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Chapter #6 - Analyzing Poems for Meaning

i. Rock With the Saddle, Even if You Don't Write Cowboy Poetry

Do your words gallop, ripple, slide, drone, stagger, flow or chant? These are all rhythmic considerations and will be caused by the metrical form you have chosen. There is always a metrical element, even in free verse or open forms. For example notice the rhythm of the following poem. How does it move you through the lines?


above the stairs, running
above the ground, gliding
on creative energy, floating,
sailing down the stairs without
touching but the edges, flying
on the wind and time, running,
dreaming or awake, unsure,
confident, never to doubt,

You should notice a lurching and halting rhythm as you pause for the commas within each line. Some poems are meant to be read with little hesitation for the commas; but this one seems to cry out to stagger, lurch and leap through, hesitating for the commas and reading as an exercise in meter as much or more than meaning.

ii. What is Your Poem's Attitude?

Does your poem on the other hand wail, whimper, scream, chant, preach, pray or curse? If so, you are dealing with the tone of the poem, the attitude of the speaker. The speaker in Faith is not angry. The poem seems to give a mood of joy and play. The poem tries to compel you to identify with the feelings of the speaker and think his thoughts. Does the poem, Faith, urge the reader to feel the concept of faith? What is the effect of the stopping and forward-leaping motion of the meter? In this or any poem do the words mean what the rhythm means or do they contrast with the form? Does the meter seem more compelling than the meaning of the words?

Is the attitude expressed by the poem one of bullying, whimpering, cheering, praising, bewailing, teasing, or joking? Is the poem's tone sincere or persuasive, calm or excited, happy or horrified? Does it seem sinister, cheerful or indifferent? Does the poem ridicule or endorse what it tells about?

Examine the poem for its language. Is it the language of a child, a minister, a college professor, a scientist, a cynic? What is the attitude toward the reader. Does it unite the readers or divide them? Is it condescending or simpering toward the reader? Does it revere or ennoble the reader? Does it ask help, accuse, glorify one segment of society and blame another? Is it a romantic or political poem? Does it set ages or races against each other? Is it an injurious or a healing poetry? Does it seek resolution or confrontation and conflict?

iii. A Tool for Analyzing Poems

Use the following tool to analyze your own poems or those of others. After you have analyzed do not take your results too seriously. It is possible to be too analytical about poetry. Every poet has themes, preferences and aversions that show up in the poetry. If you discover yours, don't be embarrassed, just be aware. Your themes are part of your unique character. If you really see a problem with your limitations you might begin to broaden your outlook and write on new topics or experiment with some of the structural devices. On the other hand, don't hesitate to analyze. A close look at any poet's writing can reveal hidden value that is easily overlooked with a too-quick reading.

Here are ten questions and lists of suggested answers. Take a poem and check off the words from the list that apply to it. This will help you understand what the poet has set out to accomplish with the poem.

1. Who is speaking? Read the poem carefully and give some thought to whose voice is presented in the poem. A child, minister, professor, scientist, laborer, artist, businessperson, romantic, pragmatist, cynic, cowboy, man, woman, young person, old person, knowledgeable, impressionable, controlled, identified with the poet?

2. Who is the speaker speaking to? Who does the poem assume you, the reader, are? A parent, child, teacher, boss, friend, enemy, problem solver, receptive reader, musing dreamer?

3. What are the words about? Resolution, love, battle, agreement, excitement, gaining followers, revolt?

4. What are the underlying meanings? Good poems often have layers of meaning. Loving, fighting, soothing, dreaming, remembering, pontificating?

5. What is the attitude of the speaker? Considering, musing, bullying, whimpering, encouraging, praising, lamenting?

6. How does the poem engage the reader? Persuasive, calm, teasing, joking (at whose expense) excited, happy, horrified, sincere, ridiculing, endorsing, dividing, uniting, condescending, reverent, ennobling, helpful, accusing, glorifying, consoling, healing, injuring?

7. What is the mood of the poem? Sinister, indifferent, drudgery, playful, cheerful, remote, elated, angry, depressing, empty?

8. How does the speaker manage expression? Overstated, obvious, hidden, subtle, ironic, implied?

9. Is there an intrusive element? Wail, whimper, scream, preach, pray, curse?

10. What is the rhythm that moves the reader through? Gallop, flow, ripple, slide, drone, stagger, chant, lurch, drag?

iv. Build Your Own Checklist

You can take this list and add words of your own to cover other ranges of possibilities in poems. Add topics and words under the topics. The topics and words will express your own scope and range of intellect, emotion and expressive tools. Making yourself such a list is helpful in analyzing poetry. Many of these words may have technical names that you will find in textbooks. In reading a poem you will often find that the poem goes through phases in its development. You may find that a poem changes its pace to go along with the different events it describes.

You may discover that you have common themes in your poetry. It is not bad or good to have trends and themes. Most poets do write about several common themes. You probably have several poems about some topic that you consider a lot. They may say the same things in different ways. On the other hand if you are writing the same poem over and over you may be obsessing on a problem and need to broaden your outlook and write on some new topics. A good way to broaden your outlook is to write responses to other people's poems. Find a poetry book and read some poems with the idea of writing your viewpoint on what you have read. You may write it in a similar form or in some different form.

Article written by Don J. Carlson. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please contact: Don J. Carlson

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