What to Do with a Poem
Helen Vendler explains in her book Poems, Poets, Poetry that the reader’s first task when responding to a poem – and especially when writing about a poem – is to recognize that it is more than simply a “message.” Rather, “it is a thing imagined,” she writes, “an artwork like a piece of music or a painting or a dance” (323). You must discover “how the theme of the work is being imagined: how the literal statement of the poet’s feeling has been transformed.” To help you move from the ‘what’ of the poem to the ‘how’ of the poem, Vendler suggests working through the following categories.
Which words in the poem stand out? Why? Perhaps you can make connections between some of the poem’s key words. Are there any words that you don’t know? Look them up in a dictionary. Pay attention to the way that the poet uses even the smallest words, such as conjunctions and pronouns. Look for patterns among them.
Notice the length of each sentence in the poem. Are some shorter than others? Why? How is the logic of the poem embodied by its syntax? Determine whether the ends of clauses and sentences correspond to the ends of lines or stanzas. Why might the poet have created a particular relation of sentence grammar and poetic form?
What is it about the sound of the poem that catches your ear? And what strikes you about its appearance on the page? How is it shaped? Does the poem rhyme? Does it have regular meter? Are its lines short or long? Does the form of the poem shift as it proceeds? Perhaps it reminds you of other poems that you have read. What is the cumulative effect of the poem’s sound?
What changes happen to the poem as it moves from beginning to end? That is, what is the “plot” of the poem? Imagine that the poem begins at A and moves to Z. What happens at the various points that lie in between—for example, at B, G, J, and Q? What emotions does the poem move through?
After you have read through the poem, how do you visualize it in your mind’s eye? Think of the poem as a map, viewed from above. As you look down on it, what do you see? What parts does it fall into? How do those parts relate to one another? Perhaps some parts of the poem seem more significant than others. Why? What images stand out? You might even try sketching the poem on a piece of paper.
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