, I can go back and concentrate on individual lines and references... but I have to admit, if I don't like the initial reading, I am very likely to cast the poem aside (unless it is part of my studies).

    Do you like reading the commentaries by critics on poems?
    I've read a lot of commentary critics on poems over the years. And not many commentaries about a single poem is ever the same. I've also got, which I think a lot of people here have, an Anthology book with a section on how to study poetry. And that is what I use as a basis to get into a poem.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Xamonas Chegwe
    It's not at all obvious to a lot of people. Sad but true.

    Analysing a poem without reading it aloud is like analysing a symphony from the manuscript - you miss so much.
    No kidding. Especially when it comes to people like E.E. Cummings - you're hopelessly lost if you don't read him out loud. My favorite Cummings poems are "she being Brand" and "ygUDuh" for that very reason: with "she being Brand" you can have so much fun reading it out loud by constantly changing the speed at which you read it as Cummings indicates, and "ygUDuh" is just a brilliant and hilarious interpretation of drunken colloquial speech. I didn't know what "ygUDuh" even said until I read it out loud, and then I was just cracking up.

  15. #15
    (In reply to post #12 above)

    Very valid points super. But I would take issue with a few points in your analysis of DEDE. This is one of my favourite poems, which I delight in having the excuse to post in it's entirity.

    Wilfred Owen

    Dulce Et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

    GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.
    You are not meant to pronounce 'coughing' wiith the stress on the final syllable - it's a trochaic substitution - the stress falls on 'cough', causing a break in the rhythm, as you suggest, but NOT through an unnatural phrasing of the word. Owen uses several other substitutions, trochaic, spondaic and pyrrhic in this poem.

    As an example, in the line, "GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling," Owen uses spondees in the first 4 syllables which are all stressed; a pyrrhic substitution in '-sy of'; and ends with a female ending in fumbling - the unstressed '-ling' falling off the tongue. All of these are long established poetic forms - Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, and any other poet that has ever used iambic pentameter has employed them. They augment the simplicity of 5 regular iambic feet, adding colour and movement.

    I quite agree that Owen employs these tricks to brilliant effect in this poem - but I suspect that there is far more going on than you realise, given your last post.

    For me though, ultimately, the real beauty of this poem is the way that it sends shivers of horror down my spine and brings tears to my eyes every time I read it and the way that this effect is amplified tenfold whenever I read (or hear it read) aloud. You can analyse why it works till your blue in the face but in the end, Owen's skill lies in far more than technical ability and following rules - it depends on the inbuilt instinct that a true poet has for when to break those rules - that can't be taught.

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