Approaching a Poem

We do not, if we are honest, keep in readiness a number of different approaches to poems or to people. We try to keep our integrity. But at the same time we must recognize and accept the otherness that we face. In getting to know a person or a poem we make the kind of accommodation that we have called tact.

But we do not pretend, we do not emote falsely, and we try not to make stock responses to surface qualities. We do not judge a man by his clothes or even by his skin. We do not judge a poem by words or ideas taken out of their full poetic context. We do not consider a statement in a poem without attention to its dramatic context, the overtones generated by its metaphors and ironies, the mood established by its metrics. And we try to give each element of every poem its proper weight.

Obviously, there can be no single method for treating every poem with tact. What is required is a flexible procedure through which we can begin to understand the nature of any poem. The suggestions below are intended to facilitate such a procedure. Like any scaffolding, this one must be discarded as soon as it becomes constricting or loses its usefulness. Like good manners learned by rote, this procedure will never amount to anything until it is replaced by naturally tactful behavior. Then it will have served its purpose.

1. Try to grasp the expressive dimension of the poem first. This means especially getting a clear sense of the nature and situation of the speaker. What are the circumstances under which he or she says, writes, or thinks these words? Who hears them? Are they part of an ongoing action which is implied by them?

2. Consider the relative importance of the narrative-dramatic dimension and the descriptive-meditative dimension in the poem. Is the main interest psychological or philosophical-in the poem? Is the main interest psychological or philosophical-in character or in idea? Or is the poem’s verbal playfulness or music its main reason for being? How do the nature of the speaker and the situation in which he speaks colour the ideas and attitudes presented?

3. After you have a sense of the poem’s larger, expressive dimension, re-read it with particular attention to the play of language. Consider the way that metaphor and irony colour the ideas and situations. How does the language work to characterize the speaker or colour the ideas presented with shadings of attitude? How important is sheer word-play or verbal wit in the poem? How well do the images and ides fit together and reinforce one another in a metaphoric or ironic way?

4. Re-read the poem yet again with special attention to its musical dimension. To the extent that it seems important, analyze the relation of rhythm and rhyme to the expressive dimension of the poem.

5. Throughout this process, reading the poem aloud can be helpful in establishing emphasis and locating problems. Parts of a poem that are not fully understood will prove troublesome in the reading. Questions of tone and attitude will become more insistent in oral performance. Thus, it is advisable to work toward a reading performance as a final check on the degree to which we have mastered situation, ideas, images, attitudes, and music. An expert may be able to read through a piece of piano music and hear in his mind a perfect performance of it. Most of us need to tap out the notes before we can grasp melodies, harmonies, and rhythms with any sureness. Reading poetry aloud helps us to establish our grasp of it —- especially if a patient and knowledgeable teacher is there to correct our performance and encourage us to try again.

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