Poetry is often beautiful but utterly perplexing. Many fail to understand what it is the poem is trying to convey, while others struggle to identify the rhythm and reason behind the words.
However, with a little understanding poetry can open up a whole new world of expression.
Simply being able to analyze the sound and words used in a poem will help you to piece together the message behind the words.
What is Poetry?
Poetry is often described as being the art of describing a highly complicated scenario in explicit detail with as few words as possible.
Poetry can be seen and heard in a number of forms; from amateur poetry to street poetry, traditional poetry and more.
There is no doubt that modern media is helping to reignite our passion for poetry, and with this passion comes a natural desire to find out more about the power of words in poems.
There are two important questions you should be asking yourself throughout your analysis, and these are:
- What is the poet trying to say?
- How is the poet trying to say it?
Deciphering a poem and in turn understanding a poet can be much harder than it may first appear.
Analyzing Sound in a Poem
To understand the context of the text you must first learn to appreciate how it is supposed to be heard and read.
- Start by reading the poem through a few times
- Identify any words that you are not familiar with, research what these words mean, and when you are equipped with a better understanding of the language read through the poem again
- Read through the poem slowly, temporarily ignoring any rhythm or rhymes. Appreciate the words as they are without form or structure.
- As you read through the poem, mouth the words to yourself quietly. This will prepare you for the next phase of reading and understanding the poem.
- Find a quiet room or outdoor space and read the poem aloud. Be brave, and emphasize the words that you feel have potency or meaning. The best thing to do is pretend that you are on a big empty stage, and that the only member of the audience is sat right at the back of the auditorium.
Practice this technique a few times a day and you’ll soon begin to get a feel for the poem and the art of reading a poem.
Examples of Poetry
In ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings‘ Maya Angelou seems to describe the differences between a free bird and a caged bird; although, there are words and sounds that make it clear that the poem goes far beyond the subject matter of birds.
But a bird that stalks
down a narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
Using the analysis of sound, we can quickly see that lines like ‘down a narrow cage’ and ‘his bars of rage’ quickly tell us that this poem is not about birds. A bird does not know or feel rage, especially at the bars of a cage. A bird’s cage is rarely narrow, however, a prison cell is narrow, and it would explain the rage felt by the bars. Prisoners are also known as jailbirds.
Instead, the poem acts as a metaphor for racial inequality and imprisonment, and clearly, Maya Angelou sympathizes with the ‘caged bird’. People that share Maya’s culture and origins have often suffered at the hands of inequality, and yet they are known and even praised for the quality of their singing and songs.
The Art of Analyzing and Understanding Poetry
Poetry inspires a huge amount of debate, and there are a number of poems about the art of poetry; an interesting example of such a poem is ‘Ars Poetica’ by Archibald Macleish. In this poem, Archibald eloquently summarizes the qualities and characteristics of a poem.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea–
A poem should not mean
Archibald uses wonderful imagery in the first couplet, comparing a poem to the apparent motionless climb of the moon. In the second couplet, Archibald points out that poetry is not about facts or truths. Instead, poetry is the encapsulation of experience and emotions, something which Archibald then points out very well with the next two couplets, using words such as grief and love, and with imagery such as ’empty doorway’ and ‘two lights above the sea’.
Finally, in the last couplet Archibald eloquently summarizes what he sees as the purpose of a poem. A poem should not attempt to answer great philosophical or rhetorical questions. Instead, a poem should aim to capture human moments perfectly with great clarity, using imagery, metaphors, and similes to solidify the moment in time.