For both those who have read poetry their entire lives and those who are just starting, sometimes poetry can be a little hard to read. For those who are new to it, poetry can feel daunting at first, and the wording and metaphors can be confusing. Many people don’t read poetry because they feel lost, and it simply stresses them out. Poetry isn’t supposed to be anxiety inducing. It’s many things, but mainly artists’ expressions of their feelings or the world around them. So take a deep breath, and let’s dive into my top five tips for reading and understanding poetry. Keep in mind though, that what works for some may not work for others, so don’t be afraid to explore other techniques and tips for studying poetry.
1. Read the Surface Meaning
The first tip is very straight forward—read through the poem once without worrying about anything other than the words of the poem. Don’t bother reading between the lines or pausing in between sections to figure out what the author meant by something. Simply read it through and see what it means to you or what you think it might mean. Below is a poem for example’s sake.
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
What is your first impression? After reading through it once, what do you think it means? When reading through Nothing Gold Can Stay the first time, one might think Frost was talking about spring or autumn. Or maybe he was writing about something he saw in front of him in a garden. But now that you have been introduced to the poem and made some initial guesses as to its meaning, it’s time to look deeper under the surface.
Poetry is interpretive. What one person thinks a stanza or line means, to another person it might mean something completely different. There is generally no “right” way to interpret a poem. But a good way to make a poem more digestible, especially long ones, is to read it one line or stanza at a time and try to decipher the meaning. However, some poems cannot be understood properly until the big picture is revealed at the end, so readers should make sure that once they think they know what a section means, they aren’t convinced that’s the only meaning it could have. For example: “Nature’s first green is gold…” could be very confusing if the reader hadn’t made one read through first. After all, how can green be gold, a completely different color? But as the reader continues down the lines of the poem, nothing else gold is mentioned until the very last line: “Nothing gold can stay.” Clearly, this isn’t meant to be taken literally, but rather in a figurative sense. The last line really helps to make the larger picture come clear–anything good (or “gold”) can’t stay forever. Nature’s first “green” is spring, probably Frost’s favorite season. He’s saying that spring is as good as gold, but unfortunately it doesn’t last very long.
Rhythm and meter can tell a reader a lot about the feeling the poet is trying to convey. For instance, does the rhyming or meter give the poem a feeling of cheerfulness? Does the short and rapid way the poem progresses feel chaotic and give the feeling of stress or anxiety? Or does the smooth way each line rhymes give a feeling of contentedness and peace, allowing the readers to see the beautiful imagery the poet is describing? Poets typically do not choose the style of rhythm for the poem lightly. Therefore, we as readers can use this to our advantage. Perhaps the meaning readers thought a poem had changes after they realize that the rhythm reminds them more of a jolting wagon than a boat floating peacefully on a lake. Rhythm can also contribute to the feeling, or mood, of the poem, which leads to the next pointer.
Mood is very important. After all, if a poet is describing a traumatic experience, but the readers feel nothing, what is the point? Mood gives art an authentic feel and allows the readers to connect more with the piece or the author. So go ahead and read through the poem again, but this time pay attention to how it makes you feel. Or maybe it’s not so much that you feel sad, or angry, or elated. Maybe you now understand how the poet is feeling. In Nothing Gold Can Stay, I imagine Frost writing this with a sort of sad, resigned air. Interpretation can also help readers determine mood, which in turn helps with interpretation…sounds confusing, right? But think of it this way–perhaps a reader believes, at first glance, that Nothing Gold Can Stay is simply Frost recognizing that autumn can’t last forever, and he’s just describing what he sees. But then the reader pays attention to mood and notices words like “grief”, and “down.” Suddenly the initial interpretation doesn’t seem quite as correct, so the reader goes back to read a little more carefully in between the lines. Then, utilizing both the mood and the message they think the author was trying to convey, the reader comes to the conclusion that this poem is about how nothing good lasts forever. Spring fades away, gorgeous flowers turn to leaves, stunning dawn turns to day, the Garden of Eden is lost to sin. So not only does mood allow readers to become immersed in the poem, but it also helps them understand what the author was trying to say.
Many people think that titles don’t mean much; they’re just a few words writers use so that people can find their works again later. But actually, a title can tell a reader a lot about the piece of work it belongs to. When all else fails when reading a particularly long or difficult piece of poetry, looking back at the title can sometimes be immensely helpful. If the title is metaphorical, puzzling through the meaning can aid the reader in viewing the poem in a different light. Sometimes it’s extremely straightforward and helps to point out something obvious that the reader missed. And other times it repeats a line within the poem (like Nothing Gold Lasts Forever). Usually this is because the poet considers that line to be the most important and wants it to stick with us. Looking at the title doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt to try.
Poetry utilizes words, metaphors, and similes in unique ways. Because of the unusual way poems are worded, many people aren’t sure how to view the meanings, but these tips can help those with metrophobia feel less overwhelmed. So just remember to pay attention to the surface and deeper meanings; the feel the poem creates through rhyming, meter, and mood; and the clues given by the title.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay.” poets.org. poets.org/poem/nothing-gold-can-stay.