Paraphrasing a poem means to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way, and choosing a less complicated language. Therefore, hopefully, making it easier to understand.
Through paraphrasing, readers come to understand the meanings behind different kinds of figurative language, such as metaphors, similes, and allusions. There is a huge list of poetic techniques a writer can employ within a verse that can confuse and complicate the meaning. For example, let’s consider syntax. The syntax is the arrangement of words or phrases that creates a sentence. It’s often regarded as a set of normal rules for how a sentence, depending on the language, comes together. Often times in poetry, especially that of the Victorian and Elizabethan ages, the syntax can appear jumbled. This is either because it is or because the speech patterns were different. Nowadays, it is less common, but poets do sometimes reverse the order of words in order to conform to a specific metrical pattern or make a statement of some kind.
Example of Paraphrasing
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
Not the most complicated of verses, but it serves as a standard example of how poetry from a different time period in which meter and rhyme were much more important than they are today, can become complicated. If I were to paraphrase this piece I might write it out as:
Use your eyes to pledge yourself to me,
and I’ll use my eyes to pledge myself to you;
Or, leave me a kiss only in the cup
and I’ll look for the kiss instead of the wine.
There is still plenty of room for poetic interpretation in this rephrasing of Jonson’s verse, but it makes the lines a little clearer.
Defining Unknown/Unusual Words
Another aspect, aside from the syntax, that a reader should keep in mind is the poet’s word choices. Sometimes it feels as though you know what a word means but when you look it up, it actually means something quite different. This can be an important part of paraphrasing a poem. Particularly helpful if a word feels completely out of context. More often than not there is a secondary definition, one that was applicable at the time the poem was written but is no longer in use today. Sometimes, this makes all the difference and can lead you down a clear path to the subject and major themes of a text.
Paraphrasing as an Exercise
As you become a keen analyzer of poetry you will grow accustomed to automatically rearranging the syntax in order to make sense of the lines, but it is a good strategy, especially with the more complicated verses, of poets such as Milton or Spenser, to paraphrase as an exercise in your own ability to interpret. Ask yourself, what does this line really mean, and then see if you can mirror it in contemporary language.
Additionally, paraphrasing can come in handy when a poem is less narrative than it is emotional or evocative. Let’s take Guillaume Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ as an example. This is an incredibly complex poem. It lacks narrative, consistency, or plot. More than anything else it is a barrage of images that seek to take a reader from one place, state of being, and mindset to another. Take a look at these lines to get a feeling for the text:
You in Amsterdam with a girl you find pretty who is ugly
She’s engaged to marry a student from Leyden
Where you can rent rooms in Latin Cubicula locanda
I remember spending three days there and three in Gouda
This is only one small part of the poem, but on a larger scale, paraphrasing might help. There are a huge number of images and themes to this text, but a few provide a reader with unifying strands of thought. Seek these out, collect them, and see how they all relate. In the case of ‘Zone,’ there are themes of memory, religion, spirituality, poverty, story-telling, and more.
What might the poet want to convey through the compression and expansion of these themes into a plotless string of images? Which lines stick out and how can you simplify them? Can they become representatives of larger sections of verse rather than a single line among dozens? While in the case of ‘Zone’ you might lose some detail, it will allow you to get to the heart of Apollinaire’s larger, connecting themes.