Tackling poetry can certainly be a daunting task. Often my students tell me that poetry feels like a foreign language to them and, in many ways, this is not an unfair argument. It is important to accept that how we read poetry will be and should be different from how we read prose. A seminar tutor, and poet himself, once said this to me: ‘Poetry means more than prose and means in more ways’. This idea makes so much sense when we think about the myriad of extra ways poems convey meaning in comparison with say a novel.
Rhythm and Metre
First and perhaps foremost, there are concerns surrounding rhythm and metre. Poetry is a kind of ‘musical speech’ and is therefore nearly always rhythmical in some way. These rhythms create the feel of a piece long before you look at specific words and their meaning. As an example lets take an extract from Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Reading those repetitive, galloping triplets of ‘Half a league’ we can already hear the thunder of charging cavalry long before Tennyson actually begins to fully describe the scene. The rhythm of the poem also reflects the nervous, erratic heart beats of the soldiers charging towards almost certain death. Instead, of a regular ‘da-dum, da-dum’ rhythm, which echoes the resting beat of a human heart, we have a more frantic ‘dum-da-da, dum-da-da’ beat, which feels like a breathless panting sound. In this way, Tennyson uses the extra tool of rhythm, which poetry has at its disposable, to both create and consolidate meaning. Indeed the rhythm of a poem can mean just as much, if not more, than the words themselves.
Form and Structure
Yet we may also focus on the form of the poem and how it is actually structured on the page. Novels tend to be broken up in a fairly conventional manner. Lines run to the edge of the page, a collection of lines will form a paragraph and these paragraphs will make up pages and chapters. Whilst some prose writers are more experimental than this, there is undoubtedly a standard which most writers follow. Poets on the other hand can structure their writing in a dizzying variety of ways and all of these structures can create different meanings. Let’s look at A.E. Housman’s ‘The Laws of God, The Laws of Man’ to help illustrate this.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
Notice how the central couplet is much shorter than the lines surrounding it. These two lines are about a feeling of isolation and, to reflect this, the central lines themselves appear isolated from the surrounding lines. The couplet timidly contracts and is lost amongst the other lines, mirroring the feelings of the speaker. In this way Housman uses the structure of his poem to reinforce the meaning of the words themselves.
These are just a few of the things we need to bear in mind when thinking about poetry compared to prose. There is certainly a lot more to be said, but I would always encourage students not to dismiss poetry as ‘meaningless’ but instead to consider the mantra: ‘Poetry means more than prose and means in more ways’.