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									                    UNDERSTANDING POETRY
A poem’s subject matter is whatever the poem talks about. The theme of a
poem, on the other hand, is its "idea", its generalized content, which it is possible
to state with various degrees of generality. The theme of a poem is part of its
meaning, just as its subject matter. But neither subject matter nor theme nor both
together make the whole meaning. The whole meaning of a poem is the whole
poem as it stands, and nothing less.

The meaning of a poem is illustrated by the poem’s speaker and audience, the
tone, meter and sound, as well as many other devices.

   A.          The most important single factor in a poem is its speaker. Of
        course, a poem is always spoken by the poet, but when we look more
        closely at the poetry, we have to allow for a more immediate speaker. In
        some instances, the speaker may be simply a voice. Often the speaker is
        much more than a voice, and then whoever the speaker is becomes a
        contributor to the whole meaning of the poem. The personality of the
        speaker becomes important to the meaning of the poem.

              The personal situation in any poem is whatever the speaker of the
        poem is reacting to. This situation will help us to more fully understand the
        meaning of the poem.

               The speaker of the poem speaks to some kind of audience. The
        only problem is that of deciding whether the audience is a person or
        persons imagined in the poem, or a group of hearers or readers altogether
        outside of it – in short, us. The speaker may vary from a person imagined
        in the poem to a ‘voice’ altogether outside of it – in short, the poet.

   B.         The tone of a poem, like its meaning, is the consequence of all its
      elements sounding together, i.e., the speaker, his situation and his
   C.         Rhythm is dependent of the fact that certain words or syllables get
      a heavier stress than do other words or syllables in the stream of speech,
      that there are definite rises and falls as the voice moves along, and that
      definite kinds of pauses cut up the sound stream. Poets make it their
      business to arrange words so that their speech rhythms will accomplish
      two things.

               a)     the heightening of pleasure – because we all enjoy rhythm
          b)     the heightening or clarification of meaning

   The following is a story of a man who gets hanged at the end of the poem
   titled "Eight O’Clock". How does the language of the last two lines imitate
   the actions of the clock before striking and the action of the trap door
   through which the condemned man plunges?

          He stood, and heard the steeple
                Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
          One, two, three, four, to market place and people
                It tossed them down.

          Strapped, noosed, neighing his hour,
                He stood and counted them and cursed his luck.
          And then the clock collected in the tower
                Its strength, and struck.
                               (A.E. Housman)

   From the preceding example we can see that rhythm may support and
   clarify meaning. But rhythm may also please for its own sake, and then the
   principle that accounts for the pleasure it gives is the principle of
   recurrence with change.

   Regular rhythmic recurrence in poetry is called meter. Poetic rhythm
   combines regular stress patterns with irregular stress patterns. Regularity
   most often is the result of some definite underlying meter. Irregularity
   comes mainly from normal speech rhythms.

   Free verse is not verse as we have been using the term so far. It would
   be better to call it a poetic rhythm free from verse – free from any kind of
   definite metrical pattern, although any free verse poem has occasional
   lines and phrases with obvious metrical regularity.

   Pattern in free verse is achieved in a number of ways:

      o          through the repetition of sounds, words, and grammatical structures;
      o          through the paralleling of ideas;
      o          through the use of special printing effects on the page.

D. Like rhythm, sound is used in poetry to give pleasure for its own sake and
   to enhance or clarify meaning. To create pleasure rather than distaste,
     there must be change as well. The dominant forms of recurrence-with-
     change that are closely related to rhyme, are:

         o          assonance (recurrence of vowel sounds);
         o          consonance (recurrence of consonant sounds);
         o          alliteration (recurrence of initial sounds).

     Apart from giving pleasure, sound in poetry – like rhythm – may contribute
     powerfully to the meaning. In some cases, and to a limited extent, the poet
     achieves this contribution to meaning by actual imitation. A few words –
     called onomatopoeic words – have sounds that more or less imitate their
     meanings, e.g., His foot on juts of slippery crag that rang.

Devices of Compression

  1. Overstatement – we emphasize what we mean by saying more than we
     literally mean, or at least more than what is literally true. e.g., "Who says
     my tears have overflowed this ground?"

  2. Understatement – we emphasize what we mean by saying less than we
     literally mean, or less than is literally true. e.g., "Yes, quaint and curious
     war is ..."

  3. Irony and Paradox – we intensify meaning by saying something different
     from what we mean literally or from what is literally true.

     Paradox – a compressed way of making a single truth grow from two
     elements that literally contradict each other. e.g., "Poetry is language that
     tells us something that cannot be said." (Edwin Arlington Robinson)


         a.         verbal– e.g., We use when we exclaim, "You’re a big help!"
              to someone who has awkwardly knocked all our books out of our
              hands while he was stooping to pick up our hat.
     b.         situation – e.g., A man labours all his life, denying himself
          every pleasure, to lay up a fortune for his children to inherit, and
          then sees them all die before his own death.

     c.            dramatic – whenever a speaker in literary work says
          something with an application or a depth of meaning that we or
          others see, but he does not. e.g., King Duncan, in Macbeth,
          commenting on the treason of one of his subjects says, "There’s no
          art to find the mind’s construction in the face," just as Macbeth, who
          is going to become a traitor very soon, enters the room.

4.        Comparison

     a. metaphor – a comparison in which one thing is described as

                 e.g., "The road was a ribbon of moonlight," (Alfred E.

     b. simile – a comparison in which the words "like" or "as" are used.

                 e.g.,   "The stillness in the room
                         Was like the stillness in the air
                         Between the heaves of storm."
                                       (Emily Dickinson)

     c.         allusion – reference to people, places, historical events or to
          works of literature.

                 e.g.,   "Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
                         God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light."
                                      (Alexander Pope)

     d.          juxtaposition – comparison achieved by placing the names of
          objects side by side in such a way as to imply that the listener or
          reader should look for a connection.>/LI>
           e.g.,   "The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

                   And leaves the world to darkness and to me."

                                  (T. Gray)

e.         pun – a figure of speech which compresses the struggle of
     two passions, two ideals, or two different worlds.

           e.g.,   There was a young fellow named Hall,

                   Who fell in the spring in the fall;
                   ‘Twould have been a sad thing
                   If he’d died in the spring,
                   But he didn’t, he died in the fall.

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