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Thread: Tips on analysing poetry

  1. #1

    Tips on analysing poetry

    I am keen on improving my poetic analysis skills and am wondering if anyone has any tips to sharpen my eye on analysing poetry.

  2. #2
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    There are a lot of books out there that cover all of the basics. I recently sent a PM to someone that mentioned most of the major textbooks, as well as some cheapter alternatives. I'll copy and paste the list here:

    Perrine's Sound and Sense -- In many ways, the archetypal intro to poetry. It's the oldest out there and still one of the most widely used. I also find it incredibly stuffy and old-fashioned with too much focus on the end-chapter problems rather than teaching. So I would skip this one.

    An Introduction to Poetry by XJ Kennedy and Dana Gioia - Written by two fine practitioners of modern verse, I think this is the best "classic textbook" on poetry in terms of it balancing teaching and end-of-chapter problems. If you really take the time to work through the book and answer the questions, you'll definitely learn something. It's also very well organized and covers every major aspect of poetry with great lucidity.

    Reading Poetry: An Introduction by Furniss & Bath - I just recently read this. This book will make a good book to read once you've finished a more basic introduction as it's really more about the critical schools of reading poetry rather than those of writing it. But there's a lot of great information and it really does an excellent job of taking you through various schools of thought on subjects ranging from syntax to meter to metaphor and various contexts.

    Poems, Poets, Poetry by Helen Vendler - Along with Christopher Ricks, Helen Vendler is our best living poetry critic, and this is her excellent intro book. Vendler is able to (and teaches you to) read poetry with both an incredibly microscopic (in terms of breaking down the language) and macroscopic (in terms of structure) view. But I also feel this is a book best left for after a more traditional intro. But you will learn a lot from it, and really anything Vendler writes.

    The Norton Introduction to Poetry - In a way, this is meant as a companion to the famous Norton Anthology of Poetry, as it's really more about understanding poetry from the angle of reading the great poets. It's a solid book, but I still prefer most of the others I've listed.

    Poetry: An Introduction by Michael Meyer - Another solid intro book, but one in which I think is bested by most of the others listed above. The great benefit of this is that Michael Meyer is a more engaging writer than many of the others on the list.

    The Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by Mason and Nims - One thing I look for in each intro book is what that book covers that others don't, and this one does has some interesting chapter on things like its chapter on "Less is more" and "vowels and consonants," but most of the usual subjects show up as well and I feel they're covered better in other efforts.

    Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren - Not really an intro, per say, but probably the greatest tome of close reading that has ever been written. It's just filled with great readings of great poems from beginning to end, and if you're the type to learn by example, then this is a superb book you'll return to over and over again.

    Now, those would compromise what I would call the "textbooks," as in books you'd probably be assigned if you studied poetry in college. They're all rather expensive as well, and many are leery of spending that kind of money on just books. For the money conscious, I'd say get one of the regular intros (my preference is the Kennedy/Gioia) and save up for the Vendler, Brooks/Warren, and Furniss/Bath and don't worry about the rest.

    If you don't want to spend that kind of money on textbooks at all, there are also a lot of more informal books out there that are much cheaper yet still very helpful. I'm especially thinking by those written by Mary Oliver (A Poetry Handbook, Rules for the Dance), Wooldridge (Poemcrazy), Kim Addonizio (The Poet's Companion, Ordinary Genius), and Stephen Fry (The Ode Less Traveled). Most of these are more general introductions to rhythm and form, of which I find the Fry the most helpful (it helps the Fry is a comedic genius).

    After you absorb what books like these have to learn there are more in-depth books such as those by Derek Attridge (Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction, Paul Fussell (Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). I'd also recommend most everything by Annie Finch, who is a wonderful, down-to-earth poet and critic. I'm very much looking forward to her A Poet's Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry.

    One final suggestion: once you familiarize yourself with the basics, definitely try to get around to reading the great critics like Empson, Richards, Frye, Vendler, and Ricks, as they'll teach you as much through their reading and thinking as anyone else will. If you love Shakespeare's sonnets, Keats' odes, Dickinson, Yeats, Wallace Stevens, or Seamus Heaney I'd highly recommend Vendler's books on them.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  3. #3
    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elihu5991 View Post
    I am keen on improving my poetic analysis skills and am wondering if anyone has any tips to sharpen my eye on analysing poetry.
    I used to use SNISST when teaching about poetry.

    S = story. what's the poem telling you about on a basic level. what's the story?

    N = narrator. Who's narrating the poem? This can be significant is it the poet narrator or someone else? Deciding this can give you a perspective upon what the poem is saying and why. For example, Anne Hathaway by Carol Anne Duffy is narrated by Anne Hathaway, not the poet, which gives it more emotiona impact.

    I = Imagery. What images is the poet using and why? What effect do they have upon the poem? Eliot reinforces the sense of decline in The Wasteland with images of rubbish. There is a similar sense in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, though this is more personal to the character.

    S = sound effects. What sound effects is the poet using and what do they contribute to the feel of the images? The use of s and sh are reminiscent of the sea in Island Man by Grace Nichols

    S = structure. What form is the poet using, if any? What effect does this have upon the poem? Dylan Thomas' Villanelle form in Do Not Go Gentle reinforces and builds to a climax.

    T = tone. All the above elements contribute to the mood of the poem - loving, upbeat, depressed etc. If you've sorted out the other aspects of the poem, then this should make sense. Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken has a complex tone which informs the reader as to how to understand the poem.

  4. #4
    Original Poster Buh4Bee's Avatar
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    That;s really awesome,Paul. At least for a novice.

  5. #5
    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    I agree: Paul's formula is a great approach.

    My personal approach, not as technical, is read and reread the poem and make yourself aware at what jumps out at you. Is there a line or group of lines that catches your eye? Is it the sound of the poem? Is it a character in the poem? The theme? Start thinking/writing about why it jumps out at you: this is the entrance gate into the poem. Once you have this you start exploring the other aspects of the poem as they connect to this point. Soon you will have a jumble of thoughts about this poem, and then it is just a matter of turning this jumble into coherent points.

    Confused? Don't blame you.

    Here's an example. Take Shelley's famous sonnet:
    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away".
    What immediately jumps out at me in this poem is the idea of levels. First is the narrative level - how far the reader is removed from the subject. King <-- sculptor <-- statue <-- inscription and remains <-- traveler <-- poet <-- reader.

    So I would muse on this idea for awhile and find how it connects to the idea of how this connects with the levels used in excavation to determine how much time has passed since an artifact existed. Ah, Time! A key factor in this poem, the great leveler! &c.

    I much prefer the organic flow of poetic analysis - but that's just me.
    I wrote a poem on a leaf and it blew away...

  6. #6
    Seven Types of Ambiguity
    by William Empson

    If you're interested in unmasking human truths,
    experiential reality behind composed texts.
    Poetry, after all, is a human story in minimalism.
    "You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same."

    --Jonathan Davis

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    I used to use SNISST when teaching about poetry.

    S = story. what's the poem telling you about on a basic level. what's the story?

    N = narrator. Who's narrating the poem? This can be significant is it the poet narrator or someone else? Deciding this can give you a perspective upon what the poem is saying and why. For example, Anne Hathaway by Carol Anne Duffy is narrated by Anne Hathaway, not the poet, which gives it more emotiona impact.

    I = Imagery. What images is the poet using and why? What effect do they have upon the poem? Eliot reinforces the sense of decline in The Wasteland with images of rubbish. There is a similar sense in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, though this is more personal to the character.

    S = sound effects. What sound effects is the poet using and what do they contribute to the feel of the images? The use of s and sh are reminiscent of the sea in Island Man by Grace Nichols

    S = structure. What form is the poet using, if any? What effect does this have upon the poem? Dylan Thomas' Villanelle form in Do Not Go Gentle reinforces and builds to a climax.

    T = tone. All the above elements contribute to the mood of the poem - loving, upbeat, depressed etc. If you've sorted out the other aspects of the poem, then this should make sense. Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken has a complex tone which informs the reader as to how to understand the poem.
    Brilliant, Paul. I would love to be your student. It seems you are not teaching poetic forms and sounds as above everything else or being independent from the sense of the poem and the intent of its writer.
    "You laugh at me because I'm different, I laugh at you because you're all the same."

    --Jonathan Davis

  8. #8
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    I used to use SNISST when teaching about poetry.
    A nice mnemonic shortcut, but it seems terribly abbreviated a bit random; no mention of metaphor and other figurative language? Sound effects also seem much less important than, say, agency and syntax, since not all poems employ sound effects, and those that do are usually rather brief. I would also think that tone goes along with analyzing the speaker ("narrator"), and I don't like even considering "story" because it seems to assume that all lyric poetry is innately narrative. Hard to analyze Red Wheelbarrow in terms of story or narrator. Structure, however, is an incredibly broad term, and shouldn't just apply to fixed forms.

    Something like: Structure Speaker Tone Imagery Figurative Linguistic Spacetime (SSTIFLS) would seem better (where "spacetime" can substitute for "story", as poems can discuss both space and time and either develop a narrative in those confines, or anything else. Something like Red Wheelbarrow doesn't really have a story, but it does have a sense of space of time in how the imagery is revealed. One could also talk about contexts in terms of events implied before the poem begins; Vendler discusses the importance of this in Poems, Poets, Poetry)...

    Quote Originally Posted by miyako73 View Post
    Seven Types of Ambiguity
    by William Empson
    A deserved classic, certainly. Along the lines of classic criticism:

    Practical Criticism by IA Richards and Selected Prose by TS Eliot (a major impact on Empson)
    Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  9. #9
    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Thanks Miyako. It's very kind ofyou to say so.

    No system is completely adequate, but I found the mnemonic useful, and I would hiss Snisst at them, when they went for the exam. It was memorable at least.

    I included metaphor and similie within imagery, and different poems have different emphases. Sound effects were often a minor addition. As for story, I did qualify that with scene, but then nothing is perfect. As for the Red Wheelbarrow, I would still use this system with students and get them to speculate upon the story/scene. I think it would be a good exercise to complete.

  10. #10
    Registered User Darcy88's Avatar
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    I just try to read it and feel it, the impressions, meanings, ect. When I think about poetry it just effs it up.

  11. #11
    TobeFrank Paulclem's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darcy88 View Post
    I just try to read it and feel it, the impressions, meanings, ect. When I think about poetry it just effs it up.
    You're an advanced reader though Darcy. Younger people and those without the experience just need a way in.

    It's a bit like maths - easy and obvious to those who know it - obscure and difficult to those who don't.

  12. #12
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    I would hiss Snisst at them,
    You could sneeze SSTIFLL at them!

    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    As for the Red Wheelbarrow, I would still use this system with students and get them to speculate upon the story/scene.
    Not very poststructuralist of you.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

  13. #13
    First of all, I'd get them to write down all the facts of the poem. If there doesn't appear to be an obvious theme, like with The Red Wheelbarrow, get them to put that aside for the moment.

    Then see if the poem is a "conventional" poem. Does it have things they would expect from a poem- a regular rhyme scheme? Discussing a beautiful image? About love? Write down all the ways this poem is conventional but also the ways in which it is not conventional. A vague argument will soon shape.

    Then start looking at the tone of the poem. Who is the speaker? Are they addressing the poem to us or to someone else? Write down everything about the narration.

    Back to The Red Wheelbarrow and other poems whose meaning is not apparant. So, we've worked out that it's about a wheelbarrow. In the "conventions" stage, the student will have noted that it doesn't appear to be about an emotion, as one would expect from a poem. The closest thing we have to an emotion is "So much depends on...". But what depends on it? Why choose a wheelbarrow? And why is it set out all funny?

    It is okay to state that the poem's message or theme is not clear, if the student elaborates on why. Saying that they can't find a theme is better than making an implausible guess.

    It all boils down to "What in this poem looks/sounds like a normal poem?" and "What in this poem is unusual and not how I expected?" Ironically, the more simplistic their view of what a poem is, the more they will have to write about and the more they will pick up on the "strange" bits which a seasoned poem reader may take for granted (such as a lack of a rhyming scheme).

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem View Post
    As for the Red Wheelbarrow, I would still use this system with students and get them to speculate upon the story/scene. I think it would be a good exercise to complete.
    It's also a good idea to get them used to the idea that not every poem is obviously "about" something, such as love or death. 99% of the time, the poet is not trying to trick them. If he wanted it to be about love or death, he would have put clues there for the reader to uncover.

    Students need to trust their instincts and not see the poem as a trick or something that only very clever people will realise. Even if they can't work out why they feel a certain way about a poem, they should trust that feeling and explore it further.

  15. #15
    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    ^ Red Wheelbarrow is certainly one of those poems that's difficult to analyze with traditional methods, and it's a good piece for teaching that not all poems are about "ideas". It's also a superb piece for teaching that form has something to say on its own, because the way WC Williams breaks the lines in that piece is far from random, and the more one looks for patterns and interruptions of patterns in that piece, the more brilliant it seems.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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