Tuesday 7 January 2014


Asking college students about poetry, I got used to hearing the words "confusing" and "elitist" used to describe the oft-misunderstood art that should be known for the beauty and images it evokes. Only a small group actually reads poetry and it seems its stature has diminished over the decades. After talking to a few college students, I found some of the reasons why they just don't get poetry, and a number of them surprised me.
One reason for this could be a lack of "famous" poets, unlike in earlier centuries when Whitman and Frost were revered even before they were dead. Another reason could be some poets' intention for poetry to stay a "black" art, a small clique of insiders who write and enjoy poetry intensely. "When I think of poets, I imagine a beatnik sitting at a hookah bar in front of an open mic," says Brandon Ermers, a junior at UWM.
But the real reason is students' lack of knowledge about the right way to read poetry. When you ask most of them about poetry, college students assume it's too deep or elusive for them to understand. Andrew Girard, a UWM senior, tells me that poetry is "too complicated for regular people to appreciate." Ermers agrees, saying "I can't remember the last time I read a poem I actually thought I understood."
Poetry may not be the most exciting subject for students, but college is where many will struggle the most with reading and interpreting it. Graham Petit, a UW-Madison junior, admits that his college poetry class was difficult in the beginning. "Many times when I thought that I had understood a poem and genuinely taken something away from it, I would go to class and the professor would have a completely different interpretation," he says. "I would sometimes feel like I completely missed the meaning of the poem."
Most struggling readers I talked to simply hadn't been enlightened about the most effective way to read a poem. "I just don't ever know if I'm doing it right," Adam Woloszyn, a junior at Stevens Point, says. "It seems like it's totally different from reading anything else." By learning how to interpret and read a poem to take away many meanings, you'll gain an appreciation for poetry. As Petit explains, "I hated poetry in the beginning, but as I began to understand the different approaches you can use to interpret it, the more I was able to take away." Here are five steps you should take when reading a good poem to fully appreciate the poet's work.
· Find the phrases. "I just look at it and the format is the most intimidating thing about it for me," said Andrew Seifert, a Marquette senior. With thin, long columns, poetry can be downright scary to students who have spent their lives reading dense chunks of prose. Resist your fears and realize that, like any other kind of written English, poetry is made up of words and phrases. By finding the phrases in poetry, you'll be able to read and enjoy them. For example, the lines from Shakespeare's Sonnet 116:
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark.."
Would be impossible to read by reading each line, comprehending it, then continuing. The phrases sometimes last for entire stanzas, and sometimes the entire poem, but if you're unaware of it, you won't be able to fully appreciate the intent of the artist. If you note the periods and commas as natural pauses intended by the poet, you can effectively read the poem as it was written.
· Read the poem aloud. Don't stop until you reach the end. As Hannah Pappenheim, a Bennington college freshman, said, "Poetry is collection of lyrical phrases." Many current poets experiment with the sounds and rhythm in their poetry, with some lending it even more authority than the words themselves. Words like "my wish is the end of insistent chants of ranting men / in money-lined satin suits with huge soothing grins" just explode with sounds that most readers don't notice. With practice, you'll be able to catch rhymes and rhythms you never might have seen without noticing many of the audible cues of good poetry.
· Read it again silently. Thoroughly examine the poem and take note of the images that intrigued you in your first reading. This is when the images in the poem should jump out and grab you. If you don't understand a word, look it up. If a phrase seems confusing to you, read it again, and then try to rephrase it or re-arrange the words in an order that you can easily understand. Be aware that poets love to invert words and phrases to change sentence structure from the normal subject-verb-object structure of English that most readers are familiar with.
· Learn to distinguish figurative language. Unlike almost every other kind of writing, poetry leans heavily on the use of its own vocabulary and poetic techniques like figurative language. Some common examples of these techniques are personification (treating an inanimate object as a person, "running brook"), metaphors (applying one thing to something it isn't, "All the world's a stage") and hyperbole (intentionally gratuitous exaggeration, "I would walk five hundred miles")
· Get in the poet's head. You've looked closely at the images and techniques individually, now consider them all as a whole. Try to find a common theme and examine how each one works toward the poet's final conclusion. More often than not, this will be easy to determine by this point with your close reading of the poem. If you're struggling, I've found that thinking abstractly about the different associations of an image often helps. For example, a rose is a symbol of beauty and love, but it also has painful thorns.
Keeping these strategies in mind while reading poetry will allow you to treat it for what it is: a lyrically rich form of storytelling that has the ability to create wonderful images and ideas when we read it correctly.
Ms.Sneha Patel

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