Category Archives: Understanding Poetry

Understanding Poetry #6: Rhyme

In the popular consciousness rhyme and poetry are bound together. “I’m a poet / And I don’t know it.” No matter that English poetry managed without rhyme for centuries, that Milton argued against it in the preface to Paradise Lost, or that our best-know poet wrote most of his lines in blank verse: proper poetry rhymes, and it’s only new-fangled modern stuff that fails to. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #5: Metrics

Metrics (the language of poetic rhythm) can add rich new layers to our understanding of poetry. It’s also one of the chief reasons people believe poetry is difficult. Start talking about iambic pentameter or dactylic trimeter and you’ll often reduce a room full of enthusiastic readers to a room full of bored poetry-phobics.

At the heart of this is the mistaken belief that you need to know about metrics to appreciate poetry. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #4: Feature Spotting

In his 1856 work Modern Painters the critic John Ruskin introduced an idea that has since had unintended consequences for a few hundred million schoolchildren. In response to the line “The cruel, crawling foam”, he writes:

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the ‘Pathetic Fallacy‘. Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #3: Meaning vs Effect

A country classroom. A whiteboard. Morning.

Pupil: Please, sir, what does the assonance in line 3 mean?
Teacher: Well, erm, it’s a sad poem and the long “o” sounds are like someone moaning and wailing.

The trap here (which in one form or another has infected a lot of the way poetry is taught and read) is the assumption that everything in a poem has to be translated into a meaning that can be explained. Let’s compare this with what’s going on in another classroom in the same school: Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #2: Lines

Last week we looked at some of the myths about understanding poetry and reacquainted ourselves with the joys of reading slowly. This week I want to look at the importance of lines and line-breaks.

The most obvious difference between poetry and prose is that poetry has line breaks whereas prose doesn’t (other than for practical typesetting purposes that don’t affect the meaning: two different editions of Robinson Crusoe with different font sizes might break the lines in different places without changing our experience of the book at all). Continue reading

Understanding Poetry #1: Slowing Down

One of the phrases I least enjoy hearing is “I don’t understand poetry” (it’s up there with “bus replacement service” and “all-day carvery”). I don’t like it because it almost always turns out to be untrue, but also because it’s a category mistake: can you imagine someone keeping a straight face while saying “I don’t understand songs” or “I don’t understand prose”?

Thought not.

In reality the biggest problem is believing there’s something complicated to “understand” – something that needs decrypting or translating into non-threatening prose – in the first place. Continue reading