How Do I Read Poetry?

In order to enjoy discovering the meaning of poetry, you must approach it with a positive attitude – a willingness to understand. Poetry invites your creative participation. More than any other form of literature, poetry allows you as reader to inform its meaning as you brig your own knowledge and experience to bear in interpreting images, motifs, and symbols.
Begin by reading the poem aloud – or at least by sounding the words aloud in your mind. Rhyme and rhythm work in subtle ways to emphasize key words and clarify meaning. As you read, go slowly, paying careful attention to every word and examining again and again any difficult parts.

Get the Literal Meaning First

Before you begin interpreting a poem, you must sure you understand the literal meaning. Because on of the delights of poetry stems from the unusual ways in which poets put words together, you may sometimes need to straighten out syntax. For instance, Thomas Hardy writes,

And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?

The usual way of expressing that question would be something like this:

And why does the best hope sown not bloom?

Occasionally you may need to fill in words that the poet deliberately omitted through ellipsis. When Walt Whitman writes,

But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead,

we can tell that he means “the deck[on which] my captain lies,/Fallen cold and dead.”

Pay close attention to punctuation; it can provide clues to meaning. But do not be distressed if you discover that poets(like Emily Dickinson and Stevie Smith) sometimes use punctuation in strange ways or (like e.e. cummings) not at all. Along with the deliberate fracturing of syntax, this unusual use of punctuation comes under the heading of poetic license.
Always you must look up any words you do not know – as well as any familiar words that fail to make complete sense in context. When you read this line from Whitman,

Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,

the word “blows” seems a strange choice. If you consult your dictionary, you will discover an unusual definition of blows: “masses of blossoms,”, a meaning which fits exactly.

Make Association for Meaning

Once you understand the literal meaning of a poem, you can begin to expand that meaning into an interpretation. As you do so, keep asking yourself questions: Who is the speaker? Who is being addressed? What is the message? What do images add? What do symbols suggest? How does it all fit together?
When, for instance, Emily Dickinson in the following lines envisions “Rowing in Eden”, how do you respond to this image?

Rowing in Eden –
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor – Tonight –
In Thee!

Can she mean literally rowing in Eden? Not unless you picture a lake in the Garden, which is, of course, a possibility. What do you associate with Eden? Complete bliss? Surely. Innocence, perhaps – the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall? Or their lustful sensuality after the Fall? Given the opening lines of the poem,

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

one fitting response might be that “Rowing in Eden” suggests paddling through sexual innocence in a far from chase anticipation of reaching the port of ecstasy: to “Moor – Tonight -/In Thee!”
Sometimes poems, like stores and plays, contain allusions (indirect references to famous persons, events, places, or to other works of literature) that add to the meaning. Some allusions are fairly easy to perceive. When Eliot’s Prufrock, in his famous love song, observes,

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,

We know that he declines to compare himself with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a character who also had difficulty taking decisive action. Some allusions, though, are more subtle. You need to know these lines from Ernest Dowson,

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine,
There fell thy shadow, Cynara!

In order to catch the allusion to them in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow.

Many allusions you can simply look up. If you are puzzled by Swinburne’s line

Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean,

your dictionary will identify the Galilean as Jesus Christ. For less well- known figures or events, you may need to consult a dictionary of Biblical characters, a dictionary of classical mythology, or a good encyclopedia.
Learning to understand poetry – like learning to understand imaginative literature – involves asking yourself questions, then speculation and researching until you come up with satisfying answers.

Critical Questions for Reading Poetry

1. Can you paraphrase the poem?
2. Who is the speaker in the poem? How would you describe this persona?
3. What is the speaker’s tone? Which words reveal this tone? Is the poem perhaps ironic?
4. What heavily connotative words are used? What words have unusual or special meanings? Are any words or phrases repeated? If so, why? Which words do you need to look up?
5. What images does the poet use? How do the images relate to one another? Do these images form a unified pattern (a motif) throughout the poem?
6. What figures of speech are used? How do they contribute to the tone and meaning of the poem?
7. Are there any symbols? What do they mean? Are they universal symbols, or do they arise from the particular context of this poem?
8. Is the occasion for or the setting of the poem important in understanding its meaning? If so, why?
9. What is the theme (the central idea) of this poem? Can you state it in a single sentence?
10. How important is the role of sound effects, such as rhyme and rhythm? How do they affect tone and meaning?
11. How important is the contribution of form, such as rhyme scheme and line arrangement? How does the form influence the overall effect of the poem?

Source: Literature and the Writing Process: Second Edition

How to Read a Poem:

1. Who is the speaker in this poem? What kind of person is he/she?

2. To whom is he/she speaking? In other words, describe the speaker's audience.

3. What is the situation and setting in time (era) and place?

4. What is the purpose of the poem?

5. State the poem's centralidea or theme in a single sentence.

6. Indicate and explain (if you can) an allusions. Do the allusions share a common idea?

7. Describe the structure of the poem. What is its meter and form? (Scan it.)

8. How do the structure of the poem and its content relate?

9. What is the tone of the poem? How is it achieved?

10. Notice the poem's diction. Discuss any words which seem especially "well chosen".

11. Are there any predominate images in the poem?

12. Note metaphors, similes, and personification. Discuss their effect.

13. Recognize and discuss examples of paradox, overstatement (hyperbole), and understatement (litotes).

14. Explain any symbols. Is the poem allegorical?

15. Explain the significance of any sound repetition (alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc.)

16. Discuss whether or not you think the poem is successful.

Poetry in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Robert Burns - Comin Thro' the Rye