Poems can feel impossible, especially when you’re struggling to write something for coursework, or, even worse, for an exam. Maybe you don’t know what a poem means. Maybe you don’t care. Or maybe both. But don’t panic! Here’s a guide to perfect your poetry in no time.
Decode it bit by bit
Sometimes it will be really obvious what a poem’s about, but even in an apparently simple poem there might be an image that doesn’t make sense, or that feels obscure. At other times, a whole poem needs unpacking. It’s very tempting to skip over the most difficult/frankly bizarre images, but I promise it’s worth looking at them (not least because most other people probably won’t bother, and you can feel very good about yourself that you’re reading the poem properly).
Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
[Love] is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
It’s at this point that a reader might be tempted to go and make a cup of tea, because it’s pretty tricky to work out what Shakespeare is saying here. It doesn’t help that the word ‘bark’ is practically incomprehensible. With any luck, your edition of the text/your exam paper will tell you that ‘bark’ is referring to a ship. So we can start to piece together a translation:
Love is the star to every wandering ship,
Whose value we don’t know, although we know how high it is.
There is still a bit of confusion here over the subject of ‘Whose’ in the second line – is it ‘love’ or is it a ‘wandering bark’? When you find yourself in a dilemma like this, it’s probably best to think about what makes more sense. It would be possible to know how high a ship is, but we can also calculate its ‘worth’ or value. A ship is not really something mysterious. So it’s more logical to think about love as the subject: love is symbolised by a star (I know, it’s very complicated), and although we can calculate how high in the sky a star is, we can’t ever really get to know a star or value it. It remains mysterious.
But a poem will not remain mysterious for very long if you decode it in this way. And that means you can start to think about other things too…
Look at the language
Any poet worth his or her salt will choose their language carefully, and thinking about what kind of language is being used is a good way to impress the examiners. Some possible questions you might ask are:
- Who is speaking in this poem? Are they the subject of the poem, or someone else?
- What kind of language is being used? Is it old-fashioned/original/ gory/obscure/something else?
- Is any particular idea or image repeated (or the same idea repeated in a series of different images)?
Look at sounds and metre
If you’re really stuck, you can always rely on good old metre to give you something to say. When you read a poem out loud, try to count how many emphases there are in a line (this is technically the number of feet). The pattern of these emphases will tell you the metre. The whole thing can get a bit complicated with trochees and iambs and dactyls, but the basic idea of emphasis is the most important thing to remember.
For example, in Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty’, there are four emphases per line (I’ve put them in italics):
She walks in beauty like the night
This is all well and good, but readers might well wonder why it matters, or what on earth they can say about it. A simple answer is that it’s most interesting when the poem suddenly changes how many emphases (or feet) there are in a line. If a poem has four per line and then suddenly ends on three, for example, there might be a sense of incompleteness, or of something missing.
Another great thing to talk about is the sound of the words – alliteration is a good one, of course, but so is assonance. In this GCSE poem, for example, assonance is used to great effect (I’ve italicised the important bits):
As you wobbled away
On two round wheels
My own mouth rounding
Here the ‘ou’ sound is repeated, as is the word ‘round’. Because the sounds are so close to one another, it feels as if we are going round too, returning to what we’ve just heard, which is similar to a wheel going round, or the roundness of a mouth. If you ever feel stuck, have a careful look at the language and see if you can spot anything.
Look for other common poetic techniques
Another great tactic for anyone who’s not sure what to write. Here’s a list of some of the most common things you might find in a poem:
- Caesura. This is a strong pause within a line of verse, often marked by dashes, semicolons or full stops. E.g. We slowly drove – he knew no haste.
- Couplet. A pair of two lines, one straight after the other, that rhyme. E.g. What happened to the ring? She cannot know./But now her tears with bitter sweetness flow.
- Enjambment. When a line of poetry isn’t self-contained, but runs over into the next line(s). E.g. That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,/Looking as if she were alive.
- Hyperbole. A figure of speech using exaggeration. E.g. I’ll love you, my dear, I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet,/And the river jumps over the mountain,/And the salmon sing in the street.
- Refrain. A line that is repeated in a poem. Impossible to give an example without quoting a whole poem!
There are websites with plenty more examples. Bear in mind that it might be equally interesting when a poem doesn’t contain any of these techniques, or when it uses them in an unusual way, particularly if it’s a poem pre-1900 (modern poems tend to be more unconventional in metre, rhyme, refrains etc). And if you do spot something, don’t just say you’ve spotted it – try to think about how it makes you feel, or how it influences your reading of the poem. It’s hard to do, but it’s always worth it.
Written by Bryony Glover
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