How to Read Poetry? A Guide to Understand and Analysis Poetry.

How to Read Poetry

How to Read Poetry? What is the meaning of poetry?

Ours is an age of literary theories. The overflow of the theories has made the whole literary atmosphere somewhat chaotic. The scholars of a particular theory believe that their theory is the only theory capable of interpreting a literary text adequately, the other theories are inadequate. The scholars of different theories are in hard competition to popularize their respective theories. As a result, the market is flooded with theoretical books which are almost beyond the aptitude of most of the beginners of literature. In this situation, what should be the right approach to poetry for a beginner? Perhaps he or she should concentrate on the practical purpose of reading a poem. The purpose of reading a poem is to get its total meaning. The total meaning of a poem depends on several components of the poem, it does not depend on the words only. In fact, the major part of the meaning of a poem lies in other elements rather than in the words used in it. For this reason, a student must learn to identify whether the poem is subjective or objective, whether the meaning is suggested or stated. He must also know how to recognise the type of diction, the figures of speech, the images, the sound and sense, the genre or form, the mood, the voice, the tone, the metre, the rhythm, the rhyme, the structure, the allusions and references, the age of writing, the myth (if any) and the repetitions. Interpreting a poem from an overview impression without a threadbare analysis, and then be complacent, is as meaningless as searching for the elephant by five blind men.

In the context of Bangladesh there is a dogged trend among the teachers and the learners to belittle a poem by looking for the thematic dimension only. There is no denying the fact that appreciation of poetry is essentially multilayered.

Language of Poetry:

Poets make a special use of language. Generally, they select soft sounding, lucid words. However, sometimes when the context requires, hard words are also selected to produce a masculine effect. Secondly, archaic words are used to add dignity to the situation of the poem. The common archaic words are: ‘ye’ for you, ‘thee’ for you, ‘thy’ for you or your, thou for you, ‘doth’ for does, and so on. Thirdly, the words are arranged in lines according to a certain measurement. To match a particular metre of a line, sometimes, words are made shorter by omitting a letter. This is known as contraction. In English poetry, “e’en” for even, “e’er” for ever, “grow’st” for growest, “that’s” for that is’. “will’t” for will it, ” t ” for it, and the like, are very commonly used contractions. Then, to make some special effect, sometimes, informal words are also used. Beginners should be acquainted with this special use of language.

Subjective or objective:

A subjective poem presents the poet’s personal life but in an objective poem the poet’s personal life remains absent. It is a long run debate whether in a poem the poet speaks about himself or he creates a character and makes him speak. To take it for granted that the first person speaker in a poem is the poet himself, is to choose a wrong way of interpretation. In most cases, the preconception that the poet is the speaker leads a student to misinterpret the poem. Such an interpretation misses the intended meaning of the poem. For example, if the speaker in Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is taken as Shakespeare himself, it will not be only dishonour to the most objective writer but also it will be a grave mistake. For, the poet certainly did not want to demean himself by revealing his own homosexual relation in his sonnets. Morcover, there is no record to prove that Shakespeare ever had such a relation with anybody. The poem suggests the psychological truth of love between two members of the same sex by creating a first person ‘I-speaker and it has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s personal life. Similarly, if Tennyson is taken as Ulysses or Browning is taken as the Duke of Ferrara, it would be a great blunder to the desired meaning of the poems. For this reason, a student must not mistake the first person speaker for the poet himself. He has to remember that a poem is a work of art; it is not a medium of personal revelation. A good poem written by a great mind always deals with universal truth. The poet suggests the truth by impersonating a character who is not necessarily the poet himself.

However, there are poets who are very near to the characters that they create. For example, the romantic and devotional poets are generally believed to be subjective. Expression of personal experiences is said to be one of the aspects of romanticism. William Wordsworth is usually identified with the speakers of most of his poems. The pathos at the loss of childhood in his poems is often considered his own. But let us see what he says about the function of a poet in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads”.

“Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative … The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of thing; between this and the Biographer and historian, there are a thousand.”

His utterance is clear. Poetry is neither an autobiography nor a biography; it is neither individual nor particular. It deals with general truths. It is clearer when he says that a poet ” … should consider himself as in the situation of a translator”. The poet does not express his own experiences; he translates his observations which are true to all human beings. So, it is a mistake to say point blank that Wordsworth speaks about his own sense of loss in his poetry. Sense of the loss of childhood is a general truth. Wordsworth harps on this universal truth in his major works through the first person speaker. Similar is the case with John Keats. The ‘T-speaker’ in Keats’s poems are usually considered as Keats himself. But let us remember what he says about own art. In a letter to his brother, he claims that he has ‘negative capability’ which, he explains as the ability of a poet to keep himself “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. So, if the speaker’s acceptance of death in “To Autumn” is identified as Keats’ own acceptance of death, it would be a gross misinterpretation of the poem. The fact is poets create a persona-a mask, and convey the truth through him. Therefore, before saying that the poet speaks about himself in his poem, a student must think twice. In English there are very few poems in which a writer speaks about himself without any disguise.

Statement and Suggestion:

Poetry is for suggesting meaning as prose is for stating it. A beginner should know that an implied meaning is more effective than a meaning stated clearly. For this reason, he/she has to know how a poet suggests meanings in a poem. Suggestions are conveyed by the use of diction, figures of speech, images, symbols, allusions, references, myths, sound effects, stanza patterns, repetitions, etc.


The selection of words is called diction. A word may have denotation or literal meaning; it may also have connotative or associative meaning. A poet chooses some words that have more than their literal or usual meanings. The connotative meanings of the words help him imply more than usual meanings in little space. For example, the word professional literally means a person in a particular profession but its connotation is ‘skilled’. The word ‘floats’ in William Wordsworth’s poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” literally means move on the surface of water but the poet makes a connotative use of it and suggests anxiety-free’. ‘Spring’ in Keats’ “To Autumn” literally means a season of the year but its connotative meaning is ‘freshness’ or ‘youth’.

Figures of speech, images, symbols:

The most common means of suggestion in poetry are figures of speech. A student of poetry has to be able to identify them and their intended significances. Among the figures-simile, metaphor, conceit, metonymy and synecdoche are frequently used to suggest the desired meanings. Apart from suggesting meanings, the figures of speech create puzzlement, interest and pleasure which are the essence of poetic art. They create special poetic effect. Reading a understanding of that effect is just wasting time. poem without

Allusions, References and Myth:

Sometimes poets use allusions, references and myths in order to suggest their ideas. Allusions, references and myths help the poets avoid direct statement and suggest the desired meanings obliquely. So a beginner has to learn how to identify allusions, references and myths. They may have to go beyond the text and read some relevant materials to discover their significances. For example, Gray suggests the honesty, courage and stoicism of villagers by using allusions to Hampden, Milton and Cromwell in his “Elegy”. In “Ulysses”, Tennyson uses the Greek myth of Odysseus to suggest the Victorian spirit.

Sense and Sound:

The sense in a poem refers to its meaning. The sound in it refers to the music that accompanies the meaning. A poem is a musical composition that blends a meaning with music. The musical sound in a poem is created by the use of metre, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia etc. The regular rise and fall of accents are managed by the use of metres. We do not use the same scale of our vocal cords to express our anger, grief, command, love, etc. Poets are very sensitive to the effect of sound. A good poet uses sounds harmonious to the senses. For example, a heart rending grief requires a long, lingering sound effect; anger requires high pitched short sound; an expression of soft feelings requires a smooth moving touchy sound. All these are created by the proper use of metre, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhyme and the like. Sometimes, poets repeat a verse line to repeat the same sound to emphasise a particular sense. The sound effect is very important because it does not only help suggest the meaning, but also impart significant charm to a poem. A reader of poetry has to develop his understanding to recognise the harmony between sense and sound for the full grasp of the meaning.

Stanza Pattern, Rhyme and Structure:

The stanza pattern, rhyme scheme and structure of a poem are also to be closely studied because they contribute significantly to the meaning of a poem. The stanza form of a poem is fitted to a particular rhyme scheme so that the sound matches the sense. When they are not fitted, a student has to understand that the poet has done that intentionally to imply certain meaning. In other words, the disharmony between the stanzas and rhyme scheme is also important to the meaning. Similarly, the total number of lines and the structure of the poem are also important to the meaning of the poem. A beginner should have a comprehensive knowledge of the common stanza forms and rhyming patterns so that he/she can easily find out their significance.


A student is required to know about the genres or types of poetry. He should also know what elements make a poem narrative and what things make a poem lyric. He must learn about the basic features of the sonnet, ode, elegy, metaphysical poetry, dramatic monologue, modern poetry, and so on. The knowledge of these forms makes a poem’s interpretation easier. In a broad view poems are of two types: (a) Lyric and (b) Narrative. The following classification may be helpful:

(a) Lyric

  • i) Sonnet
  • ii) Elegy
  • iii) Ode
  • iv) Metaphysical poetry
  • v) Dramatic monologue
  • vi) ‘Vers libres’ or ‘Free verse’
  • vii) Hymnes digrimi
  • viii) Epithalamion, etc.

b) Narrative

  • i) Ballad
  • ii) Epic
  • iii) Metrical romance

The Literary Age:

Different literary ages have different tastes. The themes and modes of expressions of all the ages are not the same. A clear concept of the literary tastes, experiments, modes of expressions and beliefs of the various ages helps a learner locate a particular poem in time. Once a poem is located in time and the literary features are known, it becomes easier for a student to analyse it. Therefore, a beginner must know the characteristics of all the ages before he/she starts reading poetry.


‘Tone’ is the emotional overtone suggested by a set of words. It refers to the emotional colouring of language’. It emerges from the ‘mood, voice, manner, attitude and outlook’ of the speaker. Tone may be described as sad, surprise, awareness, complacency, humour, confidence, teasing, pride, anger, and the like. The tone may shift as the thought of a poem develops. For example, the tone in the first few lines of “The Good-Morrow” is surprise that comes from a new awareness of love. In the middle part of the poem, the tone changes into complacency or saturation and in the last few lines the tone again turns into confidence. Similarly, the tone in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” changes as the Duke unconsciously goes on revealing his personality. In this poem, the tone shifts from pride to annoyance, then to cruelty, to greed and finally again to pride. The shift of tone enhances the richness of a poem. A student of literature must learn to identify the tone of a poem and its varieties. He/she should also learn the vocabulary that can describe the tone of a poem.

Finally, before a student starts reading a poem, he should be aware that the aura of total meaning of a poem remains beyond the words though they are related to them. It is something like the music and a musical instrument that produces it. When a drum is beaten the sound that it produces vibrates beyond the drum. The drum, the sticks used in beating, the drummer and his skills are the components of the final effect of the music. The audience may enjoy the musical effect without knowing much about the secret of the final music but a learner must know all its secrets. He should be able to distinguish the art from the artist; he should also learn how the art and the artist are combined together to produce a special effect. The total meaning of a poem vibrates beyond its vocabulary but a learner must know how the poet has arranged them and produced the final effect.

For a systematic interpretation of a poem, the beginners may follow the following steps:

1) When the title of the poem and the name of the poet are given, know about the age of the poem before you start reading it. This may lead you to the right direction. If the title of the poem and the name of the poet are not given, try to locate the poem in a certain period from your foreknowledge of the literary periods.

2) Read the poem and mark the words you do not know. Check those words in a dictionary. The dictionary meanings may make no sense. Do not get frustrated. Read the poem again and again, try to guess the meanings of the unknown words, and think a response to the poem over your first.

3) Mark the words that are related to the speaker. Is he speaking about himself or about some general issues of life? What are the words that indicate impersonality?

4) Mark the words that reflect the subject of the poem? Is the subject an unchangeable, grand issue of life? Is it a trivial thing of every day experience? Find out if there is any change of subject within the poem. If it is so, think over the possible reason for the shift in subject.

5) Are most of the words in the poem common words used in everyday life? Are they uncommon words which are usually not used? Why has the poet used common or uncommon words?

Try to relate the unchangeable, grand subject with the uncommon words and the trivial subject with common words. You may find a harmony between the nature of the subject and the quality of the vocabulary. You may not find any harmony. The poet may use grand language to deal with a very common issue or every simple language to deal with universal truth. Find out the possible reason for doing so.

6) The words that you have not found in the dictionary might have been used figuratively. At this stage of your reading, mark the figures of speech. Think over them? Have the figures of speech been used effectively? Have they been used mechanically? Do they make the expressions powerful? Do they create any interest in you? Do they puzzle you? Find out their significance.

7) Have an over view of the structure. Is the poem in stanzas? Are the stanzas written in a particular rhyme scheme? Why so? Are there variations in the stanza form? If so, why? What contribution does the stanza form make to the total meaning of the poem? You may find some poems without any break. What may be the reason for not breaking the lines in stanzas?

8) What is the verse form? Are all the lines in the same metre? How does the verse form contribute to the meaning of the poem?

9) What is the dominant tone? Is there any shift of the tone? If any, why?

10) Does the poem follow a definite poetic form or genre? If so, what is the form of the poem? Does the form make the theme effective in any way? The poet may not follow a particular genre. In that case, what may be the reason? What may be the effect?

Let us have an example:

Here on the edge of hell
Stands Harlem
Remembering the old lies,
The old kicks in the back,
Try The old “Be patient”
They told us before.

Sure, we remember,
Now when the man at the corner store
Says sugar’s gone up another two cents,
And bread one,
And there’s a new tax on cigarettes
We remember the job we never had,

Never could get,
And can’t have now
Because we’re colored.

So we stand here
On the edge of hell
In Harlem
And look out on the world
And wonder
What we’re gonna do
In the face of what
We remember..

Suppose you know nothing about the title, the writer, and the age of the poem. Now try to interpret it:

Before you start writing a formal appreciation of the poem, the following aspects of the poem must be clear to you.

The age of composition:

A casual reader of poetry may understand that the poem is unconventional. Some of its lines are long, some others are short and no line rhymes with any other preceding or succeeding line. No traditional technique of poetic composition has been used in it mechanically. If you have forcknowledge of modern age, you can confidently come to the conclusion that it was written in the modern period since the poets of modern period ignored everything that was mechanical and conventional. They tried to go near to real life. They neglected all set rules of metre, stanza form or genre. As a result, modern poetry is almost formless just like modern paintings. So, the poem is a modern poem.

The unknown words:

Perhaps ‘edge’, ‘Harlem’, ‘colored’ and ‘gonna’ are unknown to you. Consult a dictionary. In The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary – ‘edge’ means ‘the outer limit of an area”;
‘colored’ is American spelling of ‘coloured’; it means ‘a race that does not have a white skin’ (black); it is used disapprovingly;
‘gonna’ ‘means going to’; it is an informal word; it is used as an address that suggests close relationship, often ironically.

‘Harlem’ is not in The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. For this word you have to consult an encyclopaedia or a book on world geography. Perhaps you do not have the privilege to reach an encyclopaedia. So, try to guess the meaning of ‘Harlem’ from the words you already know. Note that the word ‘Harlem’ begins with a capital ‘H’. Then, the lines “So we stand. name of a place. In Harlem” suggest that it is the

The speaker:

The speaker is one of the people living in Harlem. The word ‘us’ and the repeated use of the word ‘we’ suggest that it is a group of people who live in Harlem. The word ‘colored’ suggests that these people are black. The speaker is not speaking about his personal liking and disliking. He is speaking about the whole black community of Harlem. He is an impersonal or objective speaker.

The subject:

The subject is the discrimination that the black community suffers from the oppression caused by ‘they’, perhaps the white majority. Their sufferings have been detailed by price hike, want of jobs, references to past, present and future repression, and expressions of hopelessness. A stoic sense prevails. engwah Pan

Type of vocabulary/diction:

The poem has a very few unknown words. Most of the words are common words used in every day life. The words are arranged as in a casual conversageneral Figures of speech:

The poem does not have many figures of speech. The phrase ‘edge of hell’ is a metaphor used to imply the hellish condition of the black people living in Harlem. It puzzles and creates interest among the readers. It is highly suggestive and very powerfully implies the atmosphere of Harlem. The phrase “In the face of” is another powerful metaphor that indicates a history of repression.


There are several repetitions in the poem. The words ‘old’, ‘we’, on the edge of hell’ and ‘never’ have been significantly repeated. The repetition of ‘old’ signifies old wound, long suffering. The repetition of on the edge of hell’ emphasises the hellish living condition of Harlem. The repetition of ‘never’ implies the continuity of sufferings. The repetitions intensify the sad tone of the poem.

Verse form, stanza pattern and structure:

The poem does not have any recognised traditional verse form. Its lines do not rhyme. Some of them are long, some are very short. The first line comprises six syllables but the second line comprises three syllables. The poct here follows the rhythm of everyday conversation. It has two irregular stanzas and they do not follow any conventional pattern. So, the poem does not have any formal structure. It is a ‘vers libres’ or free verse. The poet chooses it because the unhappy, prosaic feelings match the prosaic verse form well.


The tone of the poem shifts as in a speech. It begins with an objective sad tone that gradually changes into a bitter anger and frustration. The dramatic changes of the tone impart newness to every stage of the poem. To

A formal critical appreciation of the poem:

The poem is a modern poem that deals with the racial problem. It follows no conventional poetic techniques to present the general discrimination that the people of the black community endlessly face under the domination of the white majority. The apparent simplicity of the poem is misleading because it hides a gruesome picture of suffering and depravity of the repressed community.

The poem is about the racial discrimination that the community living in Harlem has been suffering for centuries. Their sufferings have been detailed by the price hike, want of jobs, references to past, present and future repression. The speaker is one of the people living in Harlem. The word ‘us’ and the repeated use of the word ‘we’ suggest that the speaker is one of the sufferers who are victims of ‘they’, the white majority. The word ‘colored’ suggests that these people are black. The views of the community have been made emphatic by arguments presented by the use of ‘because’ and ‘so’. The speaker is not speaking about his personal liking and disliking. He speaks about the general problems of the whole black community of Harlem.

The poet uses here simple words. There are a very few unknown words in the poem. Most of the words are commonly used in every day life. However, there are several repetitions in it. The repetition of ‘old’ signifies old wound, long suffering. The repetition of ‘on the edge of hell’ emphasises the hellish living condition of Harlem. The repetition of ‘never’ implies the continuity of sufferings. The repetitions intensify the sad tone of the poem. The simple diction arranged in the rhythm of casual speech provides a kind of sugar coating over bitter experiences.

There are very few figures of speech in the poem. The phrase ‘edge of hell is a metaphor used to imply the hellish condition of the black people living in Harlem. It puzzles and creates interest among the readers. It is highly suggestive and very powerfully implies the wretched atmosphere of Harlem. The word ‘face’ is another powerful metaphor that indicates a history of repression and suffering.

The poem does not have any recognised traditional verse form. Some of the lines are long; some are very short. The first line comprises six syllables but the second line comprises three syllables. Its lines do not rhyme. The poet here follows the rhythm of everyday speech. It has two irregular stanzas and they do not follow any conventional pattern.

The poem does not have any formal structure. It is a piece of ‘free verse” or ‘vers libres’ in the modern period since the poets of modern period ignored everything that is mechanical and conventional. The poet chooses this form because the unhappy, prosaic feelings match the prosaic verse form well.

The tone of the poem shifts as in a speech, giving freshness to every stage of it. It begins with an objective sad tone that gradually changes into a bitter anger that into frustration. The shifts in the tone of the voice have the tragic effect of the poem.

A good poem can never be a plain statement as found in a pamphlet. ‘Harlem’ is similarly not a pamphlet or political statement on the fate of the black. Rather this can be treated as a realistic picture and protest of all the discriminated people suggested by a simple vocabulary and speech-rhythm arranged unconventionally. The poet has successfully created the bitter tone of suffering that lies just under the seeming simplicity of the surface.

(If a student can know that the title of this poem is “Harlem”, an area in New York, where the black people live and die in utter poverty and it is written by Langston Hughes, a black American poet, the interpretation will become easier.)

By Prof M Mofizar Rahman

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