On Not Being A Torturer of Poems: 4 Tips for Engaging with Poetry

By Janka Steenkamp

(English Literature, Edge Writing, Public Speaking, Drama (IB) tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

In literature, as in life, first impressions can be deceiving: just as that cute puppy in the window can potentially bite your finger off, that poem that you think is about an onion is about a long-term relationship. This is the tricky bit in literary analysis, but it arises more from over-analysis than from surface deception.

>> Read more on our previous blog “Avoid These Common Mistakes to Stay Ahead of IB English”

More often than not, I have students come to me who can easily identify the alliteration in line 5, but if I ask them why that’s relevant to the poem, they look at me as though I just asked them to recite PI to 100 decimal places. The problem with this scenario is that the ‘why it’s relevant’ bit of literary analysis is the actual analysis. As much as we would like to romanticise the idea that poets sat under trees in large purple velvet hats with big plumes sticking out of them, musing to the sky; most poetry is written for a reason beyond ‘Oh! That’s a pretty flower, I should immortalise it!’

Analysis cannot happen without having a clear idea of what a text is about. Without the purpose to focus your writing, you’re essentially showcasing that you know literary devices exist: which is great, it’s just not an analysis. So, here are a few tips to help you think about how you think about poetry:

1. Do not complicate deeper meaning

Many students feel as though there is some sort of ‘trick’ to poetry, so they look for profound or ‘deep’ themes which often leads to making up themes that they think are suitable through connotation, instead of looking at what is actually in the text. This leads nicely to point number two…

2. Surface reading first!

Think of your first encounter with a poem like a first date, or a first time you hang out with a new friend: Are you going to ask them deep personal questions about their issues? NO! Don’t do it to poetry either! That’s essentially what happens when you jump in, pen in hand, ready to underline those similes – you’re invading the poem, not experiencing it. Now, you may ask why you should do that…

3. Experience = Reader Response

That first read through where you just experience the poem is the whole point of your analysis. You’re looking at whether or not (and how) a poet successfully communicates themes through literary devices: how can you do that if you have no idea what the poem is trying to communicate? Oh, right! You can’t! You need to remember that whenever you comment about the effect on the reader in an analysis you’re talking about yourself and your experience of the poem: You are the end point. The poem has been written for the reader to feel something.

4. Connect surface and deeper meaning through devices

Once you have figured out what the poem is trying to say, you can annotate and underline as much as you like, pulling devices out that you feel help you to feel the way you feel about the poem (Ya, feel me?). This is where the magic of analysis happens: You’ve looked at surface meaning, you’ve looked at devices, and discovering the relationship between those two things allows you to come to a clearer and more nuanced understanding of the theme the poem is trying to communicate.

So, listen to Uncle Billy below, and don’t be a torturer of poems – their meaning is not something they possess to give up to you – their meaning exists in your experience of them. Your analysis resides in your ability to single out how they have been crafted to make you feel the way you feel about them.

Introduction to Poetry By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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