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How To Read a Poem (2016 LAF Writers)

How To Read a Poem

Some Useful Vocabulary:

topic and theme: What is the poem about literally? What broader idea is suggested by this topic?

metaphor/simile: in similes, the use of "like" or "as" to indicate such a non-literal comparison (a.k.a., an analogy) between something abstract or complicated, and something concretely associative; without the use of "like" or "as," an implied analogy (e.g., "an infant's hand bunched like a Brussels sprout"; "nightmares are a walk in the mind's prison yard"; "a cinder block of courage leveled in his chest"; "she danced across the stage as a giraffe might amble across the savannas"; etc.)

line breaks:  how the lines end, and break, to move rhythm, meaning, and imagery through the poem

speaker: the voice and point of view of the poem (as opposed to the poet, which can be different)

image:  a detail worded in such a way that it creates an impression and/or sensory experience, rather than just imparting a fact (e.g., "mountains bearded by shaggy timberline").

cadence: the rhythms (or "music") in the poem's language; how the voice of the poem "flows."

stanza: in a poem, equivalent to what a paragraph is in a work of prose. 

While stories narrate events, and essays explain their arguments directly, poems typically show you what they want to say through indirect means.  In all three, readers are justified in asking "Who cares?" The writer's motive for the prose or poem, and what it should matter to us, the readers, is the first, and most important, question to ask before examining the imagery, language, line breaks, voice, etc.  Always ask yourself, "What is the speaker of the poem trying to say that couldn't otherwise just be stated directly?"

The Beauty of Busted Fruit, by Natalie Diaz
What assumptions or associations do you make based on the title?
When we were children, we traced our knees,
shins, and elbows for the slightest hint of wound,
searched them for any sad red-blue scab marking us
both victim and survivor.
All this before we knew that some wounds can’t heal,
before we knew the jagged scars of Great-Grandmother’s
amputated legs, the way a rock can split a man’s head
open to its red syrup, like a watermelon, the way a brother
can pick at his skin for snakes and spiders only he can see.
Maybe you have grown out of yours–
maybe you no longer haul those wounds with you
onto every bus, through the side streets of a new town,
maybe you have never set them rocking in the lamplight
on a nightstand beside a stranger’s bed, carrying your hurts
like two cracked pomegranates, because you haven’t learned
to see the beauty of a busted fruit, the bright stain it will leave
on your lips, the way it will make people want to kiss you.

Tone: What attitude about the topic is created by the diction?

Genre: What sort of poem is it?  Narrative (story- or anecdote-descriptive) or lyrical (impressionist, imagistic and language dependent)?

Content:  What’s the poem about?  What makes you believe this?  What is poet’s motive for writing it?  What is the poem’s “thesis”?  (Try not answer this by saying, “The poem wants to show…,” since “showing” is not the same thing as telling or arguing.)

Line Breaks: how do the line breaks affect meaning?

Imagery:  Which are the poem’s stand-out images?  What’s your reaction to them?  Why?

Verbiage:  Which verbs are used to optimal effect?

Other Language:  Which words are the most “lyrical” in sound and why? Which words sound interesting?  Which connote more meaning? Which are the most intellectually interesting and why?

Conclusion: How do you feel about the way this poem ends?  What impression does it leave you with?  How does it “finish” the poem in content and argument?

  Study Questions:
  1. What is the topic of the work?
  2. What are the major themes in it?
  3. What is the speaker's attitude?  Does it change or evolve anywhere in the work?
  4. What does the narrator/speaker want to say to us?  Or, what truth or idea does it leave us thinking about?
  5. Why is that truth or idea relevant to us (or, why is it not relevant to us)?
"The Mechanics of Men" by David Thomas Martinez

  • How does the videographic interpretation of Martinez's poem compare to the poem on the page?  
  • What does the imagery, music, format add to subtract from the written poem?
  • Does the video help you to understand what the poem means?  Does it bring clarity?  Or, does it confuse the poem's meaning more? 
Last Updated: 03/28/2016


Karl J. Sherlock
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