Many students find poetry a daunting subject. It’s ambiguous, and dense, and the inherent subjectivity of interpreting a poem can make it feel like there’s nothing solid to hold onto. With no “correct” answers, how do you actually study poetry?
Here are two ideas that can help students navigate the sometimes tricky waters of verse—and possibly even enjoy the ride:
- Not all poems are “about” something or have a particular “point.” Even poems that seem to have a point are about (much) more than that point. Poetry is about sound as well as sense, medium as well as message, beauty as well as truth.
- Ambiguous (i.e., multiple meanings) is not the same as unclear or imprecise (i.e., lack of or fuzzy meaning), and subjective (i.e., personal) is not the same as arbitrary (i.e., anything goes). There’s more concrete substance to a poem than it might seem during an initial read-through.
5 Tips for Studying Poetry
Now, let’s take a look at some practical advice for how to study poetry.
1. Tap into your general knowledge of literature
Don’t forget that poetry is a genre of literature, so although it can feel like its own world (or a different planet entirely), all the skills and tools you have for studying literature apply to poems as well.
That being said, you also want to pay extra attention to those elements that poetry tends to emphasize more than prose:
- Meter, rhyme, and the sonic literary devices (e.g., assonance, consonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, etc.)—in other words, the music of the words.
- Figurative language (e.g., metaphor, simile, hyperbole, personification, etc.)
2. Always read the poem out loud
Like notated music, poetry is meant to be heard—or even performed. You might be surprised how much more you hear, see, and grasp when you free the words from the page.
Read the poem out loud several times, and consider seeking out other recitations online. Hearing a different tone, inflection, or rhythm can be surprisingly insightful.
3. Memorize poems
Try memorizing shorter poems and parts of longer ones. The objective here is to inhabit the poem.
4. Ask questions of the poem/poet
Why this word instead of any number of synonyms? Why that simile? What’s the effect and affect of that phrase, sound, punctuation, etc.? Take the time to ask and think through answers to these types of questions.
5. Create index cards
For each poem, consider creating an index card highlighting the following elements:
- Poem title, poet, year
- Genre (e.g., sonnet), rhyme scheme (e.g., abab), meter (e.g., trochaic tetrameter), if applicable
- Point of view, mood/emotion
- Prominent literary devices (see tip #1)
- Interesting/surprising word choices
Here’s an example using Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
1 Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
5 My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
9 He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake
13 The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923)
- Genre/meter/rhyme: 4 quatrains, iambic tetrameter: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd
- POV/mood: first-person; pensive, evokes solitude and stillness
- Literary device: alliteration with “dark and deep” in line 13 (pretty light on literary devices—intentional?)
- Word choices: “easy wind and downy flake”; why repeat the last line?
- Meanings: the allure of a beautiful natural scene and the importance of fulfilling obligations
- Questions: What promises? Is it ultimately a shame the narrator must move on or a noble decision? Is the repetition of the last line an expression of resignation or a kind of pride? Does the poem have anything to say about the balance of beauty and duty in our own lives?
With its stylized use of language and tendency toward elusiveness, studying poetry poses a particular set of challenges, especially if you’re looking for unambiguous answers to specific questions.
Remember, though, that many aspects of poetry are relatively unambiguous (genre, meter, rhyme, literary devices) and that the more slippery elements (mood, meaning) are not so much intellectual puzzles to be solved but open questions to explore.
At Signet, we believe any subject can be fun and enjoyable with the right approach. Our tutors work hard to impart their passions for their beloved subjects to students in need of support. Schedule a free call to learn how our team can help your child build confidence and be successful in classes ranging from literature to calculus.