How to crack the poetry code if you're overly literal-minded?
December 27, 2006 2:26 PM   Subscribe

How can I crack the code of poetry without going insane?

I stay away from poetry because it drives me up a wall (though old-timers might recall I had a phase in which all my posts rhymed--but that wasn't poetry). I tend to be more literal-minded; I don't pick up subtle social cues well, for instance; similarly, in literature, I have a harder time with identifying themes and symbolism, and clever turns of words can be lost on me. Poetry thus encompasses a lot of what I find frustrating. (Though I do like ee cummings' 'anyone lived in a pretty how town' for some reason.)

Next semester I start a college literature course in which poetry will be covered, and I want to get a head start on how to approach it; my question is in two or so parts:

(1) One of the things I've tended to hate when trying to read poetry is what I've come to understand is called enjambment, or having phrases break into separate lines. It throws me off because I don't know whether you're supposed to read the poem (a) focusing on the rhyme and meter, and thus making an obvious break at the line break, or (b) reading those phrases as one would any sentence, and going for make-sensibility over structural integrity, or (c) with some delicate balance between the two. So, what the hell, then? And also, do you have any tips for trying to figure out whether the enjambment serves some specific purpose or is just done because it sounds/looks more profound?

(2) Do you have suggestions for on- or offline publications that might have helped you overcome your frustration with poetry?
posted by troybob to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'd try alcohol or some other narcotic of your choice. It's sort of like dancing. Until you're more expert, being relaxed and letting it flow helps.
posted by alms at 2:30 PM on December 27, 2006

Maybe it will help if you stop thinking of poetry as one big monolith. Poets have been playing with structure and so forth for centuries; some of them care how you read it, some don't, some are grateful that you read it at all. Some attack the reader, some seduce. Some just want to be understood. Sometimes enjambment is important and profound. Sometimes it is meant to be, but fails. Sometimes it just doesn't make a shred of difference.

Reading poetry is a reflective act, both passive as you drink in the words, and active as you try to swim through them and explore their meaning. The best thing to do is probably just grab the Norton Anthology of Poetry at a used book store and begin reading. People who like poetry don't like ALL poetry. Find out what you like, what moves you, what you can read easily, what you hate.

Then come back in a few months and ask us to recommend poets based on the ones that you like.
posted by hermitosis at 2:31 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: enjambment example from wikipedia
The following lines from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (c. 1611) are heavily enjambed:

I am not prone to weeping, as our sex

Commonly are; the want of which vain dew

Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have

That honourable grief lodged here which burns

Worse than tears drown.
posted by troybob at 2:32 PM on December 27, 2006

Speaking as an English major, I feel it's only fair to note that I've always viewed poetry as a big inside joke. One thing I've noticed is that there isn't really a punch line, and it's not very funny.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:34 PM on December 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

One poet who I find refreshing because he talks about real things is Philip Larkin. The book that that poem is from, High Windows, is short, and is useful because there are poems about things that are relatively easy to grasp (the way your parents mess you up) and things that are harder to get a handle on, like nature and the loss of the environment.
posted by koeselitz at 2:44 PM on December 27, 2006

I would suggest listening to the poems, preferably read by the author when possible, and then reading them yourself. Lots of them should be available online. For example, here's an archive of Robert Frost reading many of his poems. (I just googled "robert frost reading"). It's great for giving you a sense of what the author him/herself intended as far as emphasis, enjambment, weird pronunciations, etc. It can take a fair amount of the guesswork out of things.
posted by katemonster at 2:48 PM on December 27, 2006

There's not really a "right" answer. Look at the poem. Does the word at the end of the line seem really important to you, given the context of the poem? Or, maybe, does the phrase in one line imply something, but when you read the next line where it continues, does the meaning totally change? Then you (and I mean you, personally, not a universal "you") can argue that you find the line breaks to be an important structural element of this particular poem.

Do the line breaks just seem randomly placed? If so, there's probably no reason for you to make any argument about their structural importance.

I was an English major, and while I always loved to read, I fell in love with studying English once I realized that writing English papers is simply presenting a theory and backing it up; there's no "right" answer. As long as I can back up my assertions in plausible ways, it's fine.

I would say, however, that given how much time and though most good authors put into their work, it's worth assuming that the line breaks, word choice, etc. are deliberate, and that there are reasons for them, and that it is worthwhile to puzzle your way through those reasons. That is, start by thinking "Why is this line break here? What emphasis does it give to this phrase? What words does it make important? How do those words fit into the bigger themes of the poem?" Combine these structural questions with thoughts about the content in general, the literal meaning of what's written. Doing that, puzzling through those things, is really all interpretation is. You don't have to give up your "literal mind" at all, just add in "structure" as one of the things you have to be literal about.
posted by occhiblu at 2:57 PM on December 27, 2006

Take a look at this previous question for many good intro-to-poetry book suggestions.

As for general advice, there isn't any: "poetry" covers so many different kinds of things that the right strategy varies immensely depending on the text. But remember that much poetry is meant to be read and reread many times; don't expect to get everything the first or second time through. With shorter lyric pieces especially, try to do several readings in a row, and focus on different things with each reading. You can first try to puzzle out the meaning, and parse the sentences, but if it gets you too hung up, it can be a good idea to focus on sound and experience of reading rather than getting frustrated. (But do eventually try to figure out what the sentences mean, literally as well as figuratively. There's no shortcut for comprehension, and your literal-mindedness could well be an asset in a class that's prone to fly straight to complicated symbolic interpretations, as so many beginning poetry readers are.)

Meter and rhyme are quite important in reading (much) poetry, but don't get so hung up on enjambment that it hinders your comprehension. It might be best to ignore enjambment in your first readings, until it becomes obtrusive in your experience of reading.

You might not be aware of it, by the way, but this question might have gotten more and better answers if it weren't posted during the MLA convention.
posted by RogerB at 3:06 PM on December 27, 2006

How to Eat a Poem.
And just for fun, write down all the rhyming words in this non-rhyming poem.
Bet you don't get them all.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:08 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

(1) The answer is, "it depends." Different poets use structure and techniques such as enjambment for different purposes.

(2) I think your best bet is to just read a lot of poetry, and find stuff you like, and stuff you don't like.

Personally, I'm fond of The Writer's Almanac Podcast for exposure to a wide variety of poetry as read. Norton's Anthology is also a great source.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:10 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mmm boy, I love being asked questions like this. I knew there was some reason I joined MeFi.

First of all (and I know this isn't exactly an answer, but it's related), there's an awful lot of poetry out there written by people just like yourself, who are (I gather from your self-description) more thinking than feeling, more logical than emotional.

The genesis of that big scary monolith called conceptual poetry has made a lot of people forget that all poetry is conceptual. Every poem is both a poem and a statement of poetics. When I started studying the concepts behind poetry, I learned that I'm allowed to like poetry. It's not just for those sensitive, emotional, intuitive guys; it's for me too.

Now, as for your question about line breaks, it's tricky. The people above are right; the more poetry you read, the more you'll understand line. It's not an easy thing to explain, but you'll start to get it.

For me, there are three main characteristics of line:

1. Line breaks. Even if you read a poem trying to completely ignore line and read it as sentences (which is fine), there will still be the slight pause as your eyes return to the left side of the page. This pause can underscore a dramatic shift in content or a particularly yummy phrase, but it can also jar the reader in its awkwardness or inappropriateness. Both are great tools poets use.

2. The integrity of the line itself. On some level, every line of a good poem could be its own poem. It functions as a somewhat cohesive unit of poetic energy. In an enjambed line, consider the juxtaposition of the two grammatically unrelated phrases. What kind of energy is generated by that juxtaposition?

3. Arbitrariness (or convention). Yes, there's a lot of arbitrariness in line. That's not a secret, and it's not a bad thing. At the end of the day, poems are written in lines, and muddling over every line break is sometimes missing the point. End rhyme and forced meter are types of arbitrariness, but so are the complicated games and projects of postmoderns.

Note that these three characteristics are independent of time period or genre. If you can understand the line breaks in Shakespeare, you can understand the line breaks in Creeley. And vice versa.

Get yourself Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets (get this edition, not the old one). Berrigan wrote them as a way to teach himself what a line of poetry really is. The result is sort of a kaleidoscope of lines turning endlessly around themselves and each other, and it's one of the true joys of American poetry. You can also hear Berrigan read and discuss the entire sequence.

Other people who know what a good line of poetry looks like: e e cummings (good on you for reading him), William Carlos Williams, CK Williams, Alice Notley, Maryanne Moore.

I'm glad you asked about websites. Blogs are an important part of the current poetry landscape, sort of a combination of poetics essay and gossip salon. For starters, check out Silliman's Blog and International Exchange for Poetic Invention. I picked both of these because they talk about poetry from an intelligent, analytical perspective. Silliman is sometimes a jerk, but a well-meaning one.

And of course, in this and all things, UbuWeb is your friend.

There are also some quite good online journals out there. DIAGRAM and Noo Journal are at the top of my list.

Hooray to hermitosis for telling you to pick up the Norton Anthology. Also, do yourself a favor and get Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover.

Looking over my post, I realize it's gotten ridiculously long. Sorry for my rambling, I hope something here was worthwhile for you. I realize that most of my examples are American. Hopefully others will provide more worldly suggestions.

Finally, a rather arbitrary reading list:
David Berman (yeah, from the Silver Jews), Actual Air
Joseph Lease, Human Rights
Prageeta Sharma, The Opening Question
Daphne Gottlieb, Final Girl
Frank O'Hara, Lunch Poems
Alice Notley, Disobedience
David Antin, i never knew what time it was
posted by roll truck roll at 4:13 PM on December 27, 2006 [11 favorites]

One way to learn to love or hate poetry:
Continue to hate poetry for most of your life. Give it another chance once in a while, but come away disappointed and aggravated. Until one day you accidentally run across a poem that speaks to the heart of that one thing you could never verbalize. And in a few elegant words lets you know that you're not alone. Spend the rest of your life hoping to come across another one like that.
posted by Area Control at 4:45 PM on December 27, 2006 [3 favorites]

Sometimes when you are paying attention to the line breaks it is easy to pass over the punctuation, especially when each line is capitalized and they appear as distinct sentences. If the poem is made up of complete sentences and is punctuated, then pay attention to it, else it is easy to mistake which clause modifies what.

Just about anyone who is good enough to be assigned reading will have made deliberate choices in every aspect of the poem's construction. A teacher of mine used to say, "Nothing in literature is innocent".

Short accessible poems are a good starting point. Japanese Death Poems is a good introductory volume for the stranger to poetry. Another good starting point would be any of Mary Oliver's works.

I also disagree with the notion that there is no right answer in discussing literature. There may not be any one encapsulating answer where there is nothing more to be said but it is definitely possible to be wrong and "miss the point".

And, yeah, read Phil Larkin's "They fuck you up,..". Another very approachable poem.
posted by BigSky at 6:01 PM on December 27, 2006

If you're overly literal-minded, a good way to start sussing out poetry is to do a little explication. Take a poem (preferably a good poem; they have more to teach than bad poems), break it down, and try to tease out why the poet chooses certain odd words or ends lines in peculiar places. A quick example:

...snails shrink to shelter in their shells
where they wait safe and patient
until the elements are gent-
ler. And do they not have other foes?

Several nicely enjambed lines from "The Widow's Yard," by Isabella Gardner. Notice that each line's last word is thematically resonant— "shells," "patient," "gent" (a subtle echo of the widow's husband), and "foes;" all are highly appropriate in the context of the larger poem.

On the level of sound (which a reader of poetry ignores at their own loss), the end words anchor the music of the lines. "Shells," for example, forms a sort of counterweight for "snails" at the other end of its line. It also echoes (in sound and sense) "shelter," and as the fourth s- word and third sh- word, it reinforces the shushing, soothing feeling of the line as a whole...

You get the idea. You don't have to do this all the time for every poem, but if you have some sense of the different effects or techniques that a poet may attempt, then you'll be more receptive to those techniques when reading freely.

Good luck!
posted by Iridic at 6:05 PM on December 27, 2006

Oh, and try reading out loud. Some poems almost require sound.
posted by Iridic at 6:06 PM on December 27, 2006

Sturgeon's Law applies just as much to poetry as it does to any other creative human endeavor. If you're having trouble with some particular, don't assume that it's necessarily your own fault. It may simply be that the poet was an idiot.

A hell of a lot of modern poetry, in particular, is pretentious drivel.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:25 PM on December 27, 2006

Well, I'm teaching intro to poetry next semester, and I read lotsa lotsa poems, so here's what I do, FWIW. Read the poem several times aloud. The first time, just get through pronouncing the words to get a basic feel for what the poem's about, what it's saying. The second time, read it like it's prose: ignore line breaks and read for sentences or full phrases.

For instance, as you read this post, do you stop heavily every time you get to the right margin before proceeding to the next line? Not usually, because most lines end in the middle of an idea and wrap to the next line. That's enjambment. If one line of poetry seems to "wrap" into the next, just follow it along.

If there's significant punctuation at the end of a line (end-stopping), or if the meter/rhyme scheme makes each single line seem self-contained, then yeah, you'll tend naturally to read each line with a pause at the end instead

Then, after you've got the basic "flow," read the poem a couple more times aloud and get into the sensory experience; revel in the physicality of the poem -- how the language feels and tastes in your mouth, how the words and rhythm and melody sound, the mental images or associations you get, the words that strike you and seem most intriguing or surprising.

Poetry in English has gotten to be a highly wrought, academic thing, but it still is also a very, very primal thing that has been a fundamental part of human experience since before we even had language -- it's in our heartbeats and our finger-drumming; it's how we warded off evil and blessed the crops and lulled sick babies and preserved our tribal history. We've all got the equipment to dig it right in our basic wiring; it's just a matter of flicking the switch.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:02 PM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

A few further thoughts. Some people have already dropped in to tell you, basically, not to bother with poetry at all; aside from this being roughly like answering the question "How can I enjoy chocolate more?" by saying "I hate chocolate, don't bother," it's a fine answer so far as it goes. People don't really die, not literally, for want of what is found in poems, despite what one of their melodramatic defenders once said, and you might well live a happy life without them. But you already knew that.

The kind of doggedly direct rationality you seem to be describing is not really a defect in a reader of poetry. Empathy and intuition are nice, so far as they go, but poems are not (just) feelings, and poetry is a product of the intellect even for its most romantic (or Romantic) writers. It just requires a bit of a recalibration of what exactly you're being literal-minded about. And don't worry about missing things – just go back and read again. Picking out "themes and symbols" isn't really what reading literature is about. It's not (usually) a secret code with a specific, hidden answer to be found (sometimes there is a secret, of course; but that can make for a rather gimmicky kind of poetry, and it's never the only point).

Remember William Carlos Williams's (amended) definition: "A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words." Read a poem. Read it again. What does it – this particular machine – seem to do? What effect does it have? How does it work? Try to take it apart. Look at the pieces, and how they fit together. Try to swap out a few parts and see how the machine works (probably not as well). What would happen if one little gear in the mechanism (say, a word) weren't there, or were replaced by something else (say, a near synonym)?

Try to understand the machine by taking it apart; see why a specific piece is needed by examining what would happen if it were removed. This is a way to begin to understand the mechanics of it, the craft involved in what might otherwise seem like mere fanciful cleverness. Maybe it's an easier approach for the literal-minded even though it relies on a metaphor.
posted by RogerB at 7:19 PM on December 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

I want to make sure you get this on a pretty basic level. Look at your Winter's Tale example. You want to read the lines so they make sense.

If you read it out loud as if each line were a sentence -- "I am not prone to weeping, as our sex. Commonly are; the want of which vain dew. Perchance shall dry your pities; but I have." -- you will miss the point and the plot, and probably get a good portion of your classmates to hate you.

Partly that's because Shakespeare-type stuff is different -- it's all arranged in sentences, and the amount of enjambment is influenced by the form. People speak Shakespearean lines pretty much like prose sentences, but with slightly more emphasis on rhythm.

In general, when you're reading aloud, you want stuff to make sense. If you're reading modernist poetry, it may not be arranged in sentences, so you may want to pause slightly at the ends of lines, but (I hate to say) it really depends.

It's when you're analyzing poetry, not reading it aloud, that you really want to look at enjambment. You can ask questions like "What does it mean that the author chose to break off this thought here?" The classic example is Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool." In most classes, you'll hear the reason for all that enjambment is that Brooks was trying to evoke the new rhythm of the characters' music. But she says it's not so -- the "we"s are separated because the characters are questioning their identity, and pausing before suggesting identifiers. This is a good example of interpretation -- that is, everyone has their own ideas, which may have nothing to do with authorial intent. And like I said, this is the example of enjambment; check out a whole bunch of essays interpreting the poem.
posted by booksandlibretti at 7:25 PM on December 27, 2006

Nice thread!

How to Explicate a Poem presents one methodical approach to breaking down and examining the various bits, which might be helpful.
posted by taz at 9:20 PM on December 27, 2006

The third stanza of Donne's 'A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day' is my favourite example of enjambment at work. The metric scheme established in the first two stanzas is knocked off-kilter, like a spinning top knocked off its axis, and that's quite intentional.

If you respond to song lyrics that have an ounce of subtlety and wit, you can develop an ear for poems.
posted by holgate at 10:10 PM on December 27, 2006

Critical Reading: A Guide. Take a look at the "Critical Analysis of Poetry" section.
posted by dfreire at 3:35 AM on December 28, 2006

I have a hard time believing that anyone who could write such a well-framed question about poetry won't enjoy much modern poetry. :)

Oh, and ex-US-poet-laureate Billy Collins may be useful, not least because he keeps a sense of humor about the form. Here's "Sonnet":

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love's storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

Some academic poets sneer at him, but his mix of accessibility, emotion and intelligence was just right for getting me back into poetry in recent years. Highly approachable, relatively straightforward on the surface, but with enough depth to keep you coming back for more. And poems like Introduction to Poetry and Dear Reader might be just the thing to get you started.
posted by mediareport at 5:37 AM on December 28, 2006

Sorry for the late comment, but I have to say that I think poetry is like math. It takes study. It's a large field, unfortunately aggregated by an umbrella word. Like math, don't expect to 'get it' all, don't demand that it all be useful, and do expect some of it to click instantly and other parts never to allow penetration. Don't consider your character flawed if you maintain a lifelong antagonistic relationship with it. While it may help make you a better person, having poetic sensibility or mastery is not a requirement for effective personhood, any more than a random 1/4 teaspoon of salt is essential for chicken soup perfection.

The one thing I compelling in poetry is, as one writer above alluded, it's a universal human habit with long history. Reading ancient poets can connect you to just how alike we are, even at this 'advanced' state of civilization (sic). Robert Burns heart hurt just like ours does when love dies or is unfulfilled; Deor's Lament shows the pain of the ursurped confidant clearly from the vantage of the Dark Ages; The Wanderer tells us that the lonely, cast-adrift homeless man from 1200 years ago has the same heart as do the poor, hopeless hitchhiker in a drowning rain in 2007. There are precious few ways to more viscerally connect with antiquity of our spirit.

FWIW, I don't 'get' most of it, either, so welcome to a large club of frustrated puzzlers!
posted by FauxScot at 5:54 AM on December 28, 2006

Response by poster: Wow! I didn't get to check in later yesterday, and you guys have really gone all out here! I could do an entire poetry course just by following the advice and links on this page. (Sorry to have missed the informative previous post that RogerB pointed out; I am a poorer searcher than I thought.)

I don't have the heart to pick favorites and mark a best answer, because I appreciate the time all you guys have put in to this, and I'm rather inspired that I'm going to get much more out of this study than I had expected. Maybe even down the line I'll be giving my own passionate responses to mefi poetry padawans.

Thanks, everybody. (and this doesn't mark the end of the page or anything, in case you come in late here...i'll be referring to this page for a long time!)
posted by troybob at 8:26 AM on December 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

if you're reading aloud, i think your priority is to read to the punctuation of the poem. make each idea make sense. the "story" of it is the most important thing.

BUT- to really read poetry well, you should also add a teeny emphasis on meter and the rhyming words, and give a slight nod to the enjambment. don't pause at the line breaks- just sort of *think* about pausing. this way, the listener can take pleasure in the rhyme scheme, layout, and meter. that's where the poet's techincal skill shines.

like you, i find poetry can be too weird sometimes, and i too like "anyone lived in a pretty how town" the best of all poems. it has such a satisfying meter, and the weirdly juxtaposed words still make sense. here are links to some other poems i love, that i hope you might like:

edna st vincent millay's recuerdo (please don't hold the page design against the poem), or witch-wife
wallace stevens' the emperor of ice-cream
gwendolyn macewan's memoirs of a mad cook. she also has a gorgeous one called "hypnos", that i couldn't find online.
dennis lee's 400: coming home. (the 400, by the way, is a major canadian highway, that you'd take to get back into toronto after spending a while in the woods).
this last one is very enjamby. try reading it aloud and almost ignore the line breaks- imagine just teeny pauses, almost imperceptable. like a teeny little space for the thought to breathe. see how good?
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:55 AM on December 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

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