How to Read Poetry

by Dr. Gail Hemmeter, past IH instructor

1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Just as novelists create characters, poets create voices (known as personae) who speak their poems. Try to characterize the voice created by the poet. Is the speaker an adult or achild? A man or a woman? Happy? Lonely? Angry? How would you characterize the speaker of Blake's "London"? Would you describe the speaker of "The Chimney Speaker" in the same way?

2. Who is being addressed? Sometimes a poem will address a specific audience, as in Blake's "The Lamb." Other times the speaker of the poem will address a more generalized group. Who is the poet trying to reach?

3. What is the situation described in the poem? Is the speaker doing something? Is she looking, describing, contemplating or doing something more active? Where is she? Do the specific circumstances hint as to what the poem is about?

4. What is the tone of the poem? That is, when you imagine the speaker saying the words, what would you expect to hear in his voice? Anger? Bitterness? Admiration? Awe? Irony? Sometimes the tone of a poem will change, as different moods overtake the speaker or different thoughts crowd into his mind.

5. What do the particular words chosen by the poet contribute to the poem? Sometimes a poet will choose a number of related words for his poem. For example, how many words in "London" relate to the public or governmental institutions of Britain? Blake shows in this poem how the official institutions of London have failed to provide for the public good, so he chooses several words related to public institutions.

Poets often choose words with more than one meaning to add layers of meaning to their poems. In "London," for example, the word "Charter'd" has two meanings that apply to the streets and the river of London: "charter'd" means both "rented out" (e.g.,a chartered plane) and "officially sanctioned" (e.g., a charter for a city or a fraternity). Blake wants to show that the streets and even the river in London have been claimed as property and used for commerce -- and that society officially approves of this.

And be aware of the sound of the words. Though we don't often read poems aloud, poems are meant to be spoken. In "London," for example, the repeated "w" sound in "Marks of weakness, Marks of Woe" almost sounds like wailing.

6. Can you locate any figures of speech in the poem? Poets often use metaphors (i.e., comparisons) to say more than simple descriptive language can. These can be hard to spot sometimes, so be alert. Here's a simile (a type of metaphor) from "Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge": "The city doth like a garment wear/the beauty of the morning." The city of London, coming to life in the morning, reminds the speaker of this poem of someone waking up and putting on a beautiful dress or suit fresh from the closet.

7. Does the poet use references or allusions as a shorthand way of adding meaning to the poem? In "The World is Too Much With Us," Wordsworth refers to Proteus and Triton. You will understand more about the poem if you know who they are, so be sure to find out who they are! Sometimes a poet makes a cultural reference that readers far removed from him in time don't recognize. For example, in "The Chimney Sweeper" Blake names one of the children Tom Dacre. The name "Dacre" would have been familiar to Londoners of his time as the name of a famous almshouse (or charitable housing for the poor) funded by an aristocrat named Lady Dacre. At her almshouse, a few children would be given beds for the night, but only if they were able to recite The Lord's Prayer and The Apostle's Creed without making a mistake. Can you figure out why Blake used her name in this poem -- and what he thinks about her charity? If you come across a reference you don't understand, be sure to ask.

8. What do rhyme and rhythm contribute to the poem? Some poems' lines show a pattern of rhyme; others don't rhyme at all. Some poems have a regular, consistent rhythm; in others, no regular rhythm can be heard. Notice how the regularity of rhythm and rhyme contributes to the nursery-rhyme quality of Blake's "The Lamb." Then read Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." There's no regular rhythm or rhyme scheme in this free-form poem, appropriate to Whitman's theme of breaking of boundaries of time and space.

9. Where do punctuation marks appear? When you're reading a poem, avoid the temptation to make a mental stop at the end of each line. You'll have a hard time making sense of the words if you do. Instead, mentally read the lines of the poem as you would any sentence, pausing only where you see commas and stopping where you see periods.

10. What is the poem's argument? We sometimes assume that poems only describe objects or feelings. Though of course they sometimes do so, more often poems take a point of view on some subject or argue for a particular way of looking at the world. Don't assume that poems only represent the spontaneous overflow of feeling. They also have a logic, a structure, and a point to make.