As we’ve already discussed, understanding poetry isn’t always simple. There isn’t a single set of rules that will allow you to make sense of every poem you come across, and that’s okay.
That’s what makes poetry interesting.
Everyone’s experience with a poem will be different, and no two poems are the same. That being said, there are a few common pitfalls that you should be aware of when attempting to understand and analyze poetry. Actively working to avoid these mistakes will make the process of understanding poetry far simpler.
No one is going to understand everything a poet wants to convey by only reading a poem once. Sometimes, to recognize every allusion, example of figurative language, and literary technique, you have to read a poem two, three, or more times. Every time you read the piece from beginning to end, it should make more sense. It can be incredibly helpful to read the poem out loud as well.
This is one of the most common mistakes we make when reading poetry. You should never assume that the speaker of a poem is the poet themselves. Instead, poets often take on personas, or fabricated characters, to write poems that do not apply to their personal lives.
For example, if you come across a poem that uses first-person pronouns (I, my, me), do not immediately assume the poet is talking about themselves. Unless there is definitive evidence that the poet wrote the poem about their own life (for example, they explicitly stated in an interview or alternative text that the poem was about something they experienced), it’s always better to assume the poet is not the speaker.
If you come across a word you think you recognize but don’t often hear or use, it’s a great habit to look that word up and make sure it actually means what you think it does. Often, words have alternative meanings, especially if the poem was written several centuries ago. The key to understanding a specific line or stanza may be in a secondary or tertiary definition of an obscure word.
You’re likely going to miss out on crucial information by not taking the time to look into a poet or poem’s background. For example, if you’re reading a poem written after World War II that explores themes like rebirth and social norms. Without understanding the context, you’re likely going to miss allusions to the social, political, and moral overhaul that much of Europe and the United States underwent after the war was over.
Most of the time, when we’re reading poems for pleasure, understanding the content and what the poet meant when they wrote it is at the forefront of our minds. This often means that the structure, such as the rhyme scheme and metrical pattern, is ignored. But, taking the time to figure out whether the poem follows a specific rhyme scheme or uses a meter can be incredibly beneficial to your understanding of when the poem was written, as well as which poetic traditions the poet may have been considering.
For example, a poem written in the 21st century in strict iambic pentameter and conforming to the pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet. The piece’s form will stand out in comparison to a poem written in that same form in the 18th century. You will have to ask yourself why the poet made their choices and what it says about the content.
If you really want to understand a poem, especially a more complex one, it’s best practice to take notes on what you’re reading and the research you’ve done. This may include annotating the poem with definitions, dates, historical information, and more.
The poems that most benefit from in-depth annotations are those written in an archaic form of English, such as Middle English or even Shakespearean English, and those written in a dialect, such as those by poets like Robert Burns. Other poets like John Donne may weave long and complex metaphors, known as conceits, through their work, making it important to note how one image relates to the next. Then, with a complete set of notes, you can read the poem clearly, with a full understanding of what all the words mean and what the poet is alluding to.
So, the next time you start reading a new poem, make sure to consider these pitfalls of understanding poetry. You will find you’re far more successful in your initial interpretation and final conclusions.