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POETRY CRITICISM: HOW TO READ A POEM 10. What all usions are used in the poem? An ·
anusion is areference to historical events andpeople, to mythological and
STEP I: Read the poem through several limes (at least three): biblical figures, and to works of literature. Allusions alwa ys invite
1. SILENTLY for fast impression . . . comparison between the woft( at hand and the items referred to.
2. ALOUD, noting shiftsof pattern, thou g h~ voice; ~ow ~
3. AGAIN, to adjust first impression. . ;. ::: . P IV: DICTION:. Basically diction refers to the poet'schoice of
words. Poets are sensitive to thesubtle shades of meanings ofwords, to
STEP II. Note the title. . .. the possible double meanings of words, and to the denotative and
WHAT is the single most dominant impression connotative meanings of words. Denotation is the object or idea-the
of the poem?(e. g. The themes expressed through the imagery) referent-tha t a word represents. The denotation of a word isits core
meaning, its d ict i o n~ry meaning. Connotation is the subjective,
STEPill. Ask yourself the following questions, and locatethe evidence emotional assodation that a word has for one person or a group of
for your answers. people. Poets often choose words that contribute to the poets meaning
on both a denotalional ang connotational level. Y..ou should be alertto
1. Can I find the subject , verb, and object of sudl choices. .
every sentence in the poem? Sometimes this will be easy;
reading poetry will be like reading dear prose. 8utsometimes it will not. When studying a poem:
Because poetry often mnforms to structural requirements and because it
is a condensed form of communica tior., sentence structures are 1. Orde allthe words you do not Know.
sometimes distorted andwords are left ouUn sudl cases, you will nave
to put the sentence innormal order and insert missing worns. 2. Underline words that seem especially meaningful or well
. chosen. For each word explaindenotations and connotations.
2. Can I paraphrase the poem ? This is one way to',-: ":" . .
make sure you understand every sentence. . ' ' .. ':,;', :: 3. Underline any wordplaYI such-as double meanings and
" "::::P~ns . Explain why thewordplay adds to thesense of the poem.
3. Who is the speaker of the poem? Underlin ethe .;'- ','C.'
words and phrases that help characterize the speaker and bring outthe 4. Underline any use of unusual words-sl ang, archa isms,
speaker's concerns. Describe indetail the traits of the speaker and ofany foreign language words, made-up words. Explain what qualities and
other 'characters ofthe ~ , . meanings theses words add to the poem. Discuss how the poem
would be different withCitlt-ttlem.
4; What is the situation of the poem? Where is the

speaker? What time of day is it? Wh at season of the year? What 5. Identify the leve! of diction in thepoem (format, informal,

historical occasion? To whom is the spea ker speaking? Why? list the colloquial, slangy, dialect). Explainwhat the poem gains from the use of

internal and external conflicts ofthe poem. this level, Explain whatit couid lose by changing to a different level.

5. What issues concern the spea ker (what the 6. Explain how the choice Qf words contributes to the

poem is about)? Explain the speaker 's ideas (the themes of the speaker's tone.

poem). Note any cha nges in the speaker's mood orideas as the poem .

moves from unit to unit, Explain what the speaker is try ing~ · .

accomplish. ' . . ..IMAGERY: DESCRIPTIVE LANGUAGE When applied to po'etry

e term imagery has two meanings. First, imagery represents the


"' 6. What is the speaker's tone? Is the tone angry, descriptive passages of a poem. Although thew ord imagery calls tn'
lyrical, hopeful, bitter, nostalgic, sarcastic, compassionate, admiring, mind the visual sensei poetic imagery appeals to all the senses.
soryowfull amused, mil ita n~ playful, strategic, impassioned, analytic, ett.? Sensuous imagery is pleasurable for its own sake, but it also provides
Note any changes of tone. concreteness and immediacy. Imagery causes the reader to become
personall y, experientially involved in the subject matter of the poem.
7. What is the poet's attitude towards the Furthermore, the poet often uses descriptive imagery to underscore
spea ker and to the issues raised by t he poem (when the other elements in the poem. The selection of detail and the vividness
speaker is not the poet)? Indicate any differences between the imparted to images help create tone, rneaninq, and characterization.
poets attitude and the speaker's, Critics use imagery in a second sense. They use it to mean figura tive
language, especially metaphor. Agurative language is the conscious
8. What import ant contr asts are made in the departure from normalor conventional ways of saying things. Thiscould
poem? Explain their relationshipsto the speaker and theme. mean merely a rearrangement ofthe normal word order of a sentence,
such as the following: 'Sir Gawain the dragon slew' or "This do in
9. How does the title of the poem relate to its remembrance of me." Such unusual arrangements are called 'rhetoricar
the mes? figures of speech. But much more common and important to poetry is a
second category of figurative language: tropes. Tropes ( Iit era l~, "turns')
extend the meaning of words beyond their literal meaning, and the most anapest (anap"...stic) aaa 6v-erwhelm

common form of trope ismetaphor. dactyl (dactylic) aaa royaJCy

spondee (spondaic) aa break, brea k


When exploring a poem for descriptive language:
Poets further determine the arrangement of metrical patterns by the
1. MarX the descriptive images. For each image, name the number of feet in each line. The following names apply to the length of
sense appealed to. O1aracteme the dominant impression these images the po5ic lines:
make.

manometer (one foot)

2. Explain the relationship of descriptive images to the dimeter (two feet)


speaker's state ofmind. trimeter (three feet)

tetrameter (four feet)

3. Describe how the descriptive images create a sense ofthe pentameter (five feet)
timeof day and season ofthe year . ' . hexameter (six feet)
heptameter (seven feet)
4. Note any progression in the descriptive images; for octlmeter (eight feet)
example, from day to n igh~ hot to cold, soft toloud, color to color, slow
tlfast. Another feature ofline length isthat each linemay have a fixed number
of syllables. When people speak'of iambic pentameter, they usually
5. Explain how the' descriptive images help create think ofa line containing five accented syliables and ten syllables inall.
atmosphere and mood. Slow movements, for example, are condudve ..When a line of poetry is measured by both accents and syllables, it is
to melancholy; speed to exuberance and excitemenl ~' cal(ed accentual-syJlabic. However, not. all English poetry is accentual
­
.;syiiabiC. Sometimes it isjust accentual. Traditional ballads, for example,
. ~ . 6ft:en count the number of accents per line but not the number of
When exploring a poem for figurative language: syllables:

1. MarX the similes inthe poem. Underline orcircle the words '0 where hae ye been, Lord Ra ' ndal, my son?

that signal the comparisons. Explain the implications ot the analogies (that o whe 're hae ye been my ha 'ndsorne young man?'

is, what th'ey contribute to the meaning of the poem).

Using symbols to mark accented and unaccented syllables and thus


2. Mark the metaphors inthe poem. Explain the implications identify the metrical pattern ofapoem is called samning.
of the analogies. When you scan a poem, alwaYs be alert For caesuras. Acaesura is a
strong pause somewhere in'the line . You mark a caesura with two
3. Mark any personfication in the poem. Underline the vertical Jines: Consider the caesuras in this jump-rope rhyme:
words and phrases that make the personification dear.

Onderel/a, dressed inyellow,

4. Poets often use analogies to.help make an abstract Went upstairs to kiss af,ellow.
quality, such as "love" or 'my love's beauty' or 'God's grandeurs" . Made a mistake; . kissed a snake.
concrete and knowable. Tney do so by comparing the abstract quality · How many doctors did it take.
to something the reader knows well. Almost always this "something" is'
a physical object or reality. List the qualities ofthe object. Explain how the Caesuras oFte~ serve to emphasize meaning. caesuras in the middle of
comparison has darified the abstraction. lines, ·for example, can emphasize strongcontrasts or close relationship
between ideas. In line 3, both the caesura and themyme of "rnstake"
5. List the senses appealed to in each analogy. Describe the \I/ith "snake" iink the abstraction (the mistake) with the action (kissing the
Dominant sensuous impression created bythe analogies. snake).

Vl, RHYTHM; All human speech has rhythm, but poetry regularizes When exploring a poem for rhythm:

thatrhythm into rer..ognizable patterns. These patterns are called meters.

Metrical patterns vary depending on the sequence which one arranges 1. Count the number of syllables in each line. Write the

the accented (a) and unaccented (a) syllables Df an utterance. The unit number atthe end ofthe tine.

that determines that arrangement is the foot A foot is one unit of

rhythm in a verse. Probably the most natural fcot in English is the 2. Read the poem aloud, then mark the accented and

iambic, which has an unaccented syllable Followed by an accented unaccented syllables ofeadlline.

syllable (aa). Here are the most common metJicaJ feet

3. Draw avertical line between earn fobt intheline.


iamb(iambic) aa above
tnxree (trtdlak:) aa lovery 4. Identify the metrical pattern (iambic, trornak, etc.) and the
length of the fine (pentameter, hexameter, etc) , effect is caned euphony. Underline instance of cacophony or euphony.
", ' Explain how they relate to the poem'ssense.
,5. Use two vertical lines to mark caesuras in the poem. ,
Explain how the caesuras relate to the sense of each fine, .., 5. Describe any sound devices in the poem that catch you
by surprise. Explain howand why the poet uses such surprises.
6. Underline the places,where the poet departs from the

~ VIII. STRuCTuRE: Poets give ' structure to their poems in two


established metrical pattem of thepoem. Explain
how these departures relate to thesense of each line.
, overlapping ways: by of!janizing ideas according to a logical plan and by.
7. Explain the appropriateness of the metrical pattern to the poem's creating a pattern of sounds. Arnold arranges "Dover Beach' in both
meaning. ways, as do most poets, He divides the poem into four units, each of
­ which has a pattern of end rhyme, and arranges the whole rhetorically
that s, by ideas. Each unit elaborates a single point, and each point
VI. SOUND: Sound plays an important part in poetry. Poets' use follows logically from the preceding one. Perhaps the most-common
sounds to emphasize meanings, action, and emotion, and especially call sound device by which poets create structure s end rhyme, and any
the reader's attention to the relationship of certain words, Rhyme, for pattern of end rhyme is called a rhyme scheme. Rhyme scheme helps
example, has the effect of linking words together. Among the most to establish another structural device, the stanza, which is physically
commonsound devices are the following: separated from other stanzas by extra spaces and usually represents one
idea.
onomatopoeia-the sound of words that sound iike what they mean
("bll!Z", "boom", "hiss"). .When examining a poem for structu re:
alliteration-the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning oL .:
words or at the beginning of accented syllables (~th e woeful woma ~: . · : :' 1. Mark rhyme scheme of the poem or stanza..
went wading Wednesday"). ;'; ,:,::~': ,
assonance-the repetition of vowel sounds followed by different ·'.',:i 2. Draw horizontal lines between each division of the poem
consonantsounds ("0, the greens that cpened to his ears'). . " "tir unit of the poem. In a sonnet, for example, mark divisions between
consonance (or half-rhyme)-th e repetition of final consonant sounds quatrains, COUplets, octaves, and sestets.
that are preceded by different vowel sounds ("the beast dimbed fas tto
the cresr). 3. Summarize the meaning of each divisionof the poem. In
rhyme-the repetition of accented vowels and the sounds that follow. a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, summarize the meaning
Thereare subCategories of rnyme: of each quatrain andthe couplet, In a Petrarchan sonnet, summarizethe
meaning of the octave (and the quatra ins within the octave) and the

masculine rhyme (the rhymed sounds have only one syllable: 'man­ sestet For both kinds of sonnet, indicate how the meaning changes after

rarf). the rum. ­


fem inine rhyme (the rhymed sounds have two Dr more syllables:

n sublfe-reblJttiJf, •deceptiveln>err.eptiveJY'). 4. Within the poem or stanza, summarize the relationships

intemalrhyme (the rnymed sounds are within the ~ ne) . between ideas suggested by the end rhyme. A couplet, for example,

end rhyme (the rhymedsounds appear at the ends of lines). whenever it may appear in the poem or stanza, almost always states

approximate rhyme (the words are close to rhyming: "book-buck", one idea or indicates a dose connection between the sense of the two

'watch-match', "man-in"). Unes.

5, If oneor more lines are shorter or longer than most of the


When exploring a poem for sound: others, describe the effect of that different length on the sense and
impact of tile poem orstanza.
1. Underline instances of alliteration, assonance, and
consonance inthe poem. Explain the relationship between these devices 6, Account for variations from the established rhyme
and thesense of the lines wherethey oo:ur. scheme. Explain how tile variations relate to thesense of the poem or
stanza.
2. Grde mymed words. Explain what similarities and
contrasts the rhymed words call attention to. 7. Describe and explainthe significance of subtle differences
between sections or stanzas in the poem. Ballads, for example, often
3. Grcle words that have meaningful or attractive sound rely on incremental repetition, therepeating of phrases fromstanza to
qualities, such 2S onomatopoeticwords. Explain how these words add to stanza but with slight changes. The changes enhance suspense by
the poem's sense, altering the meaning of each stanza.

4, When the sounds of a poem are harsh and grating, the 8, Outline the units of meaning in the poem. Tnat is, indicate
effect is called cacophony. Wh en they are pieasing and harmonious, the where thepoetmoves from one ide" toanother.

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