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How to Read a Poem

Our word poem comes from the Greek word Poios, which is the word used in the Septuagent version of Genesis 1 and in the Greek version of the Nicene Creed for what God did to the heavens and the earth. It means to make.

When an artist makes anything, he has an idea in his mind that can only be finally formed when he is finished embodying it in print, sculpture, music, painting, or some other medium. The idea is the logos. The act of creation is the incarnation of that particular logos.

When you read a poem you are reading an idea embodied in the form of the poem you are reading. So how do you know if the poem you are reading is any good? How should you go about reading a poem?

To begin with, you should just read. Find a poem in a collection or in a magazine (Image, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, etc. – there are multitudes) and read it: preferably out loud. When you finish, decide whether you liked it or not. If you are new to poetry, you might want to go straight to another poem and repeat the same process.

After you have read two or three poems and have decided that you like one or two and don’t like another one or two, ask yourself, “Why did I like this one, but not that one?” “What about it do I like?” “How are they similar?” “What are some differences?”

In looking for similarities, you can ask a few helpful questions:

  • What is the meter of each poem? (Don’t worry about technical terms; just count how many feet or beats there are to each line)
  • What images or pictures or metaphors does each poet use? Are any similar or the same?
  • Do any images work for me? What feelings or associations do they arouse?
  • How does the poet play with sounds (e.g. alliteration (Peter Piper picked a peck), assonance, etc.)

For any similarities you find, ask how each poet is different. For example, if both used alliteration, which letter did each alliterate or how many words did each poet alliterate?

Now ask yourself why the poet would use the tools and images you have identified.

The March 2008 edition of Poetry begins with a poem by Campbell McGrath called Nights on Planet Earth which includes this phrase: “oboe music/distant as the grinding of icebergs against the hull of the self and the soul in the darkness…” Here is a simile in which the distance of the oboe music is compared to the distance of grinding icebergs – but what follows twists the simple image to a more complicated simile containing what seems to be a metaphor (the self has no literal hull).

Later a poem by Karl Kirchwey entitled Lemnos (spelled with Greek letters) includes this simile: “the self a glowing bead, like Hephaestus falling daylong out of heaven in the old story.”

You don’t have the whole poem in front of you, but you could already take those two phrases and compare them. Look for similarities (e.g. both are concerned with the self, both include similes, etc.). Then ask how those similarities differ (e.g. in one, the self is a glowing bead, in the other the self has a hull).

Now ask why the poets would use those images. That’s quite a bit more difficult without the full poem, but I hope you can see where I’m going with this. Give yourself the pleasure of unmediated contemplation of a poem sometime. Look at the tricks and tools the poet uses, compare them with another poem, and compare. Don’t try to be brilliant, just notice obvious things. And enjoy your read. I’d love to see some one try this and write about it in the comments.

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