Reading Poetry

Many people don't like poetry. They are afraid of it; they don't understand it; they say things like, "Why can't he just say what he means instead of making it so difficult?"

I don't expect this section of the class to make you love poetry. And I won't lie: some poetry is hard to understand. But try to think of poetry as a game, with its own rules, just like any other game. The poet and the reader are the players, and once you understand the rules, the game gets easier.

Poetry is meant to exercise your mind and your imagination. It is also meant to give you pleasure. Just as with fiction, people's tastes differ, so it's important to remember that you probably won't like all of the poems we read. Some will speak to you, and others won't.

So here are a few "rules" to begin with:

Okay, enough theory. Let's look at some poems.

Read Nikki Giovanni's poem, "Poetry". Remember to read it aloud.

The first thing you notice reading it aloud is that it's not clear where some of the sentences end, since there's no punctuation. That's a sure sign that some of these lines can have more than one meaning.

You probably also noticed that it doesn't have a regular, sing-song rhythm, and it doesn't rhyme. Most poetry written during the 20th century doesn't. Some does, of course, as you will see, but it's no longer a requirement, as it was in previous centuries. In fact, when a poem written in the 20th century does rhyme, you should ask yourself why.

Now let's look at the meaning of the poem: what is Giovanni saying about poetry? Try breaking the poem into smaller bits to understand it better. For example, she says,

poetry is motion graceful
as a fawn

In other words, poetry is graceful motion. That's clear enough--but why "graceful as a fawn"? What characteristics do you associate with fawns? What else is implied by creating the image of a fawn? Why not say, "graceful as a ballerina"? Giovanni is creating a host of other implications by using this simile.

Giovanni follows this image with two others: poetry is also

gentle as a teardrop
strong like the eye

Again, you must ask yourself why she chose these comparisons. When we think of things that are gentle, teardrops are not the first things that usually come to mind. And "eye" is not the first association we would make with "strong."

The next line is "finding peace in a crowded room." Is it the eye, or poetry, or motion that is finding peace in a crowded room? Giovanni's syntax (i.e., her wording) has deliberately left that ambiguous, in order to encourage you to think of all the different possibilities. In any case, how could poetry help one find "peace in a crowded room"? Perhaps Giovanni means that poetry forces us to slow down, to see each item individually, to examine it, to separate it from the chaos of everything else that is happening all at once. Or perhaps she means something else. Just as in fiction, each reader will bring his or her own interpretation to a poem.

Now look at the second stanza: when does she write? Is she alone? Why would she want to pull loneliness around herself? Why would she have to ignore "the weary wariness of...logic" to write a poem? She seems to be implying that logic and creativity are incompatible. Why would that be so?

Look at the third stanza: what is the relationship between the poet and the audience? According to Giovanni, what is a poem supposed to do? Look how she shows that both the reader and the poem are necessary: "it only says 'i am' and therefore / i concede that you are too." And yet, at the same time, she seems to imply that a poet must be isolated in order to write, and cannot expect the love or understanding of the reader.

For a different approach and style, look at the poem "Poetry," by Marianne Moore (you can find this is the "Files" section for this class on Canvas). Don't forget to read it aloud.

She begins by saying, "I, too, dislike it..."--an odd sentiment for a poet. So why begin this way? She goes on to say that poetry does have an important function: what is it?

In the last stanza, Moore demands that poets present "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." What does she mean? How can a garden be imaginary, yet contain something real? Does she perhaps mean this line to be metaphorical or symbolic, rather than literal?

Read the next poem for entertainment--you won't need to do any heavy-duty analysis. It is by Frank O'Hara, an important New York poet who wrote mainly in the 1950s and early 1960s. He died young in a freak accident. The Mike Goldberg mentioned in the poem was a New York painter important in the 50s; he put letters and sometimes whole words into his paintings.

Why I Am Not A Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

O'Hara is using humor to make a comment on the nature of poetry and the creative process, and he even makes fun of himself a little ("It is even in / prose, I am a real poet").

As you can see, poetry must be interpreted line by line, slowly and patiently. Some readers have a hard time with this. In this age of freeways and time management and rushing to cram three things into every minute, slowing down enough to appreciate poetry fully is tremendously frustrating to some people. Others come to find it restful. If you're not one of them, hang on--we'll be through with poetry soon!


The "voice" of the poem is its speaker. In fiction, the character who narrates the story is known as the "narrator"; in a poem, the person who narrates the poem is the "persona." Just as the narrator is not the same as the author of a story, the persona is not the same as the author of the poem. Sometimes, a poem is autobiographical, and the poet is talking about his or her life; but often, a poet makes up a voice in which to speak, in order to more effectively make a point.

To understand a poem better, try to figure out as much about the persona as possible:

When considering voice, you also need to be aware of tone. Tone is the attitude of the speaker toward his/her subject. As in fiction, the tone can be conveyed by word choice, sentence structure, figures of speech or irony; but poets also convey tone by the use of rhyme, meter,and imagery.

To illustrate some of these ideas, take a look at Emily Dickinson's poem, "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" (you can find this in the "Files" section for this class on Canvas).

For now, ignore any biographical information you might have about Dickinson, and just look at her poem: who is the speaker? Is it a man or a woman, for instance? Is this person rich? Famous? Happy? Sad? Lonely?

In the first line, the speaker says, "I'm Nobody!" Why capitalize "Nobody"? Why use the exclamation point?

In the second line, the speaker asks, "Are you--Nobody--Too?" Is the speaker addressing us, the readers, or someone else? And why capitalize "Nobody" again?

In the third line, the speaker asks, "Then there's a pair of us?" Why is this worded as a question? Does it sound happy or sad or does it convey some other emotion?

In the fourth line, why does the speaker warn, "Don't tell!"? The speaker goes on to say, "they'd advertise--you know!" Who is "they"? What and where would they "advertise"?

Does the tone change in the second stanza? How? What message does the speaker convey by capitalizing "Somebody"? And why is it so dreary to be "Somebody"? What do you have to spend your day doing if you are "Somebody"? To what does the speaker compare the public?

Some who read this poem feel that the speaker sounds shy and lonely, with little self-esteem, and thrilled to have found a companion who feels the same way. Others see the speaker as someone confident, but private--not lonely, but happy to have chanced across a companion who is also content to be private (a "Nobody"). You may see the speaker in yet another way: as the voice of Emily Dickinson, who is famous for being a recluse. Any of these interpretations can be supported by the text of the poem.