Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Trick People into Thinking You're Cultured Part 2: How to Read Poetry

You can look at a poem and note the elements- the metaphors, the alliteration, the beautiful similes- nodding your head wisely as you point out the tell-tale "like" or "as"... yet your teacher wants YET MORE out of you, or your colleagues (during one of those poetry analyses you regularly engage in between board meetings) are not suitably impressed. Where do you go from there? Here are some rules I've compiled to springboard you into a deeper level of evaluating poetry, so that your boss will be so impressed with your insights about "Lady Lazarus" that he will DEFINITELY promote you to that head of sales position you've been coveting. Totally.
1.       Speaker ≠ Poet. NEVER assume that the speaker of the poem is also the poet. I don’t care if they live in the same city, have the same job and both have a strange affinity for waffles with cranberry sauce- DO NOT DO IT. Your lit teacher will hand you your butt on a platter. Honestly, is “Childe Harold” Lord Byron? Almost definitely. Yes. But it’s a rule in the literary world that we never make assumptions about this, no matter how valid they might seem. If the poet acknowledges that he or she is speaking as him/herself, then you can go with it. Otherwise, just play it safe and always say “the speaker says…” Even if in your head you’re thinking “and by ‘speaker’, I mean Longfellow.”
2.       When reading Romantic poetry, anything that is remotely shaped as a snake, stick, pole, or sword is to be considered “phallic imagery.” But, you say, maybe the towers in Kubla Khan are just that- towers. It makes sense in context… he’s describing a palace… Nope. Nope nope nope. It’s a penis. Always.
3.       You can’t just say that the poet’s tone “seems angrier” at the end of the poem than at the beginning, but there are 3 main ways that poets do this: 1) diction- suddenly the words he or she is using are more evocative of anger. It could be as straightforward as “rage” or it could just be word choices like “snarled” instead of “said” or “stalked outside” instead of “took a stroll.” 2) Changes in imagery- if the poem started out describing fields of fuzzy lambs and ends up describing raging forest fires burning churches, guess what? Your speaker has gotten pissed. 3) Change in beat/ rhythm/ punctuation. This is more subtle, but a poet can take the tone from mild to murderous by switching from “Oh sir, do please, to take your leave” to “Get. Out.”  See how I did that there?
4.       Anything that stands out is important. Absolutely always. It doesn’t matter how, but if one line or word or even letter is distinct from the rest of the poem, it’s a big deal. If the poem’s going along talking about apples, and then all the sudden BAM- there’s a seemingly unrelated line about Paris Hilton, take note. This is important. If there’s a normally stanza-ed poem that has one single line separated into its own little stanza, it’s important. If the whole poem is in third person, and then, just for one second, it’s in first, guess what? IT’S IMPORTANT. It doesn’t even matter if you have no idea why. Just remark about the fact that it stands out, and that therefore, It. Must. Be. Important.
5.       Here’s a fun little thing poets like to do: relate the form of the poem to the content in order to make a point. Sometimes, they match them up. For example, a love poem might be flowy and beautiful and sweet, just like love itself. But sometimes, they’ll use a form that is patently NOT appropriate for the subject of their poem, and this is usually to make a point. Sometimes a poet will write a lyrical, flowery descriptive poem… about a jockstrap. Maybe he is trying to express the latent beauty in the day to day. Maybe he is making fun of love poetry. Maybe he is just a crazy little psychopath. Point is, there’s a point.

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